By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Nov. 19, 2008 - Afghanistan's complex environment colors military operations in the nation, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan told the Atlantic Council of the United States here yesterday. Army Gen. David D. McKiernan said Afghanistan's culture of violence, exacerbated by more than three decades of warfare, combines with the opium poppy trade to produce a toxic brew in the nation.
Afghanistan's heroin trade funds the insurgency, McKiernan said. While the Taliban is the main group in the country, various other extremist groups continue to merge and fall apart and find common ground with drug traffickers, he said.
Afghan men continue to fight for various reasons, the general said. "They are either unemployed, they are fighting for intra-tribal reasons, they are fighting because their families are intimidated, they are fighting for reasons of power [or] a variety of localized reasons ... including ideological reasons associated with the Taliban," McKiernan said.
The country is dry, withered and rugged from the deserts of the south to the Hindu Kush Mountains in the north, but the most complex terrain in the country is the "human terrain," the general said. Each of more than 400 tribal groups comprises various sub-tribes and family groups. Tribes mix and match in the cities, but 70 percent of Afghans live in rural areas, where tribal and family influences are strong. Literacy rates, tribal connections and history all contribute to the human terrain that an outsider has to consider, McKiernan said.
The Afghan army is on the right path toward providing for Afghanistan's security, McKiernan said, but he acknowledged that the coalition has "a long way to go with respect to the Afghan police."
The coalition is focusing its training on local police, trying to turn a cultural tide of perceived ineptitude and corruption. Often in the past, local police served as strong-men who kept people in line for local warlords. The training, known as "focused district development," involves sending a district's entire police force to a regional training center while a highly trained unit of police provides security in the district. When the newly trained local officers return, they work with the substitute force and coalition mentors to help their training take root. The program has been "generally successful," McKiernan said.
"We've had lower numbers of security incidents, lower casualties of all kinds," he said. "It's a program that needs more resources and more assistance from the international community, but it's a proven program that will continue into the future."
McKiernan said he looks at Afghanistan and Pakistan as a "regional problem set," as no solution will work without considering the other country. The Pakistani army, the Afghan army and coalition forces all work together near the border.
"I'm not saying there is perfect symmetry and synchronization on both sides of the border," he said. "But I am cautiously optimistic, because we are doing things together on the ground that we weren't even talking about five or six months ago."
The coalition has to continue equipping and training the Afghan National Army, and it must continue training the Afghan police, McKiernan said. The coalition and Afghans must continue to work with Pakistani security forces, he added.
As far as the Afghan people are concerned, security success means the freedom to move about, McKiernan said.
"They want a government they can trust that will meet their expectations," he said. "They want some progress, some hope, for their families. Not a lot -- not as much as we would want. But they want a sense of progress for the future."