Coalition leaders emphasize strength of Afghan forces
May 4, 2013
BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan - Between now and the end of 2014, International Security Assistance Forces will pull most of their troops out of Afghanistan, but one military leader said leaving the country should not be considered ISAF's primary mission.
"We can get all of our equipment out of this country and still fail," said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Michael Knowlton, chief of plans, Combined Joint Planning Cell, Combined Joint Task Force - 101 and Regional Command East. "If we do not get the Afghan National Security Forces to stand on their own, if we do not get them integrated...we will fail."
Retrograding out of Afghanistan is just a task to be accomplished, Knowlton said. The primary mission is to stabilize the Afghan government and seamlessly step back while Afghans take control of their country.
"We really have a common goal here, and the common goal is to improve the quality of life for the Afghan people," said U.S. Army Maj. Gen. James McConville, commanding general, Combined Joint Task Force - 101 and Regional Command East. "And part of that is getting them to a sufficient level of security where they can have a stable government."
Coalition representatives from Jordan, Egypt, the Czech Republic, the Republic of Korea, Poland, France, Turkey and the U.S. gathered to examine the drawdown of international military forces and discuss plans for the future at Bagram Airfield, April 30.
"The most important thing we have to do in Afghanistan is to help the Afghan people," said Col. Tomasz Piotrowski, deputy commander of Task Force White Eagle. Task Force White Eagle is Poland's military contribution to the ISAF mission in Afghanistan.
To that end, representatives reviewed what their presence has achieved in the past years and how best to proceed based on the lessons they've learned.
Improved health care, education, agriculture and national security highlighted the discussion. Representatives from each nation explained what they have done to improve Afghanistan and what can still be done as ISAF proceeds with the drawdown in the coming months.
They discussed the numerous schools and hospitals ISAF has built, as well as the plans to complete further construction and development projects before their time in Afghanistan comes to a close.
Due in large part to their efforts, currently about 8 million kids are going to school in Afghanistan, and about 18 million people have cell phones that help expose them to new knowledge every day, McConville said.
He added that the economy has been improving 8 to 9 percent throughout the last few years.
"There are a lot of things still to be done in Afghanistan, but there are a lot of things going well," McConville said.
At the same time, Jordanian Col. Basem Al-Aween said that ISAF needs to handle its interactions with the Afghan people with more cultural sensitivity than it has in the past. Winning the hearts and minds of the Afghans cannot happen without continued awareness of and respect for their religion and culture, he said.
"You can't win the minds and hearts of any people in the world if you don't understand their culture," Al-Aween said.
The leaders said their nations plan to maintain a decreased military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014, but for many the precise numbers and nature of their presence is still a question mark.
By Knowlton's assessment, the ANSF will be strong enough to secure the country on its own by the time ISAF leaves Afghanistan.
More than 80 percent of ANSF in RC-East are currently operating independently, Knowlton said, a statistic that's making it more difficult for insurgents to sustain their war cry against ISAF as foreign occupiers.
"The insurgents are no longer fighting infidels," Knowlton said. "They're no longer fighting foreign occupiers. They're no longer fighting invaders. They are fighting Afghans, and that is a very different dynamic and a very hard narrative for them to overcome."
The growing strength of ANSF is also increasing insurgents' difficulty in continuing their fight. With increased proficiency in combat and security operations, the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police are now too powerful for insurgents to defeat through military strength, Knowlton said.
Insurgents still hold the advantage in some geographical areas and may be successful in attacking isolated ANSF elements, but ANSF cannot be defeated by violence, Knowlton said.
"As long as [ANSF] has support from the international community, they will be successful," Knowlton said. "It may be bloody, it may not look like what we would do, but they are going to be able to hold the line."