By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
March 28, 2010 - Kandahar is the center of gravity for operations in Afghanistan for at least the rest of this year, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said today. "I think Kandahar is as critical in this timeframe in Afghanistan as Baghdad was in Iraq during the surge," Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said to reporters traveling with him to Afghanistan.
Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the NATO and U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has announced that Kandahar is the next target for Afghan and coalition forces. The general wants to build on the lessons learned in the Marja campaign in Helmand province for operations in and around Afghanistan's second-largest city.
Kandahar was the spiritual home of Mullah Omar and the Taliban and remains important to the Taliban. McChrystal said earlier this month that shaping operations in and around the city have begun. Some of these operations will be political, he said, and others are security-related, but coalition and Afghan forces will move forward with the full support of the Afghan government.
The two areas of highest risk are governance and the police, the chairman said, noting that effective governance has to be at all levels: local, provincial and federal. "It is governance at the village level that I am ... concerned about," Mullen said, "because that's the level of government that will deliver goods and services to people who are desperate."
Training the police has been a problem, the chairman acknowledged, but he said he feels confident that the right processes and systems are in place now.
Corruption is a problem in Kandahar, and an anti-corruption task force has been operating in the region. "It's still early, but I'm anxious to hear their conclusions," the chairman said.
Dealing with corruption and putting in place honest governance are the keys to Kandahar, the admiral told reporters. "We will be unable to succeed in Kandahar if we cannot eliminate a vast majority of corruption there and set up a legitimate governance structure," he said. "We can succeed militarily, but it's not going to work" if local government cannot serve the people fairly.
Since Kandahar is the center of gravity, success or failure there will have ramifications far beyond its borders.
Mullen visits Afghanistan at least once a quarter to assess what's happening on the ground and see if it matches up with what he is told in the Pentagon.
In Regional Command South, the admiral said, he wants not only to see the combat side of operations, but also to meet with the civilian leadership to assess how the governance portion of the "clear, hold, build" strategy is working.
"This starts at the local level and goes right up to Kabul," Mullen said.
The chairman said agrees with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates that any negotiation with Taliban leaders would be premature. He said allies tell him the coalition should negotiate only from a position of strength, "and in my judgment, we're not there yet."
"There has to be a political strategy [toward reconciliation] in Afghanistan," he added. "We're really sorting our way to this."
The chairman also said he was pleased with the strategic dialogue meetings between the United States and Pakistan last week in Washington. The meetings reflected a whole-of-government approach, with ministers from all agencies and disciplines discussing mutual interests and concerns.
Pakistani officials told Mullen that they noticed "a sea change" in the attitude of Congress toward them, he said.
Mullen said he takes a long view of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. He has visited with Gen. Asfaq Kayani of the Pakistani army 19 times since being named chairman, he said, because he and other U.S. leaders must mend ties with Pakistan. The United States broke off military-to-military relations with the country in 1992. It wasn't until 2002 that normal relations resumed. Re-developing trust will take time, the chairman said.
Meetings like the strategic dialogue "are all part of the education process, the understanding process, the seeing it from both sides process that a couple two years ago wasn't there," Mullen said.