By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 2, 2008 - Security has improved so much in Afghanistan's Khowst province that Pakistani families are taking refuge there, officials said today. A year ago, the province -- on Afghanistan's border with Pakistan -- was one of the most dangerous in the country. Now, between 300 and 400 Pakistani families fleeing violence in Pakistan following former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's assassination Dec. 27 have taken refuge in Khowst, Gov. Arsala Jamal said today.
Jamal and Army Col. Martin Schweitzer, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team, spoke to Pentagon reporters via video teleconference from Forward Operating Base Salerno.
Jamal stressed that the families moving into his province are not Afghan refugees who lived in Pakistan, but rather are Pakistani citizens. Some 2.5 million Afghans lived in camps in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation and subsequent civil war.
"They are Pakistani nationals, and they're living with Afghans," Jamal said. "We have not created a separate camp for them, because they knew these Afghan families. And they are staying with Afghan families because Afghan families lived with them before."
Jamal and Schweitzer said the counterinsurgency strategy in place in the province has made the difference in security. The coalition stopped focusing on the enemy as the center of gravity and started focusing on the people of Afghanistan, the colonel said.
"Once that architecture was put in place, it wasn't a surprise that the people of Afghanistan started to choose their district and central government as the better way of life than the Taliban," Schweitzer said.
The sanctuaries and safe havens that Taliban and al Qaeda used are no longer able to operate. In Khowst, the level of cross-border attacks has dropped 70 percent, the colonel said. Overall, the number of direct-fire incidents in the province has dropped almost 42 percent.
The security has improved all aspects of life. Only 21 trucks went through the province's Ghazni district in May 2006. Last month, more than 8,000 trucks plied the same routes, Schweitzer said.
The population is seeing the change and is supporting the government, the colonel said, with the Afghan National Army as the main catalyst. The army is the most respected national organization in the country, he said, and is in the lead through all of the six provinces centered around Khowst. Some 5,500 Afghan soldiers are patrolling in the province. Only six years ago, there was only one battalion in the entire Afghan army, he noted.
The counterinsurgency strategy is based on separating the enemy from the people and then "getting government down there to the people, synchronizing the entire (non-governmental organization) and international community and the assets that we have, to be able to provide effects through the Afghan decision cycle on what they need to better their districts, their provinces and their governments," the colonel said. "And the Afghan government is becoming the answer for more Afghan citizens each day."
Jamal said the Afghan security forces, the coalition and civil administration are working together as a team.
"This team believes that the war we have here in Afghanistan and also in Khowst is the war of winning minds and hearts, and it ... cannot be won by military means alone, but it has to be coupled with other efforts, like development and listening to the people," he said. "That's why during 2007 the focus was on people and the people who are ... in the center of our efforts, balancing development, security and reaching to the people."
Jamal said the province is a model for the rest of Afghanistan. "This model can be copied in other areas of Afghanistan, provided adequate and continuous financial resources are available, and this is coupled with military and security operations targeting towards creating Afghan ownership, leadership and also finally building Afghan institutions," he said.
Though the province has had a remarkable transformation in a year, Schweitzer said, everyone understands there is a long way to go. International efforts are important to continued progress, he said, and the province needs help with land and natural resources development.