By John D. Banusiewicz
WASHINGTON, Sept. 21, 2006 – Though violence and crime continue to hinder progress, the challenge in Afghanistan isn't military in nature, the commander of coalition forces serving in that country said here today. "The coalition, NATO and Afghan national security forces dominate wherever they encounter the enemy," Army Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry said at a Pentagon news conference. "The critical task at this stage is strengthening the government of Afghanistan, developing the economy, and helping to build Afghan civil society."
The general acknowledged that terrorists, militant extremists, drug traffickers and a determined criminal element have hindered progress.
"Their influence has grown in some areas in the south and southeast, where the presence of the government of Afghanistan has never been strong," he said. "In some areas there are more Taliban extremists than there were at this point last year. And within some areas, they are demonstrating better command and control and they are fighting harder. They remain an enemy, as well, that is not bound by international borders and poses a common threat to all nations within the region."
Still, he said, the enemy in Afghanistan "is not especially strong."
NATO and U.S.-led coalition and Afghan national security forces are moving aggressively to deny the enemy safe havens, to interdict movement routes and to extend the central government's authority, Eikenberry said. The combat phase of the coalition's current operation, Operation Mountain Fury in southeastern Afghanistan, is the precursor to a longer-term goal of strengthening governance, establishing the rule of law and facilitating reconstruction and economic development, he added.
"This emphasis on government and development is the centerpiece of coalition and NATO's overall approach to the Afghan campaign," the general said. "Provincial reconstruction teams are actively engaging district and provincial leaders to facilitate good governance. Medical assistance teams are treating thousands of Afghans who otherwise would not have access to medical care, and we are building hundreds of miles of roads."
Building roads and schools can be at least as decisive as military actions, Eikenberry said, and he called on the international community step up its efforts in these areas.
Eikenberry noted that Afghanistan's national security forces -- built from the ground up after the overthrow of the Taliban government -- are taking on more and more of the work required in bringing stability to their country. More than 76,000 army and police are trained, equipped and engaged in security operations, he said.
"While still lacking sufficient capability," he said, "they are increasingly playing a major role in ensuring the stability of their nation, as evidenced by their successful participation in operations Mountain Lion and Mountain Thrust earlier this year, and in NATO's Operation Medusa just completed, and in the ongoing coalition Operation Mountain Fury.
"It's imperative here too," he continued, "that the international community maintain its support and commitment to these essential but still emerging institutions of the Afghan state."
The coalition transferred authority for its southern regional command in Afghanistan to NATO's International Security Assistance Force on July 31, Eikenberry said, and is working on a similar transfer for its eastern command. "We anticipate turning over Regional Command East to NATO later this year," he said. But he emphasized that the United States will continue to play a significant role.
"A key point to remember in this transition is that the United States maintains its full commitment in Afghanistan," he said. "It will be undiminished. As a NATO member, the United States will remain by far the single-largest contributor of troops and military capability. We will maintain our strong national capability in support of counterterrorism missions to strike al Qaeda and its associated movements wherever and whenever they are found."
U.S. forces, he added, will continue to play a central role in training and equipping Afghan forces and will maintain their contribution to Afghanistan's reconstruction. But he repeated that the international community will need to part of the solution to the challenges facing Afghanistan.
"We continue to make progress against an enemy and against the conditions that allowed terrorism and militant extremism to take root there in the first place," he said. "These challenges require an uncompromising commitment and resources from the international community if we are to succeed at making Afghanistan into a viable, self-sustaining member of the international community, free from international terror."