By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 11, 2013 – The Afghan presidential elections now set for April 2014 are looming ever larger as a milestone for measuring progress in the country, NATO officials in Afghanistan said yesterday.
How the Afghan forces protect voting and how the Afghan people accept the results will be key to the long-term success of the country, said a senior International Security Assistance Force official speaking on background.
Things are looking up in Afghanistan, the official said, but there are many hurdles to overcome. Only 22 months remain in the ISAF mandate. By spring, Afghan forces will be leading security operations throughout the country. By the end of 2014, Afghan forces will shoulder the security burden themselves as the NATO mission ends.
The Taliban are also looking forward, the official said. “There will be a ’13 fighting season,” he said. The Taliban will be up against 352,000 members of the Afghan security forces. That force has grown in capability as it has grown in size, the official said.
There will be negotiations and talks between the Taliban and the international community. “From my vantage point I think it’s a delaying tactic,” he said. “They’ve gone through 12 years of war and they are 22 months away from a very small presence.”
He said Afghan Taliban leaders in Quetta, Pakistan, are looking at three key things over the next two years. First, how good are the Afghan security forces? Second, what will be the U.S. and NATO investment in the country after 2015? And the third are the April 5, 2014, elections.
“[The elections] are probably the most critical thing that will happen in the next 22 months,” he said. Afghans will go to the polls to elect a new president and provincial councils. The last election, in 2009, was marred by allegations of vote fraud. It is supremely important that these new elections go well and that Afghans accept the outcome, the official said.
The official spoke about the changes in Afghanistan since the surge of U.S. and NATO forces ended. The surge did what it was supposed to do, he said, buy time for Afghans to field their forces. Now Afghan soldiers and police are in the lead in security through most of the country and have grown in size and capabilities.
This is a long way from January 2009, the official noted, when the entire Afghanistan campaign looked like a failure. “In January 2009, Kandahar was at risk [and] the central Helmand Valley was at risk,” he said. “There were a number of attacks into Kabul.”
Then-ISAF commander Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s assessment was that the actual campaign was at risk and asked for additional troops. “Take where we were in 2009 and jump to the end of the surge … in September 2012,” the official said. “As I see the battlespace, I can honestly say that you have a less capable, less popular and less of an existential threat when you look at the insurgency. But you still have a threat.”
And the threat will remain in January 2015, but the Afghans should be able to manage it.
Like Afghanistan itself, statistics that look at violence in the country are complex. “When people look at statistics, they say that you have virtually inconsequential changes from ’11 to ’12,” he said. “If you just look at those numbers without the context there is so much you miss.”
Last year was about holding the gains that the surge made possible, he said. The Afghans moved to the lead as the United States pulled 23,000 personnel out of the country in September 2012.
Afghan forces held the ground and actually expanded their control in the area west of Kandahar and in the Helmand River Valley, the official said.
Another piece of the statistics equation is where the violence was happening. “What we were able to do in 2012 was slowly start separating the insurgency from the major population centers,” he said.
The violence in 2012 happened increasingly in sparsely settled rural areas, the official said, noting that in surveys, Afghans report they feel safer and believe the Taliban is not coming back.
Violence is still a problem and the official said 17 districts out of the 402 in the nation are where 50 percent of the violence occurs. Put another way, 80 percent of the attacks occur where 20 percent of the population live. The worst districts are in northern Helmand.
The Haqqani network specializes in high-profile attacks, the official said. “If there is an attack in Kabul it gets the press ... It gives the impression that Kabul is under siege, which is not the case.”
Afghan forces have responded quickly and professionally to attacks in the capital, another sign of their continued maturation, he said, but high-profile attacks are going to happen, and they are going to get through.
There were 18 high-profile attacks in Kabul in 2011 and nine in 2012. While there were just nine attacks, the official said, there were “hundreds of threats.” And while Afghan capabilities are improving, he added, “even the best goalie in professional soccer is going to get scored on.”
Afghan forces are not going to let the Taliban have the rural areas, the official said. The Afghan Local Police -- now with some 20,000 members -- are becoming a security net for the people. “The ALP becomes a hold force for you,” the official said. “You have police who live and work in the rural areas.”
The official sees three tiers to the threat to Afghanistan. The first tier is tactical -- the 20,000 to 30,000 mostly local insurgents in the country.
The next level is the operational cadre -- the leadership, the shadow government and the Taliban in Pakistan, he said. These men can recruit, train and supply fighters. The leaders in Pakistan are problematic for ISAF, the official said. “We’ve heard that the Pakistanis are changing their strategic calculus, but there is ‘what you say’ and ‘what you do,’” he said. “I’m waiting for the ‘what you do’ to see how that works.”
The third threat is not the insurgency, the official said, but the degree of corruption and criminality that exists within the government.
“If you can get some rule of law and move forward, then you can pull the carpet out from under the insurgency,” he said. Putting in place a legal system and service infrastructure will be a key outgrowth of the April 2014 elections, the official noted.
The world will be watching those elections as well. After 2015, there are 28 NATO nations and eight partner nations that have already said they will invest in Afghanistan. “And all will be watching the elections,” the official said.