By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON – The Haqqani network’s top leaders still seek to re-establish some control in Afghanistan, a senior International Security Assistance Force commander told reporters today, but transition to Afghan-led security is proceeding well.
Army Lt. Gen. Curtis M. “Mike” Scaparrotti, commander of ISAF’s Joint Command and deputy commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, spoke to Pentagon reporters via satellite from the Afghan capital of Kabul today on current operations.
Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son, Sirajuddin Haqqani, lead the Taliban-allied network. Its senior leaders, U.S. officials believe, direct operations from safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Afghanistan border.
Scaparrotti said Haqqani forces make up 10 percent or less of the overall insurgent numbers in Afghanistan, but they are among the most effective and lethal enemies Afghan and coalition forces face.
While many Haqqani fighters are looking for a safe opportunity to reintegrate into Afghan society, Scaparrotti said, he believes the network’s senior leadership is intent on securing their traditional area of operation in Afghanistan’s Khost, Paktika and Paktia provinces.
The general, who hands over the Joint Command to Army Lt. Gen. James L. Terry tomorrow, said his two priorities since assuming command in July 2011 have been “accelerating the development of the [Afghan national security forces], moving them into the lead, and maintaining the momentum of the campaign in relentless pursuit of the enemy.”
That enemy is both reduced in number –- down to some 20,000 from an estimated 30,000 –- and demoralized, compared to this time last year, Scaparrotti said.
“So far the enemy spring offensive hasn't been successful,” he said. “Additionally, the enemy's mid- to low-level leaders remain frustrated with their leadership in Pakistan, creating the opportunity for both formal and informal reintegration across Afghanistan.”
Insurgent attacks are down in both number and effectiveness, the general said, while more than 4,000 former insurgents have officially reintegrated into Afghan society and sworn to support the central government. Many more have informally put down their arms and returned to their homes, he added.
Still, the general added, safe havens remain a concern, and ISAF has placed more combat power in the east, around Ghazni, to help contain insurgent movement across the border region and attempted attacks on Kabul.
“We've inserted a brigade [near Ghazni] from the 82nd Airborne Division,” Scaparrotti said. “In some areas, there in the east [and] south of Kabul, we needed to insert the greater combat power, and we'd needed to do that for some time.”
The coalition is also working very hard with Afghan forces to help them gain strength so they can hold those areas once ISAF combat operations cease, the general said.
“We'll continue to conduct operations as necessary in the future to ensure that we attain the conditions that we need in the east and that supports … Afghan security forces growing in strength and taking the lead,” he added.
The main effort during his tenure has been in the south, Scaparrotti said.
“During this past winter and into the summer, we have consistently expanded our security gains … [and moved] Afghans into the lead,” he said. “Together we've secured the Helmand River valley, Kandahar and most of the surrounding districts, and now our Afghan partners are taking the fight to the enemy.”
The capital region, the western and the northern areas of Afghanistan also have seen increased effectiveness in Afghan forces, Scaparrotti said.
Overall, Afghanistan today shows a “remarkable difference” from the pre-2001 time of Taliban rule, the general said.
“Today, more than five times as many children are in school, roughly 85 percent of Afghans have basic health care within one hour of where they live, women represent 27 percent of the parliament, and 52 percent of the Afghan people believe their government is headed in the right direction,” he reported.
The general noted guidance that Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, ISAF commander, issued following a June 6 airstrike targeting an insurgent leader that resulted in civilian deaths for which the coalition has apologized. The guidance limits airstrikes against civilian homes in Afghanistan.
“We will not employ aerial-delivered munitions on a civilian dwelling, unless, of course, it is the last resort and it is … to ensure the defense of our soldiers,” he explained.
ISAF officials reported that since January, the command has conducted more than 1,300 close air support engagements, with both fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, during which 32 civilian compounds were damaged and five civilian deaths were confirmed. Rules of engagement have not changed, and coalition forces remain authorized to use air support, if necessary, to counter hostile acts, Scaparrotti said.
The coalition has reduced civilian casualties by 52 percent over the last year, Scaparrotti noted. “One of the reasons that we're working this very hard is that we want to bring the civilian casualties to zero, if possible,” he added.
Under the new guidelines, the general said, he is confident that while limiting airstrikes against populated areas, ISAF can continue to protect its troops and maintain the momentum of the campaign against the enemy.
Scaparrotti said coalition troops in Afghanistan have made great sacrifices, and progress in Afghanistan has come at great cost to both the service members and civilians there and the families who support them.
“We've got to always remember that, and we've got to make their sacrifice matter,” he said. “We are going to continue this mission. We must. And I believe we can complete this mission that's been set out for us.”