The forces are now in place to make major strides in Afghanistan, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus said here today.
Speaking at a press roundtable with reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Petraeus said all the surge forces are conducting operations. Also, the general said, all the organizations needed to train the Afghan security forces are in place.
Pentagon officials said the vast majority of the 30,000 additional troops President Barack Obama ordered to the country in December 2009 are in country, with just a few small units still en route.
“We have more than tripled the number of U.S. forces on the ground, NATO nations have contributed more forces as well and non-NATO nations as well,” Petraeus, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force, said. The number of nations participating in operations in Afghanistan has climbed to 49, he said, while the number of civilians on the ground has tripled.
The main efforts in Afghanistan are in Central Helmand and Kandahar, the general said. Marja – the scene of a Marine and Afghan offensive in February – is no longer a Taliban and narco-trafficking stronghold and Afghan civilians are returning to the area.
“The district center has been rebuilt, the schools re-opened, there is a base health clinic and a lot of other civil projects have been completed or launched,” Petraeus said. Last week, he said, the Afghan government conducted a voter registration drive in Marja that went very well.
However, “around the edges of the security bubble around central Helmand … the Taliban is fighting back,” Petraeus said. “It was a hugely important area to the Taliban. Our job is to increase the security bubble in Central Helmand.”
Kandahar, he said, is a deliberate campaign that was launched with a high tempo of special operations forces. Surrounding areas, such as Arghendaub north of the city, have been cleared. Areas to the west of Kandahar are being cleared by a brigade from the 101st Airborne Division.
In Regional Command-East, another 101st Brigade has moved in and has caused significant damage to the Haqqani network in Paktika and Khost, the general said.
In and around the capital of Kabul, Afghan forces have the security lead in five of the six districts in Kabul province, Petraeus said. Kabul has one-sixth of the population of the country.
Afghan security forces “are doing quite a good job,” the general said. “We want to expand that security bubble, too.”
In Regional Command-North, the Germans are rolling back Taliban infiltration of the area, paying particular attention to Kunduz.
Training the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police is a priority, Petraeus said, noting the development of professional and capable Afghan security forces is key to NATO being able to withdraw its troops safely. He said it is only recently that NATO and the U.S. efforts have been able to get the inputs right for training Afghan forces.
“There is a recruit-train-equip model for the police, and the army training generally has been pretty sound,” Petraeus said.
Afghan army and police training has benefitted from the increased emphasis on literacy training, the general said.
“It is a true, limiting factor in some areas,” Petraeus said of the literacy issue. “It’s pretty difficult to enforce a law you can’t read or to perform maintenance using a technical manual if you can’t read it.”
Petraeus said he was skeptical about the literacy program until he saw it in action. The Afghans have taken to the program, he said, noting many formerly illiterate soldiers and police can now read and write well enough to do their jobs.
The Afghan army is recruiting 82,000 more soldiers and the effort is ahead of the projections, the general said. There are, he acknowledged, persistent issues regarding leader development and officer and NCO shortages.
Petraeus said he has a good relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. NATO and the Afghan government don’t agree on all things, he acknowledged, but noted their “convergence of ideas” is substantial and that the two work together very well.
“I think it is a relationship where there is candor, we do not always come at every issue from the same perspective, but I think that’s a reflection of the strength of the relationship rather than anything else,” the general said.
Petraeus said he believes that Karzai understands the need for better, more inclusive civil-military operations. Karzai also recognizes problems within his government, the general said, especially issues involving corruption. Appropriately, Petraeus said, the Afghan government is moving to arrest and prosecute its corrupt members.
Karzai “understands that the government has to earn legitimacy in the eyes of the people,” the general said. Improved security, he added, becomes “the foundation upon which you build governance and economic development. That government needs to be seen as serving the people.”
Karzai also recognizes the danger that safe havens inside neighboring Pakistan pose to Afghanistan and NATO, Petraeus said, noting the Afghan president is working to improve relations with Pakistan’s government.
Afghanistan’s president also is concerned about civilian casualties, Petraeus said, noting that Karzai constantly is at him to reduce inadvertent Afghan civilian losses. Petraeus noted that while the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has increased three-fold, the number of civilian casualties caused by NATO forces has decreased. The Taliban, meanwhile, routinely target innocent Afghan civilians, he said.
Petraeus said he is getting ready to issue a new Commander’s Intent letter. In it, he said, he’ll stress to servicemembers the importance of gaining an understanding of Afghanistan’s social and cultural environment.
“We have never had the granular understanding of local circumstances in Afghanistan that we achieved over time in Iraq,” the general said.
In Iraq, Petraeus recalled, U.S. and coalition military commanders knew who the local tribal power brokers were, how the social systems were supposed to work and how they actually functioned.
“That enabled us enormously,” he said. “We are just completing the process of getting the inputs right here and now we have to employ those inputs.”
U.S. and NATO servicemembers and civilians serving in Afghanistan need to learn the local customs, tribal relationships, leaders and so on in their areas to be effective,