WASHINGTON — Though “hard-won” progress has taken place in Afghanistan, it has been uneven, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces there said.
In an Oct. 6 interview in the Afghan capital of Kabul, Army GEN David H. Petraeus praised service members in Afghanistan, noting they have seen tough combat, but also are seeing results.
Overall, GEN Petraeus said, a reversal in Taliban momentum has taken place. “In certain very important areas such as Kandahar, the enemy is responding to us rather than us responding to the enemy,” he said. “There are attacks, but we are the ones on the offensive, they are the ones responding.”
Progress is coming in pockets, the general said, and the goal is to connect those pockets over time. “Then with the security in place, we’ve got to develop the economy [and] develop governance,” he added.
It is important for the Afghan government to provide basic services so its people see the future is brighter if they support the Afghan government rather than revert to support of the Taliban, GEN Petraeus explained.
The bottom line is that for a counterinsurgency program to work, service members have to relate to the people, the general said. “There’s an old saying that ‘all politics are local.’ Well, so are all counterinsurgency operations,” GEN Petraeus said. “It comes down to that village, that valley, that community.”
This requires service members and civilians to get out and meet the people face to face — to invest the time to know the elders and the technocrats of the area, the local government leaders, the religious leaders and the businessmen, GEN Petraeus said, and to fully understand the dynamics of local communities and resist rushing to judgment. “We have to be careful how we develop the relationships,” he added, “and more importantly, how we reward individuals and communities.”
An important aspect of this outreach to local communities is the Afghan local police initiative, GEN Petraeus said. Sixty-eight sites for that effort have been approved, and about eight to 10 per month will be added. The sites are in locations where there are insufficient densities of Afghan and coalition forces. “They are essentially community watches with AK-47s,” he said. “We think these will complement our operations in other areas.” Special operations forces have been working with community leaders to train these local police forces to defend their villages from the Taliban, the general said, and the rapport they have established in the villages has been tremendously important to the effort in Afghanistan. “In some cases, they have ‘flipped’ communities who once even actively supported the Taliban,” he said.
Noting that the strategy is in place and the last of the U.S. surge troops have arrived in Afghanistan, GEN Petraeus said security gains have been made and he gave his frank assessment of the gains in various areas.
Regional Command Southwest has seen continued progress in security, but it has been at a cost. “The enemy is very much fighting back, because we’ve taken control of sanctuaries and safe havens that mean a great deal to him,” he said. “In Marja, for example, which eight months ago was the center for the illegal narcotics industry and a Taliban command and control headquarters, now you see a high school opening for the first time in six years.” Other schools have opened, and men are volunteering to serve in the police for the first time, GEN Petraeus said. The security gains, he added, have made it possible for gradual improvements in governance and development.
“It’s the same in varying degrees in the other districts of central Helmand province,” he said.
Further east in Kandahar, major operations are going on inside and outside the city. The battle in the Panjwai area illustrates an increasingly important aspect of the fight, the general said. In Panjwai, the 101st Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team and the Canadian task force have been joined by substantial numbers of Afghan soldiers and police.
The Taliban see the area as a safe haven and have laced it with explosive belts, dug-in positions and mined houses rigged to blow up. The Afghans are working well with the coalition forces and are helping to “establish a security bubble around Kandahar City and again take away areas of importance to the Taliban,” the general said.
From Kandahar, coalition and Afghan forces are working along Highway 1 — the major road between Kandahar and Kabul — and going after various pockets there. “They have done substantial damage to the infiltrators of the Haqqani network that come in from North Waziristan in Pakistan, and done considerable damage to the mid-level Taliban fighters and leaders in the southern areas as well,” GEN Petraeus said.
Kabul is a security high-point. The area has roughly 5 million people, and it’s been quite secure and stable in recent months, the general said. The enemy has been trying to launch attacks in the capital but, so far, Afghan intelligence and Afghan forces working with International Security Assistance Force service members have been able to disrupt and defeat these efforts. “This is important because Afghan forces are in the lead in security in all but one district in Kabul,” he said. “It’s an example of what we’d like to do in more places in the future.”
In the northern part of the country, German forces, along with a brigade of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, are beginning operations to reduce insurgent influence. The same is happening in Regional Command West, GEN Petraeus said. The general said U.S. troops are the most experienced and professional military America has ever had.
“Virtually all of our commissioned, warrant and noncommissioned officers on the ground now have had at least one tour in Iraq or Afghanistan, and many have had multiple yearlong tours,” he said. “There’s an enormous reservoir of experience and expertise. I see enormous versatility, initiative, innovation, just sheer understanding or the complexities of these operations, and also extraordinary courage.”