BRUSSELS, Belgium: A year to the day after he met here with NATO officials on his way to take command of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal today reviewed the progress achieved there over the last 12 months and provided his perspective for the year to come.
McChrystal met with reporters at NATO headquarters here, where the alliance’s defense ministers, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, are having two days of meetings.
Though much remains to be done in Afghanistan, McChrystal said, much has taken place with a new approach to the mission over the last year.
“I’m not going to try to tell you that everything changed day-to-day,” he said, “because it does not [work] that way, but over the course of the year, it’s been pretty significant.”
The new approach for the Afghanistan mission began with an exhaustive assessment followed by refinements in strategy and some difficult resource decisions, McChrystal said. The past year also has seen an overhaul of the command’s concept of operations, and a retooling of how it develops the Afghan national security forces.
“[The Afghan forces] are the strategic main effort,” he said, “and they are key to the long-term stability of the country.”
Meanwhile, the numbers of Afghan soldiers and national police continue to increase, McChrystal said.
“A year ago, there were about 150,000 total Afghan national security forces,” he said. “Today, there are 230,000. That’s a significant growth in a 12-month period. In 18 months – that 12, plus the next six months – we will have equaled the growth of the last seven years, so you can see that pace has accelerated.”
But numbers aren’t the whole story, McChrystal said. The quality of Afghan forces is moving ahead rapidly over the past year through coalition forces working side by side with their Afghan partners.
“Today, about 85 percent of the Afghan National Army has real partnerships as they go around the battlefield,” he said. Though the Afghan forces are many years away from a level of professionalism that would be expected of long-standing forces such as the U.S. Army, the general said, they have made significant progress.
Building the Afghan National Police remains a challenge, McChrystal acknowledged, noting it needs more training and “in many cases, doesn’t have as much trust of the populace that a police force must have.”
“And we recognize those challenges, and are working to improve,” the general said.
That recognition shows through in a greater than 400 percent increase in national police officer training over the past year, McChrystal noted. A year ago, he added, few Afghan police had received any formal training.
“If you recall,” McChrystal said, “we had a ‘recruit, deploy, train’ model. Today, only about 50 percent of them have had formal training, but that’s significantly up from 12 months ago, and we are now in a ‘recruit, train, deploy’ model.
“And we are going back to pick up deployed police as well,” he added. “That will take time, but that has a significant impact.”
Operationally, the focus over the past year has been in southern Afghanistan, particularly in Helmand province, where the Taliban owned most of the Helmand River valley a year ago, McChrystal said.
“In early July,” he said, “we started putting forces down there to augment the small number that had been there, and [the Taliban] don’t own the Helmand River valley any more.”
Yet, challenges remain in Helmand province, McChrystal acknowledged, noting that insurgent-committed violence there has continued and will continue.
“It is by no means a completely secure area,” he said. “But a year ago, when they owned it, is starkly different from what exists now.”
When he took charge in Afghanistan, McChrystal said, he was unsatisfied with the structure and unity of command of the organization that was in place.
“Today, we’ve unified that,” he said. “We’ve created some subordinate commands, … and we’ve tied our efforts closer with the civilian side, and [it’s] more integrated than in the past, and I’m happy with that progress.”
Close-air support was a leading cause of civilian casualties in Afghanistan a year ago, McChrystal said, and a sustained focus on that problem has reduced it.
“And Afghans see that,” he added, “and some of the feedback I get from Afghans is appreciation for that. We still have more to do to try to bring civilian casualties by all measures as low as we can, but we’ve made real progress in parts of that.”
Another mark of progress, McChrystal said, is that detention operations are on track to come under Afghan control. “The deputy commander of our Joint Task Force 435 is an Afghan officer,” he said, “and we’re on track to hand over all detention operations at the detention facility in Parwan to Afghans in January 2011 — and that will constitute all of our detention operations.”
Special operations forces in Afghanistan a year ago were about a third of what they are now, McChrystal said, and in the last 90 days, 121 Taliban leaders have been captured around the country.
“Even in a population-centric [counterinsurgency] campaign, you must have all the aspects,” he said. “You must have that part to target key enemy leaders, you must also have that part which protects the population, and then, of course, the critical government and developmental parts. But this is a significant piece of what we’re doing.”
Regionally, McChrystal said, cooperation has improved significantly with Pakistan. “We’ve established new border coordination centers,” he said. “We’ve renewed the tripartite conference structure that we use, and we’ve increased and improved relationships at all levels, with their forces, primarily.”
