By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 22, 2010 - The coalition's operations in Helmand province are the first stage of a broader offensive to change the course of the fight in Afghanistan, Defense Department leaders told the Senate Armed Services Committee today. Operation Moshtarak, as the offensive launched Feb. 13 is known, is "going well so far," Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of defense for policy, said in a briefing to the committee. "This really is the first large-scale effort to change how we're doing business."
Flournoy and Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John M. Paxton Jr., director of operations for the Joint Staff, said Moshtarak is a joint operation with Afghan security forces to secure and hold control of the Helmand River Valley, to stamp out the Taliban insurgency and to allow the legitimate government, on the national and local level, to take hold.
Asked by senators why the campaign began in Helmand instead of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, Paxton replied that Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, concluded in his assessment in September that Helmand was at the heart of the coalition's four-point mission to protect the Afghan people, enable Afghan security forces, neutralize the insurgency and allow for governance.
"General McChrystal's plan was for Kandahar to be a place we would go, but central Helmand is where the insurgency had the most-safe haven," Paxton said. "I think you'll see Kandahar will closely follow, but central Helmand had to come first."
In Helmand, Flournoy said, "are the seeds for transforming a very tough environment for developing Afghanistan more broadly." The Afghan government, she said, has made improvements in increasing pay and benefits to its forces, and it is improving much-needed infrastructure.
Flournoy noted that even the Soviets during their 10-year occupation avoided the southern region known as "the heart of darkness." Taliban in the area have proven to be "cunning, tenacious and adaptable," she said.
Still, Flournoy added, she is cautiously optimistic. "There will be challenges," she said, "but we will continue to adjust and make progress."
The coalition's major challenges include the recruitment, training and retention of Afghan troops, she said.
"Inevitably, we will face some setbacks even as we make progress," the undersecretary said. "And, we need to be prepared for the possibility that things will get harder before better."
The Helmand operation is the first fully joint offensive campaign with the Afghans, who are integrated at all levels and include civilian government workers as well as security forces, Paxton said. It includes a thousand Afghan national police, and another thousand are in training to join the effort, he said, adding that Afghans have more forces on the ground in the offensive than the coalition.
And the Afghan forces are willing to engage the enemy, Paxton said. "All indications are that they are every bit as engaged as U.S. and coalition forces," he said, although he acknowledged they are not as well trained. Still, he added, it's important to keep the Afghan national security forces forward in the fight "to convince local people that this is not just the coalition."
Citing "extensive interaction" with local tribal leaders in Helmand, Paxton said more than 60 percent of uncovered roadside bombs have been found due to reports from residents.
"The population is broadly on our side," he said, "and it will continue to be so long as we prove we can provide them long-term security."
Paxton said "isolated incidents of regrettable human casualties" have taken place, but he added that the Taliban sometimes use civilians as shields.
"In spite of recent successes, we know this is going to be a hard fight," Paxton said. "But we're committed to the process and the work that lies ahead."