By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
June 13, 2008 - Though statistics indicate the insurgency in Afghanistan is not expanding, multiple challenges remain there, the U.S. officer who just finished his tour as commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan said here today. "I do not share the view that many do that this thing is spreading; it's not," Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill told reporters at a Pentagon news conference.
"The empirical data doesn't support that," McNeill emphasized.
McNeill, who recently wrapped up a 16-month duty tour in Afghanistan as commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force, shared his experiences and thoughts about his prior command. He is preparing to retire from the Army after a 40-year career. Army Gen. David D. McKiernan assumed command of NATO's ISAF from McNeill.
The current situation in Afghanistan "sort of goes against those who say the insurgency is spreading," McNeill observed. "I'm not sure that it is; I think it is staying roughly in the same places."
Statistics compiled over the past two years, McNeill said, show that most insurgent attacks continue to occur in just 10 percent of Afghanistan's territory, confined mostly in the southeastern provinces.
Intelligence estimates, McNeill noted, indicate there are between 5,000 and 20,000 insurgents in Afghanistan.
About 48,000 international troops are serving with ISAF in Afghanistan, including about 18,000 U.S. troops. The more than 3,000 U.S. Marines dispatched to Afghanistan earlier this year already are making an impact, McNeill said, especially 2,000 of those Marines working with British forces to put the squeeze on Taliban militants in a previously unpatrolled section of Helmand province.
"We knew it was a dark hole and we had to get to it; we simply didn't have the force" until the Marines arrived to exert pressure on the insurgents, McNeill recalled.
A much-ballyhooed Taliban spring offensive didn't materialize this year, McNeill noted, citing stepped-up efforts of U.S. and NATO forces, as well as the contributions provided by increasingly capable Afghan soldiers and police. There are now about 60,000 Afghan soldiers, the general noted, up from about 20,000 soldiers available last year.
Security has improved in Afghanistan, McNeill said, as provincial reconstruction teams' efforts continue across the country. Myriad roads, schools and hospitals have been built across the country, he said, and Afghanistan's infant mortality rate has fallen.
Yet, whatever occurs in Afghanistan is really a regional issue, McNeill emphasized. Afghanistan's neighbors, some of which may cast a fearful eye at its fledgling democratic government, can be of immense help, he said.
"Anybody who wants to have a view of Afghanistan, and who does so only in the context of Afghanistan, in my belief, will opine incorrectly about Afghanistan about 99 percent of the time," McNeill said. "If you cannot see it as a regional issue, you will not see it clearly."
Pakistan's federally administered tribal area in the country's remote northwest region offers a sanctuary and training area for terrorists, according to senior U.S. officials. Regions like the tribal areas and other places adjacent to Afghanistan, McNeill said, present a "great risk" of collusion between Taliban militants and transnational terrorists such as al-Qaida. Terrorists, he said, are known to enter Afghanistan from Pakistan from points along the two countries' long, porous border.
The illegal cultivation of poppy plants, McNeill said, is another serious issue that threatens Afghanistan as well as the region. The powerful illegal narcotic heroin is derived from poppy plants, and insurgents in Afghanistan are heavily involved in the poppy-producing business to fund their activities.
"It is something that the Afghans have to take on," McNeill said. "I don't think the international community can do this for them. We can support them, and we can back them up, but if they want [southern Afghanistan] a little calmer, they're going to have to take on this business of narcotics."