By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 20, 2012 – Despite recent incidents that he acknowledged temporarily have set back progress in Afghanistan, NATO’s top military officer said he’s confident the strategy there is succeeding and will continue to bear fruit.
“Every time we have an incident like we did several weeks ago, it sets us back,” Navy Adm. James G. Stavridis conceded during an interview with the Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service. “But despite a very challenging couple of weeks that we have had in Afghanistan, I am quite confident that our fundamental strategy remains sound.”
Stavridis cited broad efforts to prevent civilian casualties while countering the insurgency and helping to strengthen Afghan security forces as they move into the security lead. “We will continue to focus on protecting the people of Afghanistan,” he said, using “every means at our disposal to reduce casualties to an absolute minimum.”
The transition to an Afghan security lead, to be completed across Afghanistan by the end of 2014, remains solidly on track, he reported.
“We have already turned over 50 percent of the country to an Afghan security lead. This summer and fall, we will move that up to about 75 percent,” the admiral said. “And as we get into 2013, I think we will be on a good glide path to complete this transition to an Afghan security lead by 2014.”
As this transition takes place, Stavridis said he is struck by the vast improvements he has witnessed within the Afghan security forces. “That has been an extraordinary story, in my view,” he said, recalling strides made particularly since early 2010 as coalition and Afghan forces began moving into Marjah.
“As we built that operation, we had seven coalition soldiers for every one Afghan soldier,” he said. “Today in that region, we have almost two Afghans for every coalition soldier. We see the Afghans increasing taking the lead.”
Afghanistan’s army and national police have passed the 320,000-member mark, he noted. “Their numbers are growing,” he said. “Their capabilities are growing.”
Equally encouraging, he said, are high approval ratings the Afghan people are giving their security forces. One well-respected poll shows almost 90-percent approval for the Afghan National Army, making it the most respected institution in Afghanistan, Stavridis said. Approval ratings for police are approaching 80 percent.
“They are far from perfect,” he said. “They need help, support, mentoring [and] funding, but as a coherent national force, they have improved dramatically.”
Stavridis credited the steady positive interactions between U.S. and International Security Assistance Force troops and their Afghan counterparts with building the trust that has allowed this progress to take root.
“Every day in Afghanistan, we see 140,000 coalition soldiers operating alongside 320,000 Afghan national security forces,” he said. “Every day there are literally tens of thousands of moments where real trust is built, where operations are conducted together.”
This foundation of trust is strong enough to overcome temporary setbacks, he said.
“So we have got to keep a perspective on the several very tragic incidents that have occurred and do set us back,” he said. “But I think they are balanced by this large, huge number of interactions that are in fact positive and do build trust and really are ‘Shohna ba Shohna,’ as we say in Dari -- ‘shoulder to shoulder.’”
Stavridis said this gives him confidence that progress will continue and that the Afghanistan strategy will succeed.
“We are not going to kill our way to success. We are not even going to fight our way to success,” he said. “We are going to train and transition our way to success in Afghanistan. And it is going to be difficult and challenging, but as I look back on three years in command, that is where I have seen the most progress.”