Commander Outlines Situation in Southwest Afghanistan

WASHINGTON, June 16, 2011 — Key areas in Afghanistan’s Hel­mand and Nim­roz provinces are like­ly can­di­dates for the sec­ond or third rounds of tran­si­tion to Afghan secu­ri­ty, the U.S. com­man­der there said today.
Marine Corps Maj. Gen. John A. Toolan Jr., com­man­der of Region­al Com­mand South­west, briefed Pen­ta­gon reporters by video uplink from his Hel­mand province head­quar­ters at Camp Leath­er­neck.

Helmand’s cap­i­tal of Lashkar Gah is des­ig­nat­ed as one of the first to tran­si­tion in July, and secu­ri­ty efforts in dis­tricts includ­ing Reg‑e Khan Neshin, Garmshir, Nawa and Mar­jah have been a “tremen­dous suc­cess” over the past two years, he said.

“Many of those dis­tricts will be iden­ti­fied for tran­si­tion in lead secu­ri­ty in either the next tranche or the fol­low­ing tranche,” the com­man­der said, not­ing the next rounds of secu­ri­ty tran­si­tion lead will like­ly be in Jan­u­ary or Feb­ru­ary and July of 2012.

Toolan took com­mand in March of a force that includes 30,000 ser­vice mem­bers from the Unit­ed States, Unit­ed King­dom, Esto­nia, Den­mark, the Repub­lic of Geor­gia, Bahrain and Ton­ga. Coali­tion forces in the two provinces are part­nered with the Afghan army’s 215th Corps.

The year’s pop­py and wheat har­vests are com­plete and the fight­ing sea­son is now under way in his area, Toolan said. He added that his objec­tive over the next six months is to “deep­en the hold” coali­tion and Afghan forces have estab­lished in the cen­tral Hel­mand Riv­er Val­ley.

“We need to thick­en our hold in some places, most­ly in the north,” the gen­er­al said.

Troop oper­a­tions over the sum­mer and into the fall will focus on strength­en­ing secu­ri­ty in the upper San­gin and upper Gore­sh Val­leys, Toolan said, as well as in the area around the Kaja­ki Dam, which sup­plies pow­er and irri­ga­tion to dis­tricts far­ther south.

Toolan cit­ed reduc­ing fund­ing for insur­gent activ­i­ty in the south as a major accom­plish­ment in the region.

“We’ve been able to do that by attack­ing the nar­cotics nexus,” he said, “that com­bi­na­tion of Tal­iban insur­gent and nar­cotics pro­duc­er.”

Since April, coali­tion and Afghan forces have seized some 30,000 tons of pop­pies, with an esti­mat­ed mar­ket val­ue of $65 mil­lion, he said.

While some esti­mates put 30,000 tons as only 2 per­cent of the total har­vest, the gen­er­al said, “We can tell just by intel­li­gence gath­er­ing that it’s had a sig­nif­i­cant impact, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the south.”

Toolan said secu­ri­ty tran­si­tion around Lashkar Gah is going well, but he expects insur­gents to attack the area and try to reduce the local population’s con­fi­dence in the gov­ern­ment.

“I think we have a pret­ty good plan in place,” he said. “We won’t let the tran­si­tion in Lashkar Gah fail.”

As secu­ri­ty tran­si­tion efforts move ahead in Hel­mand and Nim­roz, Toolan said, one key issue will be progress among the Afghan police, who will be respon­si­ble for pro­tect­ing the pop­u­la­tion and secur­ing jus­tice.

“There are some things, some per­cep­tions that need to be over­come with the police,” he said. “But we see progress.”

Toolan said the secu­ri­ty trans­fer in Lashkar Gah will involve build­ing more check­points around the city by Jan­u­ary. Those check­points will be manned by Afghan army troops, and grad­u­al­ly tak­en over by police forces. Even­tu­al­ly, he said, the police will phase back from the check­points into local precincts.

“That’s going to take time, and I would sus­pect that the full tran­si­tion … will prob­a­bly take a good year, year-and-a-half,” the gen­er­al said.

The pro­ject­ed total end strength for Afghan army and police forces this year is 352,000, he said, and the army is “mov­ing along incred­i­bly well.”

“The major­i­ty of them … are oper­at­ing at pret­ty good capac­i­ty,” Toolan said. “They’re well trained; they gen­er­al­ly have a sec­ond-grade read­ing lev­el, and they’ve got some good lead­er­ship devel­op­ment going.”

The gen­er­al said over the next year and through 2014, when Afghan forces are set to assume secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty through­out the coun­try, coali­tion com­bat troops need to assume a more advi­so­ry role to ensure their Afghan coun­ter­parts gain the expe­ri­ence they need.

While progress in Afghanistan has often been called frag­ile and reversible, Toolan said, “I think what we real­ly mean is that the local nation­als can eas­i­ly be intim­i­dat­ed by insur­gents mov­ing into their areas.”

The Afghan local police pro­gram recruits young men, approved by and often relat­ed to their trib­al elders, to help pro­tect their own vil­lages from insur­gent intim­i­da­tion, he said. “But if they’re not able to stand up, or if they are co-opt­ed by the insur­gents, then that fragili­ty … occurs,” he said. “It becomes a prob­lem, then, to get back into the vil­lages and try to re-estab­lish a secure envi­ron­ment.”

The most-dif­fi­cult chal­lenge is con­vinc­ing the peo­ple they can stand up to insur­gents, Toolan said.

The Afghan cen­tral gov­ern­ment has a vital respon­si­bil­i­ty to strength­en its effec­tive­ness at the vil­lage, dis­trict and provin­cial lev­els, he said.

Helmand’s gov­er­nor and dis­trict coun­cils are work­ing effec­tive­ly with coali­tion forces, the U.S. com­man­der said.

“The real chal­lenge will come as more and more is turned over to the nation­al gov­ern­ment,” Toolan said. “[Direc­tion] has to be fed through the nation­al gov­ern­ment down through the var­i­ous min­istry pipelines.”

Toolan said civil­ian men­tor­ship from the British-led provin­cial recon­struc­tion team, the State Depart­ment and U.S. Agency for Inter­na­tion­al Devel­op­ment are cru­cial to devel­op­ing Afghan gov­ern­men­tal capac­i­ty.

“The provin­cial recon­struc­tion team, with aug­men­ta­tion from [coali­tion forces], is about 200 peo­ple,” he said. “The region­al plat­form, which is our State Depart­ment-run orga­ni­za­tion, is cur­rent­ly about 35 peo­ple but is going to increase … to about 75 or 80.”

As more civil­ians join the effort, Toolan said, it’s vital to bring in peo­ple with the right skills: those who can men­tor Afghan agri­cul­tur­al experts, engi­neers and financiers. “That’s how I think we’ll make greater progress,” he said. “My hope is that, on the civil­ian surge side, is that we bring in those aggres­sive, hun­gry, tal­ent­ed peo­ple who will dri­ve that men­tor­ing and advis­ing role with the Afghans.”

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

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