By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 16, 2011 – Key areas in Afghanistan’s Helmand and Nimroz provinces are likely candidates for the second or third rounds of transition to Afghan security, the U.S. commander there said today.
Marine Corps Maj. Gen. John A. Toolan Jr., commander of Regional Command Southwest, briefed Pentagon reporters by video uplink from his Helmand province headquarters at Camp Leatherneck.
Helmand’s capital of Lashkar Gah is designated as one of the first to transition in July, and security efforts in districts including Reg-e Khan Neshin, Garmshir, Nawa and Marjah have been a “tremendous success” over the past two years, he said.
“Many of those districts will be identified for transition in lead security in either the next tranche or the following tranche,” the commander said, noting the next rounds of security transition lead will likely be in January or February and July of 2012.
Toolan took command in March of a force that includes 30,000 service members from the United States, United Kingdom, Estonia, Denmark, the Republic of Georgia, Bahrain and Tonga. Coalition forces in the two provinces are partnered with the Afghan army’s 215th Corps.
The year’s poppy and wheat harvests are complete and the fighting season is now under way in his area, Toolan said. He added that his objective over the next six months is to “deepen the hold” coalition and Afghan forces have established in the central Helmand River Valley.
“We need to thicken our hold in some places, mostly in the north,” the general said.
Troop operations over the summer and into the fall will focus on strengthening security in the upper Sangin and upper Goresh Valleys, Toolan said, as well as in the area around the Kajaki Dam, which supplies power and irrigation to districts farther south.
Toolan cited reducing funding for insurgent activity in the south as a major accomplishment in the region.
“We’ve been able to do that by attacking the narcotics nexus,” he said, “that combination of Taliban insurgent and narcotics producer.”
Since April, coalition and Afghan forces have seized some 30,000 tons of poppies, with an estimated market value of $65 million, he said.
While some estimates put 30,000 tons as only 2 percent of the total harvest, the general said, “We can tell just by intelligence gathering that it’s had a significant impact, particularly in the south.”
Toolan said security transition around Lashkar Gah is going well, but he expects insurgents to attack the area and try to reduce the local population’s confidence in the government.
“I think we have a pretty good plan in place,” he said. “We won’t let the transition in Lashkar Gah fail.”
As security transition efforts move ahead in Helmand and Nimroz, Toolan said, one key issue will be progress among the Afghan police, who will be responsible for protecting the population and securing justice.
“There are some things, some perceptions that need to be overcome with the police,” he said. “But we see progress.”
Toolan said the security transfer in Lashkar Gah will involve building more checkpoints around the city by January. Those checkpoints will be manned by Afghan army troops, and gradually taken over by police forces. Eventually, he said, the police will phase back from the checkpoints into local precincts.
“That’s going to take time, and I would suspect that the full transition … will probably take a good year, year-and-a-half,” the general said.
The projected total end strength for Afghan army and police forces this year is 352,000, he said, and the army is “moving along incredibly well.”
“The majority of them … are operating at pretty good capacity,” Toolan said. “They’re well trained; they generally have a second-grade reading level, and they’ve got some good leadership development going.”
The general said over the next year and through 2014, when Afghan forces are set to assume security responsibility throughout the country, coalition combat troops need to assume a more advisory role to ensure their Afghan counterparts gain the experience they need.
While progress in Afghanistan has often been called fragile and reversible, Toolan said, “I think what we really mean is that the local nationals can easily be intimidated by insurgents moving into their areas.”
The Afghan local police program recruits young men, approved by and often related to their tribal elders, to help protect their own villages from insurgent intimidation, he said.
“But if they’re not able to stand up, or if they are co-opted by the insurgents, then that fragility … occurs,” he said. “It becomes a problem, then, to get back into the villages and try to re-establish a secure environment.”
The most-difficult challenge is convincing the people they can stand up to insurgents, Toolan said.
The Afghan central government has a vital responsibility to strengthen its effectiveness at the village, district and provincial levels, he said.
Helmand’s governor and district councils are working effectively with coalition forces, the U.S. commander said.
“The real challenge will come as more and more is turned over to the national government,” Toolan said. “[Direction] has to be fed through the national government down through the various ministry pipelines.”
Toolan said civilian mentorship from the British-led provincial reconstruction team, the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development are crucial to developing Afghan governmental capacity.
“The provincial reconstruction team, with augmentation from [coalition forces], is about 200 people,” he said. “The regional platform, which is our State Department-run organization, is currently about 35 people but is going to increase … to about 75 or 80.”
As more civilians join the effort, Toolan said, it’s vital to bring in people with the right skills: those who can mentor Afghan agricultural experts, engineers and financiers.
“That’s how I think we’ll make greater progress,” he said. “My hope is that, on the civilian surge side, is that we bring in those aggressive, hungry, talented people who will drive that mentoring and advising role with the Afghans.”