Afghanistan Strategy Works, Needs Time, General Says

WASHINGTON, Oct. 26, 2010 — Coali­tion forces’ coun­terin­sur­gency strat­e­gy in Afghanistan is work­ing but the approach needs time to build on the past year’s gains, a mil­i­tary offi­cial said here yes­ter­day.

“Our progress is slow and steady, but we are mak­ing progress. And addi­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties are being cre­at­ed by the progress that we’re mak­ing,” Army Brig. Gen. John W. Nichol­son Jr. said. 

Nichol­son, direc­tor of the Joint Staff’s Afghanistan-Pak­istan coor­di­na­tion cell, pre­sent­ed an Afghanistan oper­a­tional update dur­ing the Asso­ci­a­tion of the Unit­ed States Army annu­al conference. 

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, com­man­der of U.S. and Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force troops in Afghanistan, pre­pared the brief­ing and would have pre­sent­ed it him­self had duties not kept him in Kab­ul, Nichol­son said. 

“Today he’s sit­ting down with all the com­man­ders of ISAF [and] with the Afghan gov­ern­ment lead­er­ship, going over how we inte­grate our civ­il-mil­i­tary efforts in Afghanistan,” Nichol­son said. 

The coun­terin­sur­gency approach of “clear, hold, build” is suc­ceed­ing, Nichol­son said, thanks large­ly to the 50,000 troops added to coali­tion forces since 2009. 

“We’ve intro­duced [coali­tion forces] into Kan­da­har and Hel­mand, the most vio­lent places in Afghanistan –- places that have nev­er been cleared,” he said. 

Over the past nine years, the alliance nev­er had enough forces to clear those areas, Nichol­son said. Now, ISAF is killing, cap­tur­ing or dri­ving off ene­my forces there to pro­vide secu­ri­ty for the Afghan people. 

Nichol­son said the coun­terin­sur­gency strategy’s “clear” phase involves main­tain­ing pres­sure on the ene­my by deny­ing safe havens, dis­rupt­ing fund­ing, sup­plies and com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and killing or cap­tur­ing ene­my troops and more impor­tant­ly, leaders. 

In Afghanistan, he said, the task of cap­tur­ing or killing ene­my lead­ers is most often con­duct­ed by spe­cial oper­a­tions forces.

“Every 24 hours on aver­age, we are killing or cap­tur­ing three to five mid-lev­el lead­ers and 25 ene­my fight­ers,” Nichol­son said. Such attri­tion to the enemy’s lead­er­ship ranks, he said, is “severe­ly dis­rupt­ing their com­mand and con­trol in the country.” 

Insur­gent morale in Afghanistan is suf­fer­ing as a result, Nichol­son said. 

The coalition’s cur­rent efforts in Afghanistan, he said, focus on Kan­da­har and Hel­mand provinces in south­ern Afghanistan and Kunar in the east. These three provinces are the site of 65 per­cent of the country’s insur­gent activ­i­ty, he said, and are the focus of ISAF efforts to move in, remove ene­my forces, pro­tect the pop­u­la­tion, and extend the reach of government. 

“The secu­ri­ty cam­paign is the first dimen­sion of a com­pre­hen­sive [coun­terin­sur­gency] cam­paign,” Nichol­son said. “Gov­er­nance will always lag behind secu­ri­ty, because until the peo­ple have con­fi­dence that … they are going to be safe, it’s very tough to achieve a con­nec­tion between the peo­ple and the government.” 

To rein­force secu­ri­ty gains, the U.S. Army’s 10th Moun­tain Divi­sion will “plant its flag” in Kan­da­har this month, he said, cre­at­ing the first two-star head­quar­ters in south­ern Afghanistan. 

As Kandahar’s secu­ri­ty sta­bi­lizes, coali­tion troops and civil­ians will work with the Afghan gov­ern­ment to fur­ther eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment and tran­si­tion agri­cul­ture in the region from opi­um to legal and prof­itable crops, Nichol­son said. 

“[This will] enable the peo­ple to have a stake in the future and see a path to a bet­ter life for them­selves and their fam­i­lies,” he said. 

As the Afghan gov­ern­ment estab­lish­es a pres­ence in the cleared areas, the people’s con­fi­dence will fol­low, Nichol­son said, not­ing that is already hap­pen­ing in many of the country’s provinces, where local gov­er­nance, school atten­dance and com­merce have increased since 2001. 

