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Senior Official Details Success, Challenges in Afghanistan

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 4, 2010 – Enemy sanctuaries throughout southern Afghanistan are being cleared, and the results are encouraging, a senior military official said on background recently.

Coalition and Afghan forces are taking the fight to the Taliban in the region and in the short term there will be more acts of violence and casualties. But long term trends point to a more peaceful, secure and prosperous region, he said.

Kandahar and Helmand provinces are the most dangerous places in the country and over 60 percent of the violence in the country occur there. “Of the 400 districts in Afghanistan, over half the violence is in nine districts,” the senior military official said.

The amount of time coalition forces are in an area has a direct relationship to the security situation and the confidence that Afghans have in their government, he said. He used  the Nawa district in Central Helmand as an example.

“We went into Nawa in June 2009 with 900 Marines, and very few Afghans,” he said. “Now the numbers are reversed: there are very few Marines and many Afghan police.”

Since the initial entry and spike in attacks, the violence has gone down in the district. And the attitude of the people has improved, he said. "The Afghans have a positive outlook on what is happening in central Helmand. A majority of the Afghans in Kandahar and Helmand said that if we leave, the Taliban will return to power and if the Taliban returns they will invite al-Qaida back in.”

Operations in the south have been tough, but coalition and Afghan intelligence is getting better and the Taliban are not simply moving to another area. “They are dead,” the senior official said.

And the coalition is putting in place new programs. “The Afghan local police initiative is very promising,” the official said. “This is in areas that are not key areas, but have a willingness to cooperate. The bottom line is you have a local population that rejected the Taliban and asked for help. We go in with the Afghan government and stand up an (Afghan local police unit) and now they are defending themselves.

The program is simply local defense at the village level, and involves no offensive capabilities. “The expansion of that program into some of the more remote areas is a way that we can deal with the violence in other areas,” he said.

The pieces are in place for victory in Afghanistan, he said. Coalition forces number over 140,000 and the Afghan security forces have grown and increased in capability. For example, last year there was one Afghan corps in the south. Now there are two – the 205th in Kandahar and 215th in Helmand.

“We’re population focused not enemy focused.," he said. "So what we’re looking for is the reaction of the population, not the enemy,” the senior military official said. “Of course, we welcome demoralization, defeat and attrition of the enemy, that’s not the main push. Anecdotally, we are seeing is an improvement in contested areas of the attitude of the population toward the central government.”

In Zari and Panjwai – two districts to the west of Kandahar – the negatives are high, he said. But those areas are experiencing clearing operations with all the uncertainties that combat brings. The trends in areas that have been cleared, and aid and expertise is flowing into like Nawa and Marja, the trend lines are up. The official said he expects a similar rise in these positives as time continues.

In Regional Command-East, the Haqqani network is the main enemy, he said. While the network has taken significant hits in the past year, Haqqani insurgents can retreat across the Pakistani border and recover, plan and refit.

Coordination across the border with the Pakistani military is crucial and while the cooperation is getting better, the floods inside Pakistan this summer, distracted the Pakistani military, he said. Operations that might have been planned have been in abeyance while the country recovers.

“In context, in 2007, the Pakistani military was signing peace treaties with insurgent groups,” he said. “In 2007, the Pakistani military’s principle focus was against India. In 2007, they had few forces in the west.

“In the past 18 months, the Pakistanis have moved 140,000 troops into the Tribal Areas,” he continued. “They have suffered 30,000 dead and wounded in the effort. We think there is a growing realization inside Pakistan that the insurgency is a growing, existential threat to the nation, and a willingness to act on that realization.”

Conditions in the area are positive, he said. There is a great meshing of the military/civilian efforts in the region, and Afghan security forces are taking the lead in the region in many districts and provinces.

The official said that the security situation in the capital of Kabul is promising and that Afghan security forces have the lead for the city and surrounding districts. “Are there challenges? Sure. But it’s a glass half full sort of deal,” the official said.

The transition agreement at the Lisbon Summit was significant, the senior military official said. President Hamid Karzai had proposed Afghan security forces taking over responsibility from the NATO-led coalition by 2014, and at the summit, the 48 coalition nations agreed to the plan.

Also coalition and Afghan leaders agreed to the process to define the conditions for transition in each of the districts and provinces, he said. This decision will enable coalition officials to define with the Afghans what is necessary to accomplish transition at the district and provincial level and then to achieve unity of effort towards that end.

The NATO Training Mission is at the one-year mark, he noted. “They’ve had a great year with the development and employment of the ANSF this past year,” the official said. “A year ago, there were few Afghans operating with the coalition forces in central Helmand province. Now, over 50 percent of the forces doing the operations in central Helmand and Kandahar are Afghans. And it’s not just the numbers, it’s the competence and capabilities they demonstrate.”

The security forces still have a way to go and training the army is ahead of the police effort. “We’re ahead of the glide path in aggregate numbers, but we face challenges with leader development and literacy,” he said.

The NATO Training Mission is also establishing branch school and enabling capabilities training, and the Canadian decision to provide 950 trainers to the NATO effort was encouraging, the senior military official said. “This will allow the mission to address some of the shortfall they have faced,” he said. “It will enable us to address some of the shortfalls in quality (of troops) that we’re focused on.”

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