KABUL, Afghanistan, Dec. 14, 2011 — International Security Assistance Force operations continue in Afghanistan along the Pakistan border, but are conducted with special care to avoid escalating current tensions, a senior commander said here today.
Army Lt. Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, commander of the ISAF Joint Command and deputy commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, told reporters during a roundtable discussion that success in Afghanistan requires close communication with Pakistan.
Relations between ISAF and Pakistan have been tense since the cross-border incident Nov. 26 that left 24 Pakistani soldiers dead.
Pakistani authorities have closed ground supply routes through their country and ended American use of the Shamsi airbase.
Scaparrotti declined to discuss the border incident in light of the ongoing investigation but, acknowledging his professional and personal association with Pakistani military leaders, expressed condolences about the lives lost.
“What happened is a tragedy,” he said.
Scaparrotti said ISAF continues to communicate regularly with the Pakistani military as before the incident, but coordination is not as close as it has been in the past.
“We are being a little more careful,” he acknowledged. “But we are still running interdiction. We are still working with the Afghans right on the border posts. We are still running reconnaissance and doing the things … that we need to do. And as I said, we are still pressing the Pak military so that we can continue communication.”
Scaparrotti said he believes “over time, we will [regain] that coordination, that communication that we had in the past.”
The November incident has caused ISAF leaders to consider ways to bolster the coordination and communication along the border, where insurgent provocation can have a deadly effect.
“There are certainly incidents where insurgents along the border have instigated a fight [using] direct fires or indirect fires, and they have done so in proximity to [Pakistani] military border locations,” the general said. “We think it was to draw our attention, or perhaps, in some instances, to draw conflict here between Afghan, coalition or Pakistan forces.”
Such provocations are one reason “we are working very hard, as we have in the past, to develop better communications with the [Pakistani] military on the other side of the border,” the general said. “That has been one of our priorities.”
A working relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan is critical for both nations, he said.
“It is important for the region,” he said. “And it is important for us to move forward. It is important to Afghanistan because they have neighbors that they have to have a cooperative relationship [with] on their borders as well.”
As the transition from ISAF to Afghan security lead gains steam, the general said, the capabilities of Afghanistan’s forces are another crucial focus of ISAF efforts.
Scaparrotti previously commanded the 82nd Airborne Division and deployed as commander of Joint Task Force-82 with responsibility for Regional Command East in 2009. He returned to Afghanistan in July 2011 after a year away, and said he’s impressed by the gains achieved in the interim.
“It is clear that today … we have the initiative in this fight,” he said. “I see it in the terrain we hold and the terrain that the [Afghan national security forces] hold compared to a year ago.”
Afghan security forces also have developed better leaders throughout their command structure, he said.
“We are producing a better leader that goes into their army,” Scaparrotti said, with Afghan corps and brigade commanders now also more experienced than a year ago.
Still, as more operational responsibility passes to Afghan forces, their command-and-control, supply and maintenance, and counter-bomb capabilities must increase, he noted.
Afghan forces are struggling to establish and strengthen their logistics, supply and maintenance abilities, he said, adding that aiding those efforts is an ISAF focus point.
“They [also] have to develop the capacity to deal with [roadside bombs] as we are capable of dealing with them. And that capacity is coming along as well,” he added.
The general noted ISAF forces are close to achieving the 10,000-troop drawdown set for this year, and will reduce by another 23,000 by the end of summer 2012, leaving 68,000 service members where there are now roughly 91,000.
“As we look at the drawdown of forces, we are looking carefully at the environment that develops and then the balance — I call it the posture of the force that we need,” Scaparrotti said.
As its forces dwindle, ISAF must maintain its ability to muster joint fires, allocate intelligence assets, and deploy lift and route-clearance teams, he noted.
“It is those things that as we draw down the number of maneuver forces here down to 68,000 after next September, that we will look at very closely,” he added.
“I am confident at this point, although we are still working the strategy, that we are going to be able to continue to [68,000] as we come down through this fighting season to that objective here in the fall,” Scaparrotti said.
Civilian government and administrative capability likewise remains a key focus, he said.
“The governance within Afghanistan has steadily made progress in terms of their ability to deliver both representation and basic services for the people,” Scaparrotti added.
(Editor’s note: Karen Parrish contributed to this article.)
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)