Allen Cites Time of Optimism in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan, Dec. 13, 2011 — As the Unit­ed States pre­pares to end its mil­i­tary mis­sion in Iraq, the com­man­der of U.S. and NATO troops here said it’s a time for opti­mism in Afghanistan, too, as progress con­tin­ues and Afghan forces assume increas­ing secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty.

Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, speak­ing with reporters trav­el­ing with Defense Sec­re­tary Leon E. Panet­ta, cit­ed the “sub­stan­tial progress” made over the last 18 months, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the north­ern, south­ern and west­ern parts of Afghanistan.

Next year, Allen said he hopes to con­sol­i­date advan­tages achieved and sup­port for Afghan forces in pop­u­la­tion cen­ters in those sec­tors, while con­duct­ing “sig­nif­i­cant con­tin­ued coun­terin­sur­gency oper­a­tions” in the east.

The goal, he said, is to push out the secu­ri­ty zone from Kab­ul. “We had had some suc­cess, but would like to push that far­ther east­ward,” he said.

“As we reflect on what has just hap­pened in Iraq, we have some real­ly momen­tous months ahead of us here in Afghanistan as tran­si­tion con­tin­ues [and] as more of the Afghan pop­u­la­tion moves under the secu­ri­ty shield of the Afghan nation­al secu­ri­ty forces,” the gen­er­al said.

Allen also reflect­ed on last week’s Bonn, Ger­many, con­fer­ence and its “very clear mes­sage that the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty and many inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions there are going to be with Afghanistan for a long time.”

Also promis­ing, the gen­er­al said, was the recent nation­al assem­bly, or loya jir­ga, in which a del­e­ga­tion of more than 2,000 elders endorsed a long-term secu­ri­ty agree­ment with the Unit­ed States. The del­e­ga­tion also com­mit­ted to peace and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

“So I think it is a time, frankly, for opti­mism,” Allen said. “If you are a young sol­dier here, you can take heart that your dai­ly labor as an Amer­i­can sol­dier on the bat­tle­field here is pay­ing off.

“And if you lis­ten to the inter­na­tion­al voic­es being raised, it is not just going to pay off for the peri­od of time you are here,” he con­tin­ued. “It is going to pay off for a long time.”

Allen said the four pri­or­i­ties he enun­ci­at­ed when tak­ing com­mand here five months ago will con­tin­ue to guide what he pre­dict­ed will be “an inter­est­ing time for us here.”

He vowed arriv­ing at his post to keep up pres­sure on the insur­gency, to increas­ing­ly move Afghan nation­al secu­ri­ty forces into the lead, to set con­di­tions for and sup­port the tran­si­tion, and to remain flex­i­ble and agile in light of the evolv­ing oper­a­tional envi­ron­ment.

Look­ing to the future, Allen said a “strat­e­gy-based dis­cus­sion” will help guide the U.S. pos­ture in Afghanistan and draw­down plans through the end of 2014. That dis­cus­sion, he said, must rec­og­nize the evolv­ing oper­a­tional envi­ron­ment, part of it to be char­ac­ter­ized by an evolv­ing insur­gency.

Allen not­ed that the insur­gency had “a bad year” in both 2010 and 2011, and that insur­gency-ini­ti­at­ed vio­lence has been down for 25 of the last 33 weeks. In addi­tion, sig­nif­i­cant attri­tion has plagued the enemy’s lead­er­ship ranks.

Mean­while, Afghan forces con­tin­ue to grow in both num­bers and capa­bil­i­ty and are on track to reach the goal of 352,000 mem­bers next year. Most com­bat units have been field­ed, and more com­bat sup­port and com­bat ser­vice sup­port units will become oper­a­tional in 2013, he said.

This sets the stage for tran­si­tion to con­tin­ue, with the Afghans to assume the secu­ri­ty lead across the coun­try by the end of 2014, he added.

Allen said there is “zero day­light” between his and Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s strat­e­gy and draw­down plan in the Afghanistan cam­paign. Rec­og­niz­ing that the plan will involve a series of draw­downs, with the sec­ond phase to take place next year, Allen said he wants to focus on strat­e­gy as he looks ahead.

“For us, the num­ber is much less impor­tant than is the dis­cus­sion of the strat­e­gy,” he said. “It’s not about a par­tic­u­lar num­ber. It’s not about a U.S. num­ber. It’s about a much big­ger issue,” which is the com­bi­na­tion of NATO and Afghan forces.

“All those in com­bi­na­tion are part of the dis­cus­sion about the evolv­ing oper­a­tional strat­e­gy,” Allen added.

As progress con­tin­ues, he con­ced­ed that one fly in the oint­ment has been the “chilled” rela­tions with Pak­istan since the U.S. raid in May that cap­tured Osama bin Laden, and most recent­ly after a Nov. 26 bor­der inci­dent that left 24 Pak­istani sol­diers dead.

Allen said he’s com­mit­ted to a full and com­plete inves­ti­ga­tion and expects the one under way to wrap up “in the rel­a­tive­ly near future.” That, he said, will help set the stage for mov­ing for­ward.

“We want to work at get­ting the bor­der coor­di­na­tion back to a lev­el where we have a pre­dictable series of process­es that can gov­ern our actions on both sides of the bor­der,” he said.

For now, the Unit­ed States finds itself hav­ing to regain progress made in strength­en­ing rela­tion­ships with the Pak­ista­nis, par­tic­u­lar­ly regard­ing bor­der issues. “We’re work­ing it hard to restore rela­tion­ships,” he said.

Allen said he was heart­ened to learn recent­ly that many of the Pak­istani liai­son offi­cers Pak­istani Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ash­faq Parvez Kayani had recalled from head­quar­ters offices and bor­der coor­di­na­tion areas may soon return.

While trou­bling, Allen said the chal­lenges between the Unit­ed States and Pak­istan have had no real oper­a­tional effect.

The Pak­ista­nis con­tin­ue to block ground sup­ply lines into Afghanistan, but Allen said the north­ern dis­tri­b­u­tion net­work and air cor­ri­dor are keep­ing U.S. and Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Forces sup­plied.

“So at this point, we are fine and we are get­ting every­thing we need,” he said.

Mean­while, Allen said he’s sent out clear instruc­tions to his com­man­ders oper­at­ing along the Afghanistan side of the bor­der. “We should pro­ceed just as though there has been no chill in the rela­tion­ship,” he said. “The intent is to restore as much nor­mal­cy as we can to the bor­der coor­di­na­tion as ear­ly as we can.”

Estab­lish­ing that the Unit­ed States, ISAF, Pak­istan and Afghanistan can work close­ly togeth­er is crit­i­cal “because the bor­der is always going to be there,” Allen said. “So hav­ing a strong and reli­able bor­der coor­di­na­tion regime is impor­tant, and I think we remain com­mit­ted to doing that.”

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

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