By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 4, 2010 - Although he stopped short of saying the worst is over for troops as they prepare to surge into some of the toughest Taliban-held areas, the top NATO and U.S. commander in Afghanistan said here today that conditions no longer are deteriorating. "I am not prepared to say that we have turned the corner. I am saying that the situation is serious. But I think we have made significant progress in setting conditions in 2009, and ... we'll make real progress in 2010," said Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan.
The general spoke in an interview with reporters who accompanied Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to Istanbul for a meeting of the alliance's defense ministers to determine how many more additional resources, if any, they will contribute to the fight in Afghanistan.
Last summer, McChrystal delivered a much harsher description of the situation on the ground to the Defense Department and the White House, saying that conditions were deteriorating, Taliban influence was growing and the confidence of the people of Afghanistan in U.S. efforts there was waning.
President Barack Obama directed a revamped strategy for Afghanistan. As part of that change, Obama ordered 30,000 more U.S. troops to deploy to Afghanistan by this summer.
McChrystal called 2010 an important year, as critically needed troops flow into the country as fast as facilities and bases can be built for them. U.S. forces will number about 100,000 by the time all of them arrive this summer. NATO has offered up an additional 9,000 forces, but that still leaves ISAF about 4,000 short of the mentors and trainers it needs, officials said.
Sixty-four mentoring teams are operating now in all five regions of Afghanistan. Another 80 are expected in the next few months, but 20 more are needed as the Afghan security forces grow this year.
McChrystal's prediction of continued progress in Afghanistan comes as coalition and Afghan forces prepare for one of their largest combined operations to remove insurgents from areas of central Helmand province not already cleared by ISAF troops. It is not typical of military commanders to announce operations in advance, but the general said they are trying to send a message.
"We're trying to signal to the Afghan people that we are expanding security where they live. We are trying also to signal to the insurgents ... that it's about to change," McChrystal said.
The general said he also wants to give those Taliban members and other insurgents who would rather not fight a chance to consider their options.
"If they want to fight, then obviously that will have to be an outcome. But if they don't want to fight, that's fine too," he said. "We're not interested in how many Taliban we kill. We'd much rather have them see the inevitability that things are changing and just accept that."
The general said he considers this operation a "next step" as NATO forces continue to work to develop the size and capacity of the Afghan national security forces.
Over the past few months, McChrystal said, ISAF has made internal command changes and has begun partnering more closely with the Afghan government, from the ministries down to the local level.
He said progress has taken place as the government now works to direct the planning efforts to provide security.
Recruiting is up for the Afghan forces, McChrystal said. More than 11,000 joined in December and January. Attrition still is higher than officials would like, he acknowledged, but it is dropping.
As of December, the Afghan army had just more than 100,000 troops, and officials want to grow its force to more than 171,000 by October 2011. As of December, the Afghan police had just under 100,000 members, and officials want to expand their ranks to 134,000 officers by October 2011.
Along with growing the size of the force, the Afghan government wants to develop the professionalism of the force. An Afghan military academy is ready to graduate a four-year class and the police academy just graduated a class after completing a three-year program, McChrystal said.
Before, only about one quarter of the Afghan National Police had any formal training. Now, the training will become standardized across the country. The Afghans are standing up a command to manage police training.
Literacy is a challenge, McChrystal said, but that doesn't mean the recruits are not trainable.
"Being illiterate doesn't mean you're not smart," he said. "The Taliban's illiterate. It means you haven't had a chance to learn to read."
Literacy issues do, however, make it harder to train the recruits on the more modern equipment, the general acknowledged. However, he said, programs are being built within the force to help with literacy skills.
McChrystal described 2010 as "an exceptionally important year," as he observed the Afghan people are ready for the decades of war to come to an end. The general predicted significant growth of the Afghan national security forces as the summer 2011 deadline looms when U.S. troops are slated to start their withdrawal.
How many and how fast U.S. troops depart Afghanistan, McChrystal said, will depend on how much progress has been made between now and then.
"I'm not prepared to say we are winning. I'm prepared to say we are very much engaged, and I am confident we are going to see serious progress this year," he said.
The progress has come at a price, McChrystal acknowledged.
"We have paid for progress we've made," the general said. "We've paid for it individual by individual."