By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 6, 2010 - U.S. military and civilian leaders in Afghanistan say they are more optimistic than ever about success there, due not only to military and government advances, but also to the changing will of the Afghan people.
"The greatest hope in me resides in the individual Afghans and tribes I've worked with," Army Brig. Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., director of the Joint Staff's Pakistan-Afghanistan coordination cell, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today. "A sufficient number of them want this to succeed, and therefore it is possible. You see a universal desire from them to improve their conditions, to put these 30 years behind them, and they know this is their last best chance."
Nicholson testified alongside David Samuel Sedney, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia; and Frank Ruggiero, the State Department's senior civilian representative to the military's Regional Command South, on lessons learned from the command's ongoing offensive in Marja, Afghanistan.
Nicholson, a former commander of troops in southern Afghanistan who has worked in the country off and on for four years, acknowledged that government corruption remains one of Afghanistan's biggest challenges. Yet, Nicholson said he sees hope in Afghan leaders such as Helmand Gov. Gulab Mangal, whose support he and other leaders say is critical to coalition success.
"Governor Mangal is one of the better governors in Afghanistan, if not the best," said Nicholson, who added that he also worked with Mangal in 2006 and 2007 when he was governor of Paktika province. "To me, he represents the caliber of some of the Afghan leaders who truly want this effort to succeed. It's through people like them that have made me think this is attainable."
Ruggiero echoed those sentiments about Ghulam Haider Hamidi, the mayor of Kandahar, where the coalition increasingly is focusing its counterinsurgency efforts. The Taliban "has unleashed an assassination campaign" in Afghanistan's second-largest city, he said, where motorcycle teams conduct drive-by shootings of Afghan government officials who support the coalition.
"They really are going after what they see to be the key to our strategy, which is to build the government up," he said.
Two weeks after his deputy was killed, Hamidi put himself at great risk to travel to Arghandab to remove an ineffective sub-governor and call a meeting to discuss why the Taliban had been allowed to re-enter the city, Ruggiero said. "The bravery and commitment of some Afghans is impressive," he said.
And, Afghan officials' increasing bravery and action against the insurgency is being mirrored by more and more of the country's population, U.S. officials said.
Nicholson said he sees Afghanistan's future in its young people who increasingly use technology such as cell phones and speak out for more education. He noted the reaction of Afghan teenage girls who, following a 2008 Taliban attack that threw acid in the faces of girls going to school, appeared unveiled on Afghan television, pointing their fingers at the camera and telling the Taliban, 'You will not deny me my education.'
For the long-term success of Afghanistan, Nicholson said, corrupt practices don't concern him as much as the government's ability to connect to its citizens. There are examples of improvements there, too, he said, noting actions by the mayors in Helmand and Kandahar, and those of a majority tribe in Nangahar that publically denounced the Taliban.
Sedney, who has worked in Afghanistan since 2002, said he never has been more optimistic about its future.
"During these eight years, I have shared your doubts," he told a senator who had expressed pessimism. "But, today I am more optimistic than I've ever been about the future of Afghanistan. While there are many areas of failure, there are many and growing areas of success."
In 2002, Sedney said, no girls and very few boys were in school. That has changed dramatically, he said.
"Today, I talk to 13- and 14-year-olds who have been to school," he said. "Their hope for themselves is not to be Taliban extremists. They want to be engineers, and doctors and lawyers. There are millions of them out there, and they are Afghanistan's future."