By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
KABUL, Afghanistan, March 11, 2013 – Change causes stress, and the transition in Afghanistan that’s gradually moving Afghan forces into the lead for security brings significant tensions for that nation’s people along with it, the commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force said here yesterday.
Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., who commands ISAF and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told reporters who accompanied Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s visit here that despite those tensions, the campaign is on track and the ISAF-Afghan relationship is maturing.
During Hagel’s visit to Afghanistan over the weekend:
-- Afghan President Hamid Karzai implied in a speech that the United States and the Taliban are colluding;
-- Karzai’s initial deadline for U.S. special operations forces to withdraw from Wardak province passed; and
-- ISAF did not transfer control of the detention facility at Parwan to the Afghan government as initially scheduled.
The man known here as “COMISAF” spoke on many of those issues, and others, with the reporters.
“It’s categorically false,” Dunford said of Karzai’s implication in a speech yesterday that U.S. and Taliban representatives are working together to sustain violence in Afghanistan and prolong the presence of coalition forces.
“We have fought too hard over the past 12 years,” he said. “We have shed too much blood over the past 12 years. We have done too much to help the Afghan security forces grow over the last 12 years to ever think that violence or instability would be to our advantage. That's clearly not where we are right now. And I would say that emphatically.”
On the question of withdrawing special operations forces from Wardak, the general said he spoke to Karzai immediately after the president’s announcement and pledged to work very closely with Afghan security forces to develop a transition plan for the province.
“As recently as last night, I saw President Karzai, and I told him that we're still working with his leadership to address the situation in Wardak and we would come back to him with a plan,” Dunford said.
Wardak will transition to Afghan national security forces, he said, adding that the only remaining issues are the timeline and the methodology.
“And we're still working on that,” he said.
Wardak has to be understood in the broader context of transition, Dunford told reporters.
“There are transitions happening all over Afghanistan,” he said. “I'm making every effort to keep the issues like Wardak and the detention facility and some of these others at the tactical level. … There are differences in perspectives, but we can work through these.”
The Parwan detention facility reflects another range of viewpoints, he noted. Karzai has indicated he would prefer to release some of the detainees there, while Dunford said his own perspective as a commander is that he needs to be satisfied “that there's a plan in place to ensure that those people who need to be off the battlefield for us to accomplish the mission and protect the force are, in fact, detained.”
Last week, some issues surfaced that still need to be resolved, he said. “I won't address the differences right now,” he added. “We're in the middle of a negotiation. It's very sensitive, and what I don't want to do is negotiate in public. That's never a wise thing to do.”
Dunford said he’s not willing to do anything that might jeopardize his relationship with his Afghan counterparts,
which, he said, “is actually the most important thing to me over the next 22 or 23 months.
“So when it comes to negotiations and those kinds of things,” he continued, “I can't share the details with you. I will when we resolve it and tell you what we worked through.”
The general noted that with transition, Afghanistan’s relationship with the coalition and with the United States is evolving.
“And as I told the collective leadership of the Afghan security forces last week, our relationship is changing, it's maturing; we are moving to a support [role] as they move into the lead and we're going to have to grind through issues as that occurs,” he said. “But on the back side of this will be a mature relationship and an enduring partnership.”
Dunford emphasized that he sees the transition as a process, not as theater.
“This is not emotion, this is business,” he said. “So what are the facts coming around? What are our requirements? What are the issues that have been raised with the Afghans? And where are the places that we can bring those two positions together to come up with a solution that's workable?
“That's how we're approaching every single issue that we're dealing with in the context of detentions, Wardak, and a bevy of other issues that aren't even in the media,” he added.
Dunford said he has emphasized to Karzai that, in his view, such issues are best understood as important, but not as fundamental to the relationship.
“The broader issue is what will be our strategic partnership with Afghanistan in the future, and what will be the framework within which that partnership is established?” he added. “That's what's most important.”
What’s causing a gap between the Afghan government and ISAF is not a lack of close partnership between forces, or close cooperation at the ministerial level, Dunford said, because those linkages exist and are growing stronger.
“I actually feel I have a deep relationship of trust with the minister of the interior, the minister of defense [and] the chief of the general staff,” he said. “We work collaboratively, we work transparently, and in fact, I just came directly from 60 minutes with [Defense] Minister [Bismullah Khan] Mohammadi … and I can assure you that if he were sitting here, in terms of our perspective about what has to happen this summer and where we're going between now and 2014 [and] in the residual tasks that may need to be done post-2014, there is not a glimmer of daylight in our perspective.”
The issues now surfacing in Afghanistan are psychological, and are being manipulated by the Taliban, the general said. He noted that the Taliban have been largely pushed out of populated areas, the group’s leadership is fracturing, friction is growing between chiefs and foot soldiers, and resources are growing scarcer.
The one area where the Taliban still hold sway in Afghanistan, he said, is in messaging.
“From my perspective, there’s two messages that are resonating inside of Afghanistan right now,” he said. “One is the coalition as occupiers, and the other is that the coalition will abandon Afghanistan after 2014.”
While the messages seem inconsistent, Dunford said, they both create uncertainty.
He said as ISAF commander he’s working to communicate U.S. and NATO commitment to Afghanistan for 10 years beyond the transition’s end in 2014 into what he calls “the decade of commitment,” during which other nations will help Afghanistan build its government and military capabilities.
Beyond long-term international commitment, three other factors are important to easing Afghans’ fears, he added.
“We need to work to develop the final bilateral security agreement that the United States will sign with Afghanistan. … That will be followed by the NATO status of forces agreement, and then we’ll see milestone 2013 [Afghans leading all security operations in their country] in June,” he said.
Afghan and U.S leaders are working hard to draft the two-way agreement between their nations, Dunford said, and NATO’s subsequent, separate agreement will be developed along a parallel track, so both compacts will be in place as soon as possible. That should calm fears of abandonment.
“I believe that those agreements are kind of fundamental to get at that commitment issue,” he said. “I think those agreements are manifest of true commitment post-2014.”
Reliable assurance of commitment will counter the theme of abandonment, Dunford said, “and also the hedging behaviors that are going on again both inside of Afghanistan and in the region.”
The general said when Afghans increasingly see their own forces defending public safety across the country, the “occupier” theme should also lose momentum.
“The fear of uncertainty actually from my perspective right now is greater than any fear I've sensed about the Taliban,” he said. “The people really are concerned about post-2014.”