WASHINGTON: The commander of NATO and U.S. troops in Afghanistan said today he is pleased with the progress in the country so far while acknowledging that much more needs to be done.
Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal said military operations in Helmand province have been promising, and that efforts to build the Afghan government in the province are the key to long-term success. McChrystal and Ambassador Mark Sedwill, the senior NATO civilian representative in Afghanistan, spoke to Pentagon reporters from Kabul.
The “clearing” portion of the battle against insurgents in Helmand continues, even as the “hold” and “build” portions of the counterinsurgency strategy are instituted. The general said the coalition will work in partnership with the Afghan government to deliver essential services to these areas.
“But this will be a long process, and there will be military challenges in the months ahead as the insurgents try to prove that we can’t maintain enough security to do that,” McChrystal added.
The coalition will bring more security to Kandahar next, the general said. The second-largest city in Afghanistan and the philosophical home of the Taliban is incredibly important to success in the country, he told reporters.
The Kandahar area is far more complex than Helmand, he said, and the coalition and Afghan government have begun shaping operations in and around the metropolis and the surrounding area in preparation for an offensive. More coalition and Afghan troops will be fed into the area as time goes on, he said.
Sedwill said military operations have regained the initiative, and operations now must move to more civilian-oriented ones to resolve political tensions and grievances that fuel the insurgency and to rebuild and reinforce institutions in which the Afghan people have lost confidence.
“We haven’t made enough progress in the past eight years in rebuilding them,” he said, “but we need to really strengthen them — and strengthen them now — to win over the people’s allegiance … to their own government.”
Turning to other areas of Afghanistan, McChrystal said he had traveled to Mazar-e Sharif in Regional Command North. “Although security there is relatively better than it would be, for example, in the south,” he said, “there are still effective and focused operations to partner to make that work.”
He also said he’d visited a Norwegian provincial reconstruction team working to repair the Ring Road around the country. “There are going to be ongoing operations in the weeks and months ahead there to maintain or to make progress there,” he said, “but also to increase security along the existing parts of the Ring Road, and then also the push for completion of that last section.”
The general added that he observed a Turkish medical capabilities operation in Kabul, and he praised the way the Turks bonded with the people. He also traveled to Ghazni, where he said the scope of the task remaining shows itself.
“While the people are not negative to our forces or the Afghan national security forces, we also, to this point, have not been able to offer the kind of security that allows the people to make a full decision,” McChrystal said. “One man spoke to us for a little while, and then said, ‘I’m going to get a night letter [from the Taliban] tonight, because I’m talking to you.'”
Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan have delivered such intimidating “night letters” or leaflets to citizens they suspect of collaborating with coalition troops or Afghan security forces and government officials. Though the Taliban aren’t plentiful in Ghazni, the general said, they have enough of a presence to cause problems.
Overall, McChrystal and Sedwill said, they are pleased with the progress that has been achieved in Afghanistan so far, but there is tough work to come. Kandahar will remain a focus, they said, but so will other areas in the eastern and southern regional commands.
Training the Afghan security forces is key to beginning a coalition withdrawal from Afghanistan, McChrystal said, acknowledging that the coalition has yet to provide enough trainers. Calls have gone through NATO and international channels to obtain more, he said.
Overall, the civilian efforts and the Afghans themselves ultimately will ensure progress in Afghanistan, Sedwill said.
“Remember the complexity of this campaign,” the ambassador said. “We’ve tended to focus … on the military elements of it, but the military elements of it are not going to deliver success here unless we get the political elements right,” he said.