By Kristen Noel
Special to American Forces Press Service
Aug. 5, 2008 - The Afghan National Army is increasingly able to seek out and defeat enemies autonomously in southern Afghanistan, a U.S. military official there said. "The [Afghan] Army now interacts with the Taliban and other enemies of Afghanistan, and they're doing extremely well against them," Army Col. Thomas McGrath, commander of Afghanistan Regional Security Transition Command South, told online journalists and bloggers in a teleconference Aug. 1.
McGrath, who has led force development in southern Afghanistan for 14 months, cited steady improvement in the Afghan army's capability and professionalism. "Every day," he said, "we're seeing and experiencing more situations whereby the Afghans have taken the lead."
Over the past few weeks, the Afghan National Army's 205th Hero Corps out of Kandahar Airfield has led a large vehicle convoy through enemy territory, conducted its first air-casualty evacuation, and stopped an infiltrating Taliban force. U.S. and coalition forces provided only assistance and combat-force enablers the Afghans don't possess, McGrath said.
"We're looking over their shoulders, so to speak," he said. "They're not completely independent, but we're getting closer every day."
In the Taliban incident, McGrath said, the Afghans killed 30 to 40 insurgents "to include several from foreign nations."
"We went over to them [and] asked them about what was going on," he recalled. "They said they had it under complete control."
The Afghan forces' growing capability reflects on the many brave U.S. men and women assigned to the security mission in Afghanistan's austere southern region, McGrath said.
Together with coalition nations, McGrath's command has conducted programs to recruit, train and equip Afghan Army and police forces over the past year. A significant accomplishment, he pointed out, is that more than 500 soldiers from the Afghan 205th Corps completed noncommissioned officer courses and qualified for promotion in the last six months.
"We all know [NCOs] are the backbone of any army," he said. "As we increase their capabilities, you have to have the right noncommissioned officers leading those squads and platoons."
However, McGrath said, it hasn't been without consequence.
"We've worked very hard in our mission to bring up the capacity and the capability of the Afghan Army and the police," he said, "and we've done it with a lot of American blood." McGrath said the command has lost 23 servicemembers in the last year, and more than 100 have been wounded.
"It's absolutely, absolutely a difficult fight. There's no doubt about it," he said. "Nothing that we do over here is easy, but we do have momentum, and I feel very optimistic about things in the future."
Better equipment also will improve the Afghan National Army's ability to fight insurgents in the future and move them closer to autonomy, McGrath said.
The coalition is preparing plans to provide modern equipment to the Afghan 205th Corps later this year, he said, including 250 up-armored Humvees per brigade and M-16 rifles assigned to each soldier.
"[The equipment] will give the ANA another significant improvement in their tactical capability and their ability to take the fight to the insurgency," he said. It will give the Afghan army "a much greater survivability" against ambushes, roadside bombs and mines, he added.
McGrath said he won't be around to see the new equipment fielded because he is preparing to return home to the United States in about a week. But, he said, he believes the command has laid the groundwork for progress to continue with the Afghan forces.
"Through the efforts of very many brave men and women, tough men and women -- soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines -- we're completing the mission," McGrath said. "And we're setting the stages for the future operations and for the future of the Afghan Army and the police in bringing stability to this country."
(Kristen Noel works for the New Media branch of the Defense Media Agency.)