By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
March 31, 2010 - After visits to U.S., coalition and Afghan forces in Afghanistan's Helmand and Kandahar provinces, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said today that "never has our partnership ... been stronger, or the challenges we face, clearer."
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen completed a rigorous three-day visit to Afghanistan that took him to the region of the recent offensive in Marja in Helmand province. Mullen also attended a "shura" – a meeting of community leaders -- at the governor's palace in downtown Kandahar.
In central Helmand, Mullen saw the results of the offensive. Though combined Afghan and U.S. forces cleared them from many villages, the Taliban remain a presence. Intimidation remains, but the security situation is improving, the chairman said.
Still, he added, the offensive was a good example of how U.S., Afghan and coalition forces can work together to protect the people of Afghanistan, and it certainly has lessons for the upcoming fight for Kandahar.
The city is the very heart of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the chairman said. "Nearly half of President [Barack] Obama's 30,000 troop commitment has made it to theater, with more coming every month," Mullen said. "They are coming to Kandahar – the cornerstone of our surge effort and the key to shifting momentum from the enemy to the Afghan people."
While Mullen said he is encouraged, he added that patience is necessary noting that the operation into Marja was launched only 45 days ago.
The same ideas and elan that went into planning operations in Marja will go into Kandahar operations, the admiral said, but the worlds of the two places are far apart, so the tactical operations won't be the same. Marja is rural, with a population of roughly 70,000 spread over a large area, and the Taliban ruled there for the last two years. Kandahar has a population of more than 2 million and has a plethora of tribes, family groups, local power brokers and drug lords, Mullen explained.
"It's a much bigger challenge," he said, "and I think [it] has a much greater potential to achieve the goal of reversing [Taliban] momentum."
U.S. military and State Department officials talk about using the shura system as a way to work out thorny issues in the country that help to spur people to join the insurgents.
The partnership between U.S. and Afghan forces also has been crucial, Mullen said. "Many of the leaders [at the shura in Marja] told me that the security in many places was much improved – the result of extraordinary partnering and Afghan leadership," he said. "But so too, did they speak of Taliban intimidation, local corruption and a real economic need."
The leaders at the shura spoke of education, roads, health care, help for agriculture, and the need for jobs, Mullen said. He said he was struck by how normal the requests sounded, and that it appeared to him that the people of Marja just want to get on with their lives. Provincial leaders have heard these calls, but the capability to produce is limited.
Mullen said the U.S. military shares the desire for security and stability throughout Afghanistan that the people of Marja and Kandahar want. "We share the view that Afghan security forces, properly trained and equipped, can protect its citizens," he said.
The operation in Marja stands as a testament to that fact. More than 10,000 American troops are in Helmand, serving alongside coalition and Afghan partners.
"We still work hard every day to create security conditions conducive to economic development," the chairman said. "We're undoubtedly making progress, as I saw myself. Many villages are safe again. The streets are filling, and the shops are open.
"I must applaud here the terrific work of the Afghan National Army," he continued. "I heard from more than one American soldier and Marine how far the [Afghan army] has come in a short period of time. They fight bravely, they fight well, and they lead."
Mullen also said he is pleased with the way the Afghan National Civil Order Police operated in Marja. Police training has been under-resourced, and local police often have been put on the streets with no training, he said.
"We know this is a problem, and we are addressing this," he said. The people of the region want the civil order police to stay, he added.
Still, the admiral said, continued progress is not assured.
"We have moved to the 'hold and build' phase in many areas, and we will find ourselves clearing out areas in many others," he said. "The Taliban continue to be pervasive and persistent. It will take more work, and likely more bloodshed, to break it loose.
"Too sanguine an approach is just as treacherous as too little fortitude to see it through," he continued. "We have learned in this long fight that failure makes itself obvious; success takes longer to see."