By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
April 7, 2008 - Afghanistan's government and national security forces have improved consistently over the past year, the outgoing commander of Regional Command East, part of NATO's International Security Assistance Force, said today. In the 13 months since Army Maj. Gen. David M. Rodriguez assumed command, Afghanistan's national and local governments have flourished, institutions have gained strength, and the capacity of the country's security forces continues to grow.
"There's been tremendous progress since the fall of the Taliban, and additional major improvements in all areas in the past year," Rodriguez told Pentagon reporters via videoconference from Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan.
"And with the Afghan coalition, ISAF and international partners, I think we'll continue to make steady progress," said the general, who also commands the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division. Rodriguez will step down April 10, when the 101st Airborne Division takes charge of Regional Command East.
Since he arrived in February 2007, Rodriguez said, the Afghan government has "consistently improved their capacity." Meanwhile, government at the provincial and local levels also has blossomed, he said.
"In recognition of a need to improve local governance, the independent director of local governance was established," Rodriguez said. "Since they were established just a few short months ago, they've improved the leadership quality and effectiveness of both the provincial and district governments."
As a result, 14 provinces have established provincial development plans to more closely assess the needs of the Afghans in their districts, aided by the construction of 48 district centers.
"For the first time in Afghanistan's history, governors are giving state-of-the-province addresses that present government accomplishments in an open, transparent forum to their constituents," Rodriguez added.
Afghanistan's national education system represents another breakthrough. While under Taliban control, the country had 1,000 schools. Today, Rodriguez said, there are about 9,000, and that number is growing daily.
Girls were barred from attending Taliban-regulated schools; now, some 70 percent of girls in Regional Command East have access to state-run education. The number of teachers over the same time has grown from 20,000 to about 160,000. Rodriguez also stressed improvements in health care and agriculture.
The general said progress by the country's security forces has occurred "hand-in-hand" with government gains. Since early last year, the Afghan army has grown from 25,000 to 37,000 soldiers, with many Afghan troops now taking the lead on combined operations. The army also has established three elite battalion-sized units called commando kandaks.
"The momentum of the Afghan National Army is setting the pace and encouraging the Afghan national police to follow behind," Rodriguez said. "The national police are beginning to accelerate their capacity building."
In pockets across Afghanistan, the country's police are beginning to earn people's trust, the general said, adding that he envisions that momentum growing over the next year.
"Everything we're doing to support our Afghan, ISAF and coalition partners is to support building a stable, economically sustainable Afghanistan, with a representative government that leads its people and secures its territory," he said. "You will continue to see steady progress towards a stable nation."