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Afghanistan Strategy Works, Needs Time, General Says

By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 26, 2010 – Coalition forces’ counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan is working but the approach needs time to build on the past year’s gains, a military official said here yesterday.

“Our progress is slow and steady, but we are making progress. And additional opportunities are being created by the progress that we’re making,” Army Brig. Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr. said.

Nicholson, director of the Joint Staff’s Afghanistan-Pakistan coordination cell, presented an Afghanistan operational update during the Association of the United States Army annual conference.

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. and International Security Assistance Force troops in Afghanistan, prepared the briefing and would have presented it himself had duties not kept him in Kabul, Nicholson said.

“Today he’s sitting down with all the commanders of ISAF [and] with the Afghan government leadership, going over how we integrate our civil-military efforts in Afghanistan,” Nicholson said.

The counterinsurgency approach of “clear, hold, build” is succeeding, Nicholson said, thanks largely to the 50,000 troops added to coalition forces since 2009.

“We’ve introduced [coalition forces] into Kandahar and Helmand, the most violent places in Afghanistan –- places that have never been cleared,” he said.

Over the past nine years, the alliance never had enough forces to clear those areas, Nicholson said. Now, ISAF is killing, capturing or driving off enemy forces there to provide security for the Afghan people.

Nicholson said the counterinsurgency strategy’s “clear” phase involves maintaining pressure on the enemy by denying safe havens, disrupting funding, supplies and communications, and killing or capturing enemy troops and more importantly, leaders.

In Afghanistan, he said, the task of capturing or killing enemy leaders is most often conducted by special operations forces.

“Every 24 hours on average, we are killing or capturing three to five mid-level leaders and 25 enemy fighters,” Nicholson said. Such attrition to the enemy’s leadership ranks, he said, is “severely disrupting their command and control in the country.”

Insurgent morale in Afghanistan is suffering as a result, Nicholson said.

The coalition’s current efforts in Afghanistan, he said, focus on Kandahar and Helmand provinces in southern Afghanistan and Kunar in the east. These three provinces are the site of 65 percent of the country’s insurgent activity, he said, and are the focus of ISAF efforts to move in, remove enemy forces, protect the population, and extend the reach of government.

“The security campaign is the first dimension of a comprehensive [counterinsurgency] campaign,” Nicholson said. “Governance will always lag behind security, because until the people have confidence that … they are going to be safe, it’s very tough to achieve a connection between the people and the government.”

To reinforce security gains, the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division will “plant its flag” in Kandahar this month, he said, creating the first two-star headquarters in southern Afghanistan.

As Kandahar’s security stabilizes, coalition troops and civilians will work with the Afghan government to further economic development and transition agriculture in the region from opium to legal and profitable crops, Nicholson said.

“[This will] enable the people to have a stake in the future and see a path to a better life for themselves and their families,” he said.

As the Afghan government establishes a presence in the cleared areas, the people’s confidence will follow, Nicholson said, noting that is already happening in many of the country’s provinces, where local governance, school attendance and commerce have increased since 2001.

Nicholson cited the 2009 U.S. Marine campaign in Nawa, Afghanistan, as proof of the counterinsurgency concept.

“What we’re seeing now is the places we’ve been [in] longer, like Nawa, where we’ve been for almost 18 months, we’re seeing positive effects,” he said.

Those effects will follow in Kandahar, Nicholson said, where six brigades of U.S., Canadian and Afghan forces are clearing the area “hedgerow-by-hedgerow and house-by-house.”

Over this year, the Afghan force presence in the area has increased to 60 percent, from roughly 20 percent in 2009, he said.

“This is one of the strongest signs of progress,” Nicholson said. “We clearly want to get them to a point in terms of capability and professionalism where they take over the fight from us, and we can shift to an advise-and-assist role and eventually transfer security responsibilities to them.”

Nicholson said Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has stated he wants all security responsibility transferred to Afghan forces by 2014.

Because only 14 percent of Afghan military recruits can read and write, literacy programs are as important as military training and professionalizing the force, he said.

“In Iraq, you had literacy and … an established civil service class,” Nicholson said. “We don’t have that in Afghanistan, but we’re undertaking significant literacy training programs.”

The coalition also has worked with the country’s authorities to establish Afghan local police representation in villages, he said, thereby extending the government’s reach to more people.

Afghan local police members report to the Ministry of the Interior and serve in a defensive role, as well as providing some basic government services to the population, he said.

Fostering the people’s trust in government is difficult, Nicholson said, because Afghanistan has experienced several forms of government in 30 years, including monarchy, communism, anarchy or warlordism, the Taliban and theocracy, and now, democracy.

“We have to overcome [the Afghan people’s] skepticism of central government, and frankly a lack of knowledge about what this government is and what it offers,” he said.

Establishing effective government relations with the population will first require developing civil service capacity and increasing education, the general said.

In his view, Nicholson said, education may be the single-most important factor in Afghanistan’s long-term success.

“The majority of the population is under 18,” he said. “This next generation is crucial to the future of Afghanistan.”

Building the infrastructure to support an agricultural economy also is critical to Afghanistan’s success, the general said. Paving roads so crops can be transported, establishing trade routes and promoting economic exchange, and providing electrical power to run packaging plants are all essential to that infrastructure, he said.

And, in a nation where the average life expectancy is 45, and 20 percent of children die before age 5, health care is a pressing need, Nicholson said.

“Simple things like rudimentary health care can make an enormous difference in their lives,” he said.

The Red Cross has established clinics in several villages around Kandahar, Nicholson said, and that success emphasizes the need for nonmilitary agencies’ help in establishing a secure future for Afghanistan.

In November, he noted, heads of state from 50 nations contributing troops or aid to Afghanistan will meet in Lisbon, Portugal, for a NATO conference.

“At this conference we expect the conversation to be about transition to Afghan control,” Nicholson said. “So there’s a process working now between NATO and the Afghan government to define … the conditions that need to be met to transition control of districts and provinces to Afghans.”

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