COLUMBUS, Ga. - As U.S. casualties mount in Afghanistan, the coalition will grow to more than 140,000 troops by the end of the year to help tackle an array of complex issues facing the war-torn country, a top Army official with ISAF's joint command said Tuesday at the Infantry Warfighting Conference.
Maj. Gen. Michael Linnington, the deputy chief of staff for plans and projects at International Security Assistance Force Joint Command in Afghanistan (ISAF), said NATO must confront "three enemies" before beginning to hand over control next summer: corruption in the Afghan government, ISAF's own practices that sometimes alienate the population and a lethal, still capable insurgency.
"It's probably the most critical time period we've faced in the nine years that we've been (in Afghanistan)," he said during a 45-minute presentation at the Columbus Georgia Convention and Trade Center. "This is anything but an easy fight. It's a fight that over the past nine years has fractured the fabric of the Afghan culture, the tribal Afghan leadership, and the combination of challenges facing the government in terms of unemployment, lack of infrastructure, poverty and a disenfranchised population. Really, it leads all of us to know we're in some very tough times in the coming months."
Maj. Gen. Linnington attended the conference as a representative of Gen. David Petraeus, the ISAF and U.S. Forces Afghanistan commander. He served as Fort Benning's deputy commander and Infantry School assistant commandant from 2006 to 2007 and has been in Afghanistan about a year.
The development and growth of Afghan security forces is more important than anything NATO does, he said. The transition to placing Afghanistan in the lead for security operations will begin in July.
Maj. Gen. Linnington said the transfer is "conditions-based," so exactly how much gets shifted at the outset has yet to be determined.
"We know the clock is ticking," he said. "(But) all this takes time."
Recruitment of Afghan national security forces - both army and police - has surpassed objectives, he said. Two years ago, they numbered 155,000, but it's anticipated the force will reach 305,000 by March.
"More important than the growth in numbers is the growth in capacity, the growth of Afghan training and execution capability," he said.
Maj. Gen. Linnington said there has been "conflicting strategic direction" since the U.S. went into Afghanistan in 2001. Last year, Gen. (Ret.) Stanley McChrystal and his team arrived with a new strategy that took on a full-blown counterinsurgency effort and a comprehensive civil-military campaign aimed at improving the country, not just security.
He said anti-corruption endeavors, holding the Afghan government more responsible and maintaining the Afghan people's will were key priorities of Gen. (Ret.) McChrystal that continue under Gen. Petraeus.
"Having the right approach that resonated with the Afghan people is probably the most important thing that took place over the last year," he said.
At the moment, ISAF is comprised of 47 nations and more than 130,000 troops maintaining the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
Getting the right people and resources also are instrumental to the campaign's success, Maj. Gen. Linnington said. In January 2009, the U.S. had only 35,000 troops in Afghanistan; today, there are more than 98,000. The coalition also is armed with an additional 30,000 NATO forces, and 10,000 more are expected by Christmas.
He said the number of civilians supporting the fight, including those serving on provincial reconstruction teams, has tripled since 2009 - and that figure is expected to climb in the coming year.
Casualties remain high in Afghanistan, he said. A total of 317 U.S. Soldiers were killed in 2009; already this year, more than 330 have been lost. June, July and August were the three deadliest months on record for U.S. and ISAF troops.
"The enemy is still flexible, strong and resilient," Maj. Gen. Linnington said. "They're adaptable. We give them 100 percent credit for intelligence on our forces. They know our (tactics, techniques and procedures), they react to our TTPs and they adapt quickly."
Improvised explosive devices account for more than 50 percent of U.S. casualties, the general said. Many materials used to make the bombs come from Pakistan.
"September promises to be a tough month for us as we engage the enemy in the south, both in Kandahar and regions west of Kandahar," he said. "That's why the increased forces (and) the increased Afghan national security force development is important in countering the IED fight."
The next few weeks will be particularly challenging. With Afghan elections set for Saturday, the coalition will help secure more than 5,800 polling stations - but officials expect a spike in attacks as Taliban and other insurgents attempt to disrupt the "legitimacy of the Afghan government," Maj. Gen. Linnington said.
Overall, narcotics and criminal elements have helped fuel the insurgency, he said, and that's become a larger focus of ISAF's campaign plan in the past several months.
"Insurgent groups need many things to be successful. They need money, weapons (and) resources. Most importantly, they need popular support," he said. "Everything we're doing in our campaign plan ... is designed to squeeze the air out of the support the insurgents need to be successful."
If U.S. and coalition forces don't do all of those things comprehensively, they'll allow pockets of support and safe havens for the insurgents to remain active, he said.
NATO also is assisting Afghanistan with border protection and developing capacity at airports to stem the flow of illegal material into and out of the country.
Maj. Gen. Linnington said understanding the operational environment prior to deploying is important for Soldiers - he cited IED battle drills, cultural awareness and language proficiency as skills that should be sharpened.
The general praised the training efforts and enthusiasm Fort Benning leaders put into "fielding the force" for the fights downrange.
"That hard work does not go unnoticed by those of us in Afghanistan who see it in operation every day," he said. "You are critically important to developing those leaders of character, those adaptive leaders that make up our efforts."