By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
July 17, 2009 - After spending the better part of a week meeting with coalition leaders and troops in Afghanistan, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said he is returning home with a sense that the overall situation there will improve with trust from the Afghan people. The international force's mission throughout Afghanistan is focused on the Afghans and gaining their trust and support, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said today.
Lessons learned from nearly a decade of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have led the admiral and his leaders to understand that once security is established, the local populace will become more optimistic, he said.
"It's not about the number of enemy killed," Mullen said. "It's about the number of civilians protected."
Governance and development of essential services and infrastructure are essential and soon will follow, the admiral said. But first, security has to be established and the populace has to feel safe.
"We have to shape before we execute," he said, describing the military's counterinsurgency model of "shape, clear, hold and build," which begins with "shaping" the battlefield to root out insurgents. In this context, Mullen is referring to gaining Afghan support.
"Our troops right now, even down the junior levels, know what they need to do in a counterinsurgency," he said. "I continue to be impressed with what we've learned. It's about the Afghan population."
Mullen said some of these lessons were learned the hard and long way from counterinsurgency operations in Iraq. Lessons that apply are the "totality of a counterinsurgency, being properly resourced and protecting the people," he explained.
"We didn't learn these lessons quick enough," he admitted. "We killed too many civilians -- one is too many."
Recent months in Afghanistan have recorded staggering numbers of innocent bystanders being killed in fighting here. Hundreds of innocent lives have been lost to the collateral damage of U.S. and NATO air bombings. But as of late, those numbers are down while the Taliban continue to grow unfavorable among the populace because of the increasing number of civilian casualties caused by roadside bombs.
Several American, as well as international, military leaders attest that 80 percent of the improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan target Afghans. More than half of those attacks are on innocent civilians, while the minority targets Afghan troops and police, Mullen explained.
Mullen shared a story that was told to him by one of his generals in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province. About a dozen Taliban were harbored in a building and surrounded by U.S. Marines. After a short time of the Marines calling for their surrender, a woman came out of the building with hand injuries, followed by Taliban dressed in women's burkas with young children standing by their sides, he said.
The general continued to tell Mullen that the local villagers began to call the Taliban cowards for pretending to be women and using kids for protection, he said. Furthermore, Mullen explained that if U.S. forces had bombed the building, all of the children and the one woman would've been killed.
"When I talk about taking the time and going through all the steps, that's what I'm hearing more examples of," he said. "If we had bombed that house and killed that woman and those kids, it wouldn't have mattered how many Taliban were there. We've got to protect [Afghans], and that's what we care about."
Mullen said the Afghans also want a government at every level that's going to provide for them. "They want to be provided goods and services, and that's not going on."
However, civilians from the U.S. State Department and nongovernmental organizations, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, are establishing more of a footprint in the country. More civilian experts with knowledge in agriculture, governance and economics are needed, he said, but added that the number of civilians isn't as important as the expertise they offer.
"I think [provincial reconstruction teams] are key," he said. "But I think it's less [about] the number of them than it is [about] their ability to make the Afghan people as successful as possible."
Mullen said he still can't assess a timeline for overall success in Afghanistan, but the bottom line is that civilians need and want security.
"We have enough forces here to 'hold' after we 'clear', so we can build the economy," he said. "We've got to rapidly develop the Afghan security forces, and there's a long-term commitment.
"I know it's possible, and I know the strategy's right, but we've got to turn it around in the next year, year and a half," he continued. "I think that after that, we'll have a much better understanding of how long it's going to take here."