By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 20, 2013 – Afghanistan’s political situation and its people’s confidence will be essential to a successful shift to Afghan-led security, a top commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan said today.
Briefing Pentagon reporters by video link from Kabul, Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Nick Carter of the British army, deputy commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, said the transition in Wardak province, which Afghan President Hamid Karzai last month ordered all U.S. special operations forces to leave, offers an example of the issues coalition forces and their Afghan partners face as they exchange supported and supporting roles.
Transition in Wardak is an “interesting pilot,” Carter said.
“Wardak is probably one of the most complicated provinces that we have had to deal with, and how this goes I think will be a good bellwether of how the overall transition process works,” the general explained.
Wardak sits on a political divide, he said, with tension between tribes and with the Taliban. “Many of the elders and landowners from Wardak have moved back into Kabul,” Carter noted. “And the extent to which there is, therefore, the fabric of leadership in place in Wardak is very challenging.”
The politics of Wardak “give us a really good indication as to how the Afghans are going to manage transition as we step forward,” he said. “So it's an interesting place to focus on in terms of our attention.”
The general said the overall NATO ISAF campaign is at an inflection point, as the final phase of the transfer of security responsibility to Afghan forces takes place this year, mostly in the eastern provinces. ISAF will revert “to train, advise, assist, and enable, where appropriate, with combat operations happening either in extremis or certainly on a limited basis,” Carter said.
Operations in Afghanistan will proceed through Afghan command channels, as coalition forces begin to concentrate their efforts “up to the brigade level in the context of the Afghan army this fall, and then up to the corps level, probably after the election next summer,” he said.
Afghan security forces’ current capability tells a significant success story, Carter said, with five out of the 26 Afghan army brigades now operating independently, and 16 of them effective with support. This “is a creditable performance and it's one that we see improving significantly during the course of this year,” he added.
Afghanistan has changed significantly over 10 years, and that confuses things for the Taliban, the general said. Schooling and greatly expanded use of mobile phones and the Internet have made the population more aware, while economic improvement and expanded medical care have improved conditions for many people.
The Taliban will have to grapple with those changes, the general said. “I think for all those reasons, the insurgency is having to think differently about how it might come back, if it ever came back in political participatory terms,” he said.
Carter said despite growing competence in Afghan forces and improvements in the people’s standard of living, the biggest challenge of the moment is maintaining Afghan confidence.
“Afghans still need reassuring,” he said. “And, of course, they've got this significant political transition coming up in 2014, and that will be very challenging. You have to go back to 1902 for the last time there was a peaceful political transition in Afghanistan, and that, of course, worries Afghans.”
The general noted that deadlines have a habit of focusing minds.
“What we have to compete with in challenge terms this year is maintaining the population's confidence through into 2014. … And to my mind, that's the big challenge,” he said.