Summarizing the past year, McChrystal said it has “put us in a position to make progress.”
As forces have built up in Helmand province “where we’ve been the longest, we’ve seen the most progress,” the general said. Looking ahead, he added, the Afghans will have to be increasingly involved in the province for that progress to continue.
“We see progress everywhere,” the general said, “but it’s still incomplete. It’ll take time, and it’ll require us to consolidate gains. And importantly, it will require our Afghan partners to be part of that at each step of the way – both the police [and] the army, and then, of course, the governance and development aspects as they rebuild Afghan control of an area that they essentially have not controlled for a number of years.”
Operations under way around Kandahar today couldn’t be done a year ago, McChrystal said.
“We’ve begun extensive planning and shaping operations, and that’s ongoing,” he said. “Our force uplift is expanding our ability to secure and clear, and security forces continue to arrive. A year ago, there were about 7,300 total forces in Kandahar City and the environs, and those are the key districts contiguous to the city. By the end of August, we’ll have about 20,300 forces in that same area.”
McChrystal said he’ll accompany Afghan President Hamid Karzai as he conducts another in a series of “shuras,” or meetings of community leaders, in Kandahar in the next few days.
Karzai will “be focusing on all things to improve in Kandahar: security, governance, reducing corruption, [and] increasing capacity of Afghan governance and development there,” the general said. “We also will be looking at contracting reform, private security companies and what we can do with land disputes [that] underlie many of the problems.”
The past year has seen progress in developing concepts and a program for reconciliation and reintegration of Afghans who had previously sided with the Taliban or other disruptive elements, McChrystal said.
“The recent consultative peace jirga represented an event in that process to bring national consensus to it,” he said, “and I think it was an important step to explain and bring the Afghan people toward more inclusive governance and bringing dialogue on reintegration back. And I think they gathered the thoughts of the people and got the mandate that they wanted to move forward in those programs.”
In the year ahead, McChrystal said, he envisions that the transition to Afghan control of certain areas can begin.
“We view it as a process, and not an event, which enables Afghan ownership and reinforces Afghan sovereignty, and it puts Afghans in the lead and responsible for their future,” he said. “I don’t think it immediately reduces the requirement for international-community support of differing kinds, based upon the conditions in each area.
“In some areas, it will be security assistance,” the general continued. “In some areas, it will be less military, and it will be more based on help with governance and development.”
McChrystal said assessing progress involves a detailed process that focuses on three major areas: the capacity of Afghanistan’s national government, growth and development of the Afghan security forces, and the security situation, which means protecting the population while degrading the insurgency.
“All three show signs of progress,” the general said. “It is slow, but positive. It varies from region to region. And in areas where we have operated, it typically reflects how long effective counterinsurgency efforts have been applied.”
Sometimes, that progress is modest, he acknowledged. “But I think it’s important that the perception of the insurgency having momentum is reversing,” he added.
Violence is up, McChrystal said, and it will continue to rise, particularly over the summer as forces in Afghanistan roll back Taliban influence and move toward increased security.
“Afghan confidence is improving, and they are a courageous and resilient people,” he said. “But they have been at war for 31 years, or they have been impacted by violence for 31 years, and that’s significant. They want a better future, and we think that we’re setting conditions for them to shape their future.”
But success won’t come quickly, the general said.
“Progress won’t show every day,” he said, “but it will show over time, week-by-week and month-by-month. And it will be evident.”
Operations conducted earlier this year in and around the former Taliban stronghold of Marja provided some lessons that are being applied in and around Kandahar, McChrystal said, noting any decisive point in Kandahar may come later than originally envisioned.
“We re-adjust our plans about every day, as most military commanders do, because you react to developments on the ground,” he said. “We haven’t changed the focus of what we intend to produce around Kandahar, nor have we changed the basic force structure. We continue to modify it. I do think that it will happen more slowly than we had originally anticipated.
“As we conduct counterinsurgency operations around the country and the Helmand River valley,” he continued, “we are reminded that it’s a deliberate process. It takes time to convince people. … We are already in the process of doing political and military shaping, but it’s my personal assessment that it will be more deliberate than we thought earlier and communicated.”
Therefore, the general added, operations in Kandahar will take months to play out.
“But I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing,” he added. “I think it’s more important we get it right than we get it fast.”