By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
June 20, 2007 – Afghanistan's citizens are rejecting the dark vision offered by Taliban and al Qaeda extremists and are embracing their central government, senior U.S. and Afghan military officers said today. "The people of Afghanistan are now getting the opportunity to decide what they want," said Army Col. Martin P. Schweitzer, commander of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team, which is partnering with Afghan forces in the country's southeastern region.
The Taliban, the radical Islamic group that was forced from power in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom in late 2001 and early 2002, has since conducted a guerrilla war against the democratic Afghan government and its coalition partners.
Yet today, the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies are finding it increasingly difficult to coerce Afghans to support them, Schweitzer said, noting the two terror groups routinely employ threats against the Afghan population to advance their agenda.
The Afghans "are tired of the oppression, are tired of having their kids not being allowed to go to school, tired of their kids not being able to get medical treatment and tired of a way of life that is only threats," Schweitzer said from Afghanistan during a teleconference with Pentagon reporters.
Winning over the Afghan people is the key to victory over the terrorists, Schweitzer pointed out. And a vital component of that strategy is putting an Afghan "face" on counterinsurgency operations, the colonel said.
"We're trying to get the people of Afghanistan in the small villages and communities to no longer fall under the oppression of the Taliban and start working (with) and looking to their government for a better way of life," Schweitzer explained. "Initially, we were doing this with a heavy coalition presence."
However, in the past two years, Afghan troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Abdul Khaliq have increasingly taken the lead in anti-insurgent operations in southeastern Afghanistan and interfaced with Afghans living in remote areas, who'd previously been prime recruiting targets for the extremists. Khaliq is the commander of the 203rd Afghan Army Corps.
"Now, you're seeing the Afghan National Army down in those communities," Schweitzer said, noting its influence among the villagers has had a devastating effect on the Taliban's recruiting efforts.
A year ago, about 19 of the 83 districts within Schweitzer's area of operations supported the Afghan central government, the colonel said. Today, 60 of those districts support the Afghan government, he said.
Those districts that support the government and reject the extremists no longer accept recruitment of their children into the Taliban, Schweitzer pointed out.
"There's no better barometer than that, which indicates that these communities in these villages are looking toward their government now, versus the Taliban," the colonel said.
Schweitzer saluted Khaliq's leadership, noting the presence of Afghan soldiers has greatly assisted in diminishing the Taliban's influence among the local population.
"It is impressive that when we go into these villages they ask for the Afghan National Army and they're not asking for the coalition," the colonel said. "We think the right strategy is to have the Afghans develop the plan, apply the solution (toward) a better way of life for their communities."
And the terrorists' indiscriminate bombings that kill innocent people haven't garnered any friends among the Afghan population, Schweitzer pointed out.
"The Afghan people do not appreciate that particular (terrorist) approach," the colonel said. "They don't like it, they don't want to be a part of it, and they want more Afghan National Army forces on the ground securing their communities."
Schweitzer likened occasional reports of extremists taking over remote village centers as "grab and run" operations that quickly end when Afghan or coalition forces arrive to re-establish order.
Khaliq, who accompanied Schweitzer at the news conference, noted there are enough Afghan troops to secure his area, although he acknowledged the coalition is now providing much appreciated air strike and logistical support.
The Taliban continue to hang on, Khaliq said, because "they're not alone." The Taliban extremists, he explained, are connected to the al Qaeda terror network, and they're receiving money and other kinds of support from outside of Afghanistan.
Yet, the Afghan people don't want the Taliban's "dark policy," the general asserted.
"The people are hating (the Taliban)," Khaliq said, adding he's confident that the Taliban and al Qaeda will eventually be defeated as Afghan security forces grow in size and capability.
Although things are looking up in Afghanistan, more work still needs to be done, Schweitzer said.
"Is it going to take time? Absolutely, it's going to take time," Schweitzer said. "We're changing 10 to 15 years of oppression and 30 years of war in the minds of the villagers and communities."