By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 16, 2007 - After traveling with Adm. Michael G. Mullen during Mullen's first visit to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Joint Staff's operations director said today that he was struck by "noticeable" security improvements throughout the theater. Army Lt. Gen. Carter F. Ham told Pentagon reporters the troop surge in Iraq that began in the spring is "having the intended effect" of better security.
"That's not to say that there's not still significant work required; there is," Ham said. But he reported that throughout his travels with Mullen earlier this month -- in Anbar province, Mosul, Tikrit, the Multinational Division Center region, and Baghdad – he saw "U.S., coalition and Iraqi forces working together more effectively than we've seen before."
"We saw firsthand the effect that the concerned local citizen groups can have, and we heard almost uniformly from U.S. leaders at all levels about how much better the Iraqi security force leaders are now," Ham said. "In many areas, the best security exists where Iraqi security forces are in the lead."
While noting progress, Ham said it's too soon to declare success against enemies of Iraq. "Al Qaeda in Iraq still poses a danger, particularly against unarmed civilians. Sectarian violence, while significantly lower, is still a real danger. There is a dangerous element of Iranian influence, and border security remains a difficult challenge," he said. "But the bottom line is that security in most areas of Iraq is better."
Ham made similar observations in Afghanistan, where he said he found the Afghan National Army's performance "truly encouraging."
He noted that the Afghan National Army has fielded its first commando battalions. These units, selected from the army rank and file then specially trained and equipped, eventually will provide each Afghan National Army corps a mobile strike capability he said.
The first commando battalion, assigned to the 201st Corps in and around Kabul, has conducted several operations. Ham called initial reports from ground commanders about their performance "quite positive."
The Afghan National Police has some catching up to do, Ham said. These forces "aren't as effective as they need to be, and we're working to find ways to provide more trainers to help," he said.
Ham praised the work of embedded training teams Mullen's group visited during the trip, as well as interagency provincial reconstruction teams that "are making a significant difference each and every day."
But in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, "challenges do remain," he said. "While the (NATO) International Security Assistance Force has dealt significant blows to Taliban leadership over the past months, there are still areas where the Taliban has influence," he said.
Overall, Ham said, his lasting impression from the trip is that U.S., Iraqi and Afghan leaders he met, most operating at the tactical level, "are more confident that they are making progress than I've seen before."
Ham said he felt confident he was echoing Mullen's views that troop morale remains high in both Iraq and Afghanistan, with troops focused on their diverse missions.
However, he said, he found general consensus that 15-month tours are hard on soldiers as well as their families. "And so there is a very concerted effort on the part of all the military leaders to find ways to balance the best we can the operational requirements with finding opportunities to get increased time between deployments," he said.
Whenever he traveled, Ham said, he found leaders to be "ever mindful" of the big sacrifices U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines and their families are making. "There are a lot of heroes out there, some of them we read about, some of them we don't," he said. "And we should all take great pride in what they do for our nation and for the good people of Iraq and Afghanistan each and every day."