By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 31, 2010 - Just returned from an international conference on Afghanistan, NATO's top military commander expressed confidence that the critical pieces are being put into place to make 2010 a turning point for Afghanistan's future.
Navy Adm. James G. Stavridis, who participated in the Jan. 28 International Conference on Afghanistan in London as part of the NATO delegation, said he's seeing the international community coming together in an unprecedented way to ensure the new strategy succeeds.
"For the first time, there is universal international focus on taking Afghanistan to the next step," he said, noting representation by 60 nations and 19 other international organizations at the conference and additional commitments of troops, trainers and political, economic and development aid.
These components are critical to the comprehensive approach needed for Afghanistan's long-term success, he said during a joint Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service interview to be aired tomorrow.
"It is necessary to do that, because in Afghanistan today, none of these problems are going to be solved by the barrel of a gun," Stavridis said. "We have got to bring together international, interagency, private-public efforts ... collectively synchronized in order to overcome this insurgency."
That's vital, he said, because the world recognizes the consequences of Afghanistan falling back into Taliban hands and once again becoming a base for al-Qaida to plan and launch its attacks.
"So there is a real political will that is coming together," Stavridis said, applauding recent initiatives reinforced at the London conference.
For example, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appointed veteran diplomat Staffan de Mistura last week as the new high representative for Afghanistan and head of the United Nations assistance mission there.
Also last week, the British ambassador to Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, was appointed NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, to work as Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's counterpart and focus on the nonmilitary aspects of the Afghanistan strategy.
"Getting that civilian and military balance right, I think, is absolutely crucial," Stavridis said.
Although the London Conference wasn't planned to raise donations or troop commitments, Stavridis said, he's pleased by the contributions made or pledged there to support economic, governance and security requirements.
Particularly gratifying, he said, is seeing NATO and other International Security Assistance Force nations step up to provide 9,000 more troops – a number that he predicted could rise to 10,000 after the alliance's February conference.
This additional commitment will help to fill shortfalls in the NATO Training Mission Afghanistan, an organization activated in November under Army Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, to focus on growing the Afghan national security forces and build their capabilities.
Caldwell still needs between 1,300 and 2,000 trainers for the new mission, Stavridis said, noting that he feels "very confident" NATO will pledge against this shortfall at its conference.
Meanwhile, Stavridis said, he's optimistic about progress already being made in building the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police so they ultimately can take the security lead, and ultimately, full security responsibility, for Afghanistan.
They now number almost 200,000, he said, two-thirds of the goal of 287,000 by July 2011, when President Barack Obama expects to begin reducing the U.S. force commitment in Afghanistan, subject to conditions on the ground.
Beyond numbers, Stavridis said, he's impressed to see big advances in the Afghan security forces' capabilities. He noted a Jan. 4 mission in which Afghan Mi-17 helicopter pilots flew about 100 Afghan commandos on a complex special forces raid that the Afghans had planned and conducted, with minimal involvement by ISAF mentors. "This shows the kind of progress [they are making] in [being able to conduct] complex military operations," Stavridis said.
Similarly, Afghan security forces demonstrated how far they have advanced earlier this month as they responded to a series of coordinated attacks on Kabul, including some of its government buildings. The Afghan National Police ran the mission, backed up by the Afghan National Army, with the Afghan Interior Ministry providing command and control, Stavridis said.
"This complex attack in the capital was repelled entirely by Afghan security forces," he said. "That is a signal change. A year ago, it would have been coalition forces that responded to that attack. Even six months ago, you would have seen a significant coalition presence in responding. ... That is a big shift. So I think there is real progress."
Stavridis recognized the sacrifices Afghan forces continue to make in the fight against insurgent forces, taking about 75 percent of the casualties. "They are in the fight. They stand shoulder to shoulder with us," he said.
The Afghan forces will get an increasing opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities in the coming months, he said, as McChrystal increasingly focuses operations on the heart of the insurgency, in southern Afghanistan.
"You are going to see some significant operations there in the next few months as we continue with our strategy to build and hold," Stavridis said.
Meanwhile, he said the United States, ISAF and the Afghan government will continue to assess progress of the comprehensive strategy through a variety of indicators: from security, economic, political and quality-of-life improvements to polling data from the Afghan people themselves.
"[This] will show us whether the strategy on which we are embarked is going to be successful," Stravridis said.
Meanwhile, he shared his own personal sense about the year ahead. "2010 is the year. This is the time," he said. "And I am confident that we will have success in Afghanistan."
The Pentagon Channel will air the full interview tomorrow.