Afghanistan — Challenges Clear to U.S.-Afghan Partnership, Mullen Says

KABUL, March 31, 2010 — After vis­its to U.S., coali­tion and Afghan forces in Afghanistan’s Hel­mand and Kan­da­har provinces, the chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said today that “nev­er has our part­ner­ship … been stronger, or the chal­lenges we face, clear­er.”
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen com­plet­ed a rig­or­ous three-day vis­it to Afghanistan that took him to the region of the recent offen­sive in Mar­ja in Hel­mand province. Mullen also attend­ed a “shu­ra” – a meet­ing of com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers — at the governor’s palace in down­town Kan­da­har.

In cen­tral Hel­mand, Mullen saw the results of the offen­sive. Though com­bined Afghan and U.S. forces cleared them from many vil­lages, the Tal­iban remain a pres­ence. Intim­i­da­tion remains, but the secu­ri­ty sit­u­a­tion is improv­ing, the chair­man said.

Still, he added, the offen­sive was a good exam­ple of how U.S., Afghan and coali­tion forces can work togeth­er to pro­tect the peo­ple of Afghanistan, and it cer­tain­ly has lessons for the upcom­ing fight for Kan­da­har.

The city is the very heart of the Tal­iban in Afghanistan, the chair­man said. “Near­ly half of Pres­i­dent [Barack] Obama’s 30,000 troop com­mit­ment has made it to the­ater, with more com­ing every month,” Mullen said. “They are com­ing to Kan­da­har – the cor­ner­stone of our surge effort and the key to shift­ing momen­tum from the ene­my to the Afghan peo­ple.”

While Mullen said he is encour­aged, he added that patience is nec­es­sary not­ing that the oper­a­tion into Mar­ja was launched only 45 days ago.

The same ideas and elan that went into plan­ning oper­a­tions in Mar­ja will go into Kan­da­har oper­a­tions, the admi­ral said, but the worlds of the two places are far apart, so the tac­ti­cal oper­a­tions won’t be the same. Mar­ja is rur­al, with a pop­u­la­tion of rough­ly 70,000 spread over a large area, and the Tal­iban ruled there for the last two years. Kan­da­har has a pop­u­la­tion of more than 2 mil­lion and has a pletho­ra of tribes, fam­i­ly groups, local pow­er bro­kers and drug lords, Mullen explained.

“It’s a much big­ger chal­lenge,” he said, “and I think [it] has a much greater poten­tial to achieve the goal of revers­ing [Tal­iban] momen­tum.”

U.S. mil­i­tary and State Depart­ment offi­cials talk about using the shu­ra sys­tem as a way to work out thorny issues in the coun­try that help to spur peo­ple to join the insur­gents.

The part­ner­ship between U.S. and Afghan forces also has been cru­cial, Mullen said. “Many of the lead­ers [at the shu­ra in Mar­ja] told me that the secu­ri­ty in many places was much improved – the result of extra­or­di­nary part­ner­ing and Afghan lead­er­ship,” he said. “But so too, did they speak of Tal­iban intim­i­da­tion, local cor­rup­tion and a real eco­nom­ic need.”

The lead­ers at the shu­ra spoke of edu­ca­tion, roads, health care, help for agri­cul­ture, and the need for jobs, Mullen said. He said he was struck by how nor­mal the requests sound­ed, and that it appeared to him that the peo­ple of Mar­ja just want to get on with their lives. Provin­cial lead­ers have heard these calls, but the capa­bil­i­ty to pro­duce is lim­it­ed.

Mullen said the U.S. mil­i­tary shares the desire for secu­ri­ty and sta­bil­i­ty through­out Afghanistan that the peo­ple of Mar­ja and Kan­da­har want. “We share the view that Afghan secu­ri­ty forces, prop­er­ly trained and equipped, can pro­tect its cit­i­zens,” he said.

The oper­a­tion in Mar­ja stands as a tes­ta­ment to that fact. More than 10,000 Amer­i­can troops are in Hel­mand, serv­ing along­side coali­tion and Afghan part­ners.

“We still work hard every day to cre­ate secu­ri­ty con­di­tions con­ducive to eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment,” the chair­man said. “We’re undoubt­ed­ly mak­ing progress, as I saw myself. Many vil­lages are safe again. The streets are fill­ing, and the shops are open.

“I must applaud here the ter­rif­ic work of the Afghan Nation­al Army,” he con­tin­ued. “I heard from more than one Amer­i­can sol­dier and Marine how far the [Afghan army] has come in a short peri­od of time. They fight brave­ly, they fight well, and they lead.”

Mullen also said he is pleased with the way the Afghan Nation­al Civ­il Order Police oper­at­ed in Mar­ja. Police train­ing has been under-resourced, and local police often have been put on the streets with no train­ing, he said.

“We know this is a prob­lem, and we are address­ing this,” he said. The peo­ple of the region want the civ­il order police to stay, he added.

Still, the admi­ral said, con­tin­ued progress is not assured.

“We have moved to the ‘hold and build’ phase in many areas, and we will find our­selves clear­ing out areas in many oth­ers,” he said. “The Tal­iban con­tin­ue to be per­va­sive and per­sis­tent. It will take more work, and like­ly more blood­shed, to break it loose.

“Too san­guine an approach is just as treach­er­ous as too lit­tle for­ti­tude to see it through,” he con­tin­ued. “We have learned in this long fight that fail­ure makes itself obvi­ous; suc­cess takes longer to see.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)