By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 2, 2011 – Sensational, high-visibility attacks on Afghan government officials and security forces represent a desperate enemy strategy to intimidate the Afghan people and shake the trust and confidence they are developing for their leaders and institutions, a top commander in Afghanistan said today.
Army Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, commander of the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command and deputy commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, told a Center for a New American Security forum he expects this spate of attacks to continue.
“The Taliban cannot expect to regain territory,” he said via videoconference from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., where he is helping to train the Army’s 1st Corps leadership and European Reaction Corps for their upcoming deployment to Afghanistan.
“So right now they are attempting to degrade the trust the coalition and Afghans have in each other through insider attacks, as well as to intimidate the people in hopes of making them believe that their government cannot protect them,” he said.
“But so far, the partnership remains strong,” Rodriguez continued. “And in many places, the people aren’t buying the fact that the government cannot protect them.”
One of the best indications, he said, is how quickly people return to normal daily activities after each attack.
Rodriguez reported that the death of Osama bin Laden has had no impact on the ground in Afghanistan and emphasized that the mission remains the same: to deny al-Qaida sanctuary and prevent the Taliban from retaking Afghanistan.
“Our progress in achieving our objectives and making Afghanistan a place inhospitable to terrorists is indisputable,” he said. “But it remains fragile and reversible.”
Rodriguez expressed confidence in the strategy designed to build on this progress that focuses on “critical terrain” within Afghanistan. This involves committing most manpower and other resources to key population, economic and transportation centers he called particularly critical to Afghanistan’s long-term stability.
“We are largely able to focus the majority of our coalition and international efforts where we need them and when we need them,” he said. “And when we do this, our resources are sufficient. And I can’t overemphasize what a big idea that has been to our effort.”
Rodriguez lauded successes in developing Afghan security forces -- now numbering more than 284,000 -- ahead of schedule. “There is no doubt they can and will fight,” he said. “And their operational effectiveness in destroying the enemy and protecting their people grows daily.”
The general said he believes the goal of getting Afghan security forces into the lead throughout Afghanistan by the end of 2014 is achievable. At the platoon and company level, they’re “enormously capable of conducting operations with little assistance,” he said. So the coalition focus is on building headquarters capacity, he explained, and eventually leaving in place “only the critical enablers” such as medical evacuation and access to joint effects and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets.
In the meantime, Rodriguez said, he regularly emphasizes to his field commanders the need to continually challenge their Afghan counterparts.
“We have got to push our Afghan partners to start leading more and more,” he said. “We have to start taking more risks in this regard and having more trust in them.”
Rodriguez expressed similar confidence in Afghan leaders, who he said are increasingly stepping up to lead their people, and the expansion of the government’s presence across Afghanistan in a way that holds key terrain once it has been cleared. He underscored the importance of district governments, which he called the “first line of assistance for the villagers” against what is essentially a rural insurgency.
Unlike in the past -- where development was less targeted and often didn’t result in security gains, and the same ground had to be cleared over and over again -- the “key terrain” construct helps to ensure gains made stick, he said.
“Now we are much better off,” he said. “We spend the bulk of our military effort on degrading or destroying insurgent infrastructure, to include the leadership, but we also ensure that the planning for local security and good governance begins early enough to be inserted and follow on as soon as the conditions allow.”
This plan, Rodriguez said, is based on recognition that absent a sweeping political settlement, “the best chance of stabilizing Afghanistan is to mobilize the people to demand the fulfillment of their modest requirements.”
The Afghan people, their government and their security forces all working together toward a common purpose “will squeeze out enough of the enemies of the Afghan people to build sufficient stability for Afghanistan in the future,” the general said. Except for a reliable flow of funding from the Afghan capital of Kabul to fund operating costs and provide basic services, Rodriguez said, most of those requirements must be fulfilled at the local levels.
Rodriguez expressed hope that strategy under way will ensure sufficient security across Afghanistan, but recognized that “operational and tactical successes will take us only so far, given the time constraints we believe we will be under.”
He laid out plans to build ever-expanding security zones, particularly in key areas to the south and east, through 2014. But by the end of that year, Rodriguez said, the security pockets are expected to extend to all the areas the Afghans and coalition believe will create the stability needed to stabilize the entire country.
In the meantime, Rodriguez cited progress toward that goal, particularly during last year’s focus in the Central Helmand River Valley, once the insurgency’s stronghold, and in current operations in Kandahar province. In addition, Kabul, home to one-fifth of the population, is one of the safest regions of the country.
Similar gains are being realized in the east, but Rodriguez recognized that this area is expected to be “the toughest part of the tough neighborhood that will be Afghanistan for a long time.”
Despite “truly incredible” operations under way in Regional Command East, with “pretty remarkable” results, “we have a way to go in the east,” he acknowledged. “And nowhere will the Afghan security forces be challenged more,” the general added.
Looking to the future, Rodriguez said his greatest concern is to preserve these gains as the United States begins its drawdown in Afghanistan.
“I am concerned about a drawdown that is not totally aligned with growing Afghan capabilities, or is so rapid that the army and police make mistakes or temporarily leave gaps that, while not critical in and of themselves, make the people’s shaky confidence waver and their survival instincts rise to the forefront,” he said. “If this happens, the Taliban can regain their foothold among a fearful population.”
Rodriguez also expressed concern about support for the insurgency that continues to flow mostly from the ungoverned areas of Pakistan, as well as the parochial interests of some of the formal and informal leaders around Afghanistan.
“This is unacceptable,” he said. “And the Afghans, together with the coalition, have to start addressing these challenges more effectively.”
Standing up to that challenge requires what Rodriguez said has yet to be achieved: striking the proper balance between respecting Afghan sovereignty and demanding that Afghanistan adheres to the non-negotiable responsibilities that come with that sovereignty.
This includes stopping leaders “who steal money, opportunity and respect from the Afghan citizens,” he said. It also requires demanding that the Afghan government stop those formal and informal power brokers who are directly harming U.S. and Afghan forces, he added.
Looking to the future and troop drawdown in Afghanistan, Rodriguez emphasized that the coalition “will not chase transition.”
“There is no faster way to dilute our efforts that we have worked so hard to focus on for the last several years and undo all we have accomplished [than] just to chase transition,” he said. “We are going to … execute a plan that the Afghans have developed with us, and the natural outcome of that will be transition.”
Rodriguez called for a strategic agreement by 2014 that paves the way for the U.S.-Afghan relationship from one of wartime expedient footing to normalization. Doing so, he said, will offer assurances of long-term commitment, not just to the Afghan people, but also to the enemy.