By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Aug. 6, 2010 - Progress in Kandahar is going to be the big political test for the NATO mission in Afghanistan, the NATO senior civilian representative to Afghanistan said recently.
Ambassador Mark Sedwill said the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force must show progress by the alliance's November summit in Lisbon, Portugal. Progress in Kandahar is a must.
"We're not seeking to have transformational progress on the ground – that's not going to happen – but we are seeking to have decisive progress," Sedwill said in the Afghan capital of Kabul last week.
In other words, he said, NATO needs to have the momentum in Kandahar to be moving in the right direction. The former British ambassador to Afghanistan said that officials realize that progress will include setbacks, and that there will be ups and downs as the insurgents push back as ISAF and Afghan forces make progress. But the net effect, he said, will be that the people of the area will become confident in the outcome, and their own behavior will start to change.
"We're seeing that in parts of Helmand [province] where we have been for more than a year," Sedwill said. "We're seeing this in Regional Command East, where the U.S. forces have been doing this with the right level of resources for two or three years." He said the change is beginning in Marja, but it is too early to see the changes yet in Kandahar.
Sedwill said the new ISAF commander, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus hasn't made major changes to the Kandahar plan. "It's a deliberate effort there, and it always has been," the ambassador said. "He will look at the details of course, to see if the tactics and the resources are right, but the broad plan ... is basically the same one that [British Maj. Gen.] Nick Carter (proposed." Carter commands ISAF forces in southern Afghanistan.
Petraeus' style is very different from that of the former commander, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, Sedwill said, but the whole NATO effort in Afghanistan breathed a sigh of relief when President Barack Obama chose Petraeus for the job. Petraeus already has a strong relationship with Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the Pakistani army's chief of staff. He knows President Hamid Karzai and is building a better relationship with the Afghan leader.
"He is a very strategic thinker," the ambassador said. "Those of us dealing in the political space know that we have to be at the top of our game, because he is very comfortable dealing there as well."
This year is the decisive year in Afghanistan, Sedwill said. NATO must demonstrate the comprehensive plan the alliance has built upon the Obama strategy will work.
In 2009, the Taliban and its allies took the momentum. NATO leaders had to admit that "security had got worse year after year, governance had flat-lined and the only bright spot was the economy and social progress, because we're good at that," he said. By the end of the year, he added, he hopes to demonstrate that the deterioration is arrested and the security situation is beginning to improve.
"It was a fairly precipitous decline, so just arresting the decline and beginning to turn it around will be fairly decisive," he said.
The alliance and the Afghan government need to work on improving the delivery of services to the population and they must do something to address government corruption, he said.
Politics is about momentum and perceptions, Sedwill said. "Look at Iraq. We're nowhere near as bad as we were in Iraq in terms of violence, and yet because the momentum was headed the wrong way, people have started to lose confidence," he said. "If we turn the momentum around, people will start to regain it."
Perception will always lag reality, the ambassador said, but if the alliance leaders in Afghanistan can demonstrate to the NATO leaders in Lisbon that there is measurable progress, that will create a "psychological state among heads of state and foreign ministers" that will translate in turn to popular support, Sedwill said. That backing is crucial to continuing the mission to the ambitious 2014 deadline Karzai has for Afghan forces taking over the security mission in the country.
If leaders can show "a decent end state is in sight, if not within reach; there is less a chance for countries diving for the emergency exits," he said.