KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, Dec. 16, 2010 — Navy Adm. Mike Mullen got the clear and unvarnished truth about conditions in some of the toughest areas in Afghanistan when he stopped at forward operating bases in Helmand and Kandahar provinces today.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff met with soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors at Camp Hansen near Marja in Helmand, and visited other troops posted in western Kandahar at Forward Operating Base Wilson.
U.S. personnel at both bases –- and at combat outposts around them –- are on the front line of the fight against the Taliban. At the same time, they’re also on the front line of training and instructing Afghan soldiers and Afghan police to take on security responsibilities for their own country.
Mullen said he was not surprised by anything he learned at the two bases, as he has followed the fight in both places closely.
“What I get from sitting down with the individuals is the kind of substance and language and the things they are focused on,” the chairman said during an interview with reporters traveling with him. “It is helpful to me, given I am back in Washington most of the time.”
In Marja, the signs are encouraging. The city had been a hotbed of Taliban activity — a safe haven with a Taliban government and the people of the area living in fear. That was before the Marines arrived. After a tough fight, the Marines drove the Taliban from Marja.
The problem then became one of holding the hard-won gains, expanding the security perimeter and getting services into the city so the citizens would feel the legitimate government helps them.
“I was encouraged by the discussions there by the movements in the governance area -– the sort of subdistrict governance,” Mullen said. “That has started to move in the right direction.”
Still, the chairman said, he doesn’t want to overstate the progress. He said the governance piece of the equation was nascent and fragile, but a positive indicator nonetheless. Security in the region has expanded outward to the city of Nawa, and Afghan army and police personnel are doing their part, alongside the Marines, to ensure the Taliban do not come back.
“We still have challenges in Helmand, there’s no question about that, but I think progress overall there has been significant,” Mullen said.
“With respect to the Army in the Arghandab, Panjwai and Zhari [districts], it’s been a tough fight,” he said, noting that for the first time, American forces pushed Taliban militants out of an area they consider their homeland.
“One of the questions that came out in the discussion is really what happens in the spring and through next summer,” the chairman said. “The brigade commander [Army Col. Arthur Kandarian] said it well: ‘focusing on offense while building defense.’ ”
The American forces live, work and fight alongside Afghan security forces, and together they are securing the main road out of Kandahar to the west. They also are focused on protecting the people of the province.
“In both places, I was impressed by the discussions about partnering with the Afghans,” the chairman said. “It was much more fluid with respect to partnership, and a validation of what we’ve been saying.”
That doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges to working with the Afghans in both places, Mullen acknowledged, noting that personnel difficulties, equipment shortfalls and a lack of guidance or policies hampers operations. But, he added, progress is taking place.
“To listen to both of [the commanders], I was pleasantly surprised with the progress with the police, that they have moved through some intense training and partnership with the police as well,” Mullen said.
The chairman said he is encouraged by what he has seen and heard during his time in southern Afghanistan.
“What would worry me are reports of no progress, or a complete lack of understanding on what the issues are, or no Afghan governors, district governors or subgovernors that are respected,” he said. “I didn’t hear that.”
The governance portion needs more work, Mullen said. Some issues result from the lack of a legal infrastructure, and in cases where structure exists, governance issues can be tied to poor execution, the chairman said.
“I’m encouraged that we understand more about the problem than we did a year ago,” Mullen said. “That’s as much due to the partnership with them as anything.”
The chairman emphasized to reporters that the Afghanistan-Pakistan review announced today gets at the U.S. long-term commitment to both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whenever he goes to the region, he said, people ask him how long the United States will stay involved this time.
The review makes it very clear that America is staying involved, he said.
“We’re not going to leave them hanging,” he said. “I don’t parse that into how many troops or X number of dollars, but the strategic partnership that is so important.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)