Nichol­son cit­ed the 2009 U.S. Marine cam­paign in Nawa, Afghanistan, as proof of the coun­terin­sur­gency concept. 

“What we’re see­ing now is the places we’ve been [in] longer, like Nawa, where we’ve been for almost 18 months, we’re see­ing pos­i­tive effects,” he said. 

Those effects will fol­low in Kan­da­har, Nichol­son said, where six brigades of U.S., Cana­di­an and Afghan forces are clear­ing the area “hedgerow-by-hedgerow and house-by-house.” 

Over this year, the Afghan force pres­ence in the area has increased to 60 per­cent, from rough­ly 20 per­cent in 2009, he said. 

“This is one of the strongest signs of progress,” Nichol­son said. “We clear­ly want to get them to a point in terms of capa­bil­i­ty and pro­fes­sion­al­ism where they take over the fight from us, and we can shift to an advise-and-assist role and even­tu­al­ly trans­fer secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ties to them.” 

Nichol­son said Afghanistan Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai has stat­ed he wants all secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty trans­ferred to Afghan forces by 2014. 

Because only 14 per­cent of Afghan mil­i­tary recruits can read and write, lit­er­a­cy pro­grams are as impor­tant as mil­i­tary train­ing and pro­fes­sion­al­iz­ing the force, he said. 

“In Iraq, you had lit­er­a­cy and … an estab­lished civ­il ser­vice class,” Nichol­son said. “We don’t have that in Afghanistan, but we’re under­tak­ing sig­nif­i­cant lit­er­a­cy train­ing programs.” 

The coali­tion also has worked with the country’s author­i­ties to estab­lish Afghan local police rep­re­sen­ta­tion in vil­lages, he said, there­by extend­ing the government’s reach to more people. 

Afghan local police mem­bers report to the Min­istry of the Inte­ri­or and serve in a defen­sive role, as well as pro­vid­ing some basic gov­ern­ment ser­vices to the pop­u­la­tion, he said. 

Fos­ter­ing the people’s trust in gov­ern­ment is dif­fi­cult, Nichol­son said, because Afghanistan has expe­ri­enced sev­er­al forms of gov­ern­ment in 30 years, includ­ing monar­chy, com­mu­nism, anar­chy or war­lordism, the Tal­iban and theoc­ra­cy, and now, democracy. 

“We have to over­come [the Afghan people’s] skep­ti­cism of cen­tral gov­ern­ment, and frankly a lack of knowl­edge about what this gov­ern­ment is and what it offers,” he said. 

Estab­lish­ing effec­tive gov­ern­ment rela­tions with the pop­u­la­tion will first require devel­op­ing civ­il ser­vice capac­i­ty and increas­ing edu­ca­tion, the gen­er­al said. 

In his view, Nichol­son said, edu­ca­tion may be the sin­gle-most impor­tant fac­tor in Afghanistan’s long-term success. 

“The major­i­ty of the pop­u­la­tion is under 18,” he said. “This next gen­er­a­tion is cru­cial to the future of Afghanistan.” 

Build­ing the infra­struc­ture to sup­port an agri­cul­tur­al econ­o­my also is crit­i­cal to Afghanistan’s suc­cess, the gen­er­al said. Paving roads so crops can be trans­port­ed, estab­lish­ing trade routes and pro­mot­ing eco­nom­ic exchange, and pro­vid­ing elec­tri­cal pow­er to run pack­ag­ing plants are all essen­tial to that infra­struc­ture, he said. 

And, in a nation where the aver­age life expectan­cy is 45, and 20 per­cent of chil­dren die before age 5, health care is a press­ing need, Nichol­son said. 

“Sim­ple things like rudi­men­ta­ry health care can make an enor­mous dif­fer­ence in their lives,” he said. 

The Red Cross has estab­lished clin­ics in sev­er­al vil­lages around Kan­da­har, Nichol­son said, and that suc­cess empha­sizes the need for non­mil­i­tary agen­cies’ help in estab­lish­ing a secure future for Afghanistan. 

In Novem­ber, he not­ed, heads of state from 50 nations con­tribut­ing troops or aid to Afghanistan will meet in Lis­bon, Por­tu­gal, for a NATO conference. 

“At this con­fer­ence we expect the con­ver­sa­tion to be about tran­si­tion to Afghan con­trol,” Nichol­son said. “So there’s a process work­ing now between NATO and the Afghan gov­ern­ment to define … the con­di­tions that need to be met to tran­si­tion con­trol of dis­tricts and provinces to Afghans.” 

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

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