American Forces Press Service
KABUL, Afghanistan, Dec. 13, 2011 – As the United States prepares to end its military mission in Iraq, the commander of U.S. and NATO troops here said it’s a time for optimism in Afghanistan, too, as progress continues and Afghan forces assume increasing security responsibility.
Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, speaking with reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, cited the “substantial progress” made over the last 18 months, particularly in the northern, southern and western parts of Afghanistan.
Next year, Allen said he hopes to consolidate advantages achieved and support for Afghan forces in population centers in those sectors, while conducting “significant continued counterinsurgency operations” in the east.
The goal, he said, is to push out the security zone from Kabul. “We had had some success, but would like to push that farther eastward,” he said.
“As we reflect on what has just happened in Iraq, we have some really momentous months ahead of us here in Afghanistan as transition continues [and] as more of the Afghan population moves under the security shield of the Afghan national security forces,” the general said.
Allen also reflected on last week’s Bonn, Germany, conference and its “very clear message that the international community and many international organizations there are going to be with Afghanistan for a long time.”
Also promising, the general said, was the recent national assembly, or loya jirga, in which a delegation of more than 2,000 elders endorsed a long-term security agreement with the United States. The delegation also committed to peace and reconciliation.
“So I think it is a time, frankly, for optimism,” Allen said. “If you are a young soldier here, you can take heart that your daily labor as an American soldier on the battlefield here is paying off.
“And if you listen to the international voices being raised, it is not just going to pay off for the period of time you are here,” he continued. “It is going to pay off for a long time.”
Allen said the four priorities he enunciated when taking command here five months ago will continue to guide what he predicted will be “an interesting time for us here.”
He vowed arriving at his post to keep up pressure on the insurgency, to increasingly move Afghan national security forces into the lead, to set conditions for and support the transition, and to remain flexible and agile in light of the evolving operational environment.
Looking to the future, Allen said a “strategy-based discussion” will help guide the U.S. posture in Afghanistan and drawdown plans through the end of 2014. That discussion, he said, must recognize the evolving operational environment, part of it to be characterized by an evolving insurgency.
Allen noted that the insurgency had “a bad year” in both 2010 and 2011, and that insurgency-initiated violence has been down for 25 of the last 33 weeks. In addition, significant attrition has plagued the enemy’s leadership ranks.
Meanwhile, Afghan forces continue to grow in both numbers and capability and are on track to reach the goal of 352,000 members next year. Most combat units have been fielded, and more combat support and combat service support units will become operational in 2013, he said.
This sets the stage for transition to continue, with the Afghans to assume the security lead across the country by the end of 2014, he added.
Allen said there is “zero daylight” between his and President Barack Obama’s strategy and drawdown plan in the Afghanistan campaign.
Recognizing that the plan will involve a series of drawdowns, with the second phase to take place next year, Allen said he wants to focus on strategy as he looks ahead.
“For us, the number is much less important than is the discussion of the strategy,” he said. “It’s not about a particular number. It’s not about a U.S. number. It’s about a much bigger issue,” which is the combination of NATO and Afghan forces.
“All those in combination are part of the discussion about the evolving operational strategy,” Allen added.
As progress continues, he conceded that one fly in the ointment has been the “chilled” relations with Pakistan since the U.S. raid in May that captured Osama bin Laden, and most recently after a Nov. 26 incident on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that left 24 Pakistani soldiers dead.
Allen said he’s committed to a full and complete investigation and expects the one under way to wrap up “in the relatively near future.” That, he said, will help set the stage for moving forward.
“We want to work at getting the border coordination back to a level where we have a predictable series of processes that can govern our actions on both sides of the border,” he said.
For now, the United States finds itself having to regain progress made in strengthening relationships with the Pakistanis, particularly regarding border issues. “We’re working it hard to restore relationships,” he said.
Allen said he was heartened to learn recently that many of the Pakistani liaison officers Pakistani Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani had recalled from headquarters offices and border coordination areas may soon return.
While troubling, Allen said the challenges between the United States and Pakistan have had no real operational effect.
The Pakistanis continue to block ground supply lines into Afghanistan, but Allen said the northern distribution network and air corridor are keeping U.S. and International Security Assistance Forces supplied.
“So at this point, we are fine and we are getting everything we need,” he said.
Meanwhile, Allen said he’s sent out clear instructions to his commanders operating along the Afghanistan side of the border. “We should proceed just as though there has been no chill in the relationship,” he said. “The intent is to restore as much normalcy as we can to the border coordination as early as we can.”
Establishing that the United States, ISAF, Pakistan and Afghanistan can work closely together is critical “because the border is always going to be there,” Allen said. “So having a strong and reliable border coordination regime is important, and I think we remain committed to doing that.”