By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
CAMP EGGERS, Afghanistan, March 16, 2012 – Coalition troops and their Afghan partners have a new initiative and momentum going into this year’s fighting season, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Curtis “Mike” Scaparrotti, commander ISAF Joint Command, said here yesterday.
Scaparrotti, who also serves as deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, commanded NATO International Security Assistance Force’s Regional Command East in 2009 and 2010, he reminded reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta here this week.
RC-East troops operate in 14 provinces that lie largely along Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan. That region was then, and still remains, a nexus of insurgent activity and a focus for ISAF operations, Scaparrotti said.
The difference between then and now, he said, is that before the troop surge began in 2009, “we did not have the initiative -- certainly not in all the areas.”
After nine months in his current job, he said, “It’s clear to me that we’ve made a good deal of progress here in Afghanistan.”
Marjah was a bitterly fought battleground a few years ago, Scaparrotti noted, but he can now walk down the main street without a bulletproof vest when he visits. Marjah’s elders, he added, tell him life there has a new normalcy, where a wedding party can hold a noisy street celebration without fear of insurgent attack. He noted Afghan forces now are largely responsible for security there, with only a Marine company as coalition support.
“That’s just an example of the difference that you see between the start of … the real surge and what we have today,” the general said.
The Afghan army and government are building leadership skills from the platoon and individual noncommissioned officer level to the highest ranked corps commanders and provincial governors, Scaparrotti said.
“The changes that have been made are all for the better, and those that are there are stronger,” he said.
Scaparrotti heads a 1,400-person headquarters in Kabul staffed with people from 33 countries, and is responsible for controlling regional commands at the tactical level. From that perspective, he said, the campaign for spring into summer will take a new tack in familiar places.
Afghanistan’s south and east remain the areas where ISAF expects the most enemy attacks, Scaparrotti said. His command’s focus for the coming fighting season is to deepen security in populated areas and move Afghan forces into a lead role combating insurgents.
With 23,000 U.S. troops set to leave Afghanistan by the end of September, the general explained, “I want to press [Afghan soldiers and commanders] into the lead now, while we have more combat forces here and we have the opportunity to assess weaknesses and apply our forces to help them improve them.”
Scaparrotti said security force assistance will become a key coalition mission as ISAF in the spring will begin to bring in 12- to 18-person advisory teams to work with Afghan army and police units. Those teams will help Afghan units further develop their skills while maintaining the coalition’s situational awareness throughout the theater, he said.
Security transition in Afghanistan is proceeding according to the agreement reached at NATO’s Lisbon summit in November 2010, the general said. The second round of that transition, under which Afghan forces take charge of security in areas Afghan government-designated areas, is under way, he said. The Lisbon agreement calls for five rounds of transition, with the last set to take place by autumn of 2013.
Scaparrotti listed the essential components of that plan: accelerate Afghan forces’ development; maintain the initiative and “relentlessly pursue the enemy”; help the Afghan government hire, place and train civil servants and extend essential services to more of the population; and communicate tangible and recognizable progress to the Afghan people.
“Much of this war … is about perception,” Scaparrotti said. Helping Afghan leaders communicate with their people is critical to the country’s future stability, he said.
To accomplish all those goals, coalition leaders and troops must be agile in recognizing their mission and force structure will steadily change from now to 2014 and beyond, Scaparrotti said.
“We have to make sure that the Afghans are developing that same agility,” he added.
The last crucial task is sustaining the coalition, which is something “we work at as a group … every day,” Scaparrotti said.