General: Afghanistan planning yields steady progress

By Karen Parrish, American Forces Press ServiceFebruary 2, 2011

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WASHINGTON, Feb. 1, 2011 -- U.S. and coalition troops have spent 18 months carrying out the first comprehensive campaign plan linking their efforts with those of their Afghan counterparts, a senior U.S. commander said today.

"Last year saw the implementation of a plan that demanded focus and synchronization," Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, commander of the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command, told Pentagon reporters in a video teleconference. "And we all saw that where we do that, we make steady progress."

The plan was based on a strategy of "synchronizing efforts in time and space," Rodriguez said. ISAF and the three Afghan security ministries -- interior, defense, and national security -- put the plan together and carried it out, he added.

The plan focused effort "where it was most important: population centers, commerce routes and areas of economic potential," Rodriguez said.

The first foray employing the plan was a coordinated civil-military effort into the central Helmand River valley. That initial trial of the strategy yielded some lessons learned, Rodriguez noted.

The first lesson, he explained, is that security gains happen faster than increases in government capacity, so several lessons involved more planning for government activities to follow future security gains. Other lessons involved improving the "complementary effects" of conventional and special operations forces, while "the minister of interior learned some lessons on recruiting and training police forces, which were much more effective in the follow-on operations," Rodriguez said.

"And we all learned that building local political bodies that represent the people is an iterative process," he added. "If more and more people are mobilized, the representative councils become more representative and more effective."

The lessons learned in Helmand informed operations in and around Kandahar City over the summer and fall of 2010, the general said, noting that Arghandab, a district just outside Kandahar City, had been a Taliban stronghold where people could not move around without fear.

"In that 18-month period, the district governor was killed, the district police chief was maimed, and there were no government officials or police present any place but the district center, which some of the Afghans described as a combat outpost," he said.

The ISAF-Afghan combined approach to establishing security and fostering local government growth effected a transformation, Rodriguez said.

"I was there two weeks ago, and there were 16 government employees working with a new district governor," he said. "There's a new police chief who has a police force that's out and about. And the people on a Friday afternoon, Afghan family time, were out picnicking in the Arghandab River Valley -- a significant change from 18 months ago."

The partnered forces made similar, but smaller gains, in Kabul province's capital and in Afghanistan's east, north and west, Rodriquez said.

Extending security and fostering Afghan forces' ability to lead operations, while expanding the government's ability to serve its people at the same time, are essential to the goal of transitioning security responsibility to Afghanistan lead by the end of 2014, Rodriguez said.

"So we're going to stick with the current approach," he said.

This year, the updated plan focuses on expanding security to more population centers and important roads, while building slow but steady progress in the north and west, the general said. The planning effort now involves U.S. and United Kingdom embassies and additional civilian Afghan ministries, Rodriguez explained.

The Afghan independent director of local governance and the minister of rural rehabilitation and development helped to develop the current plan, Rodriguez said, and their participation is "altogether helping to bring better coordinated effects to a common plan."

Also important this year, he said, is building the Afghan forces' durability and sustainability.

"We put a tremendous effort last year to get the infantry forces fielded to increase the number of [Afghan] boots on the ground," Rodriquez said. "And this year [we] will focus on logistics, the other enablers, [and] the engineers, to support the long-term sustainability of the Afghan army."

While 70,000 new Afghan soldiers and police were trained over the past 18 months, efforts continue to build literacy and leadership capability in those forces, he said.

Afghan forces already have established a stronger presence in places like the Helmand River Valley, where ISAF-to-Afghan troop ratios have shifted from 1-to-5 18 months ago to 1-to-1 today, the general said, while ratios are now 1-to-1.2 in areas around Kandahar City.

"The Afghan national security forces are increasing significantly in the important places," Rodriguez said, adding that the challenge is to help the Afghans as they increasingly take the lead to make the progress durable.

The plan also must address building Afghanistan's civil service work force, Rodriguez said.

"In the last 18 months, there's been a significant effort to train civil servants by [the U.S. Agency for International Development] and the U.S. embassy," Rodriguez explained. "So rather than have just one or two people in the district government trying to do something, they now have 10, 15, in some cases more, to try to build that stability."

As security improves and the Afghan population's confidence grows, "more of them will come out to serve," Rodriguez said. "And that's what has to occur over time, so that they can maintain the hold to properly build this long-term stability that they desire.

"We'll continue to support the building of the local governance that serves the people," he continued. "I'm confident that we're helping to set the conditions for the people to participate more fully in building a better future for themselves."

Rodriguez said the real question in preparing to draw down the number of ISAF troops in Afghanistan is whether Afghan forces can provide security in their country without the assistance of coalition forces.

"Can they do it with less of us'" the general posited to reporters. "Can they provide that security for the Afghan people so that they can go about their daily business' And is there sufficient governance out there that doesn't negatively impact on security'"

Those factors will determine when and where ISAF can reduce its troop presence, he said, and such progress already has happened in some places. Helmand province's Now Zad district had an ISAF presence last year of two Marine battalions, Rodriguez noted. "Now," he added, "there's a company-plus."

The Afghan army and the Afghan police, augmented by that bolstered Marine company and "a few enablers," Rodriguez said, now can provide the same level of security that just over a year ago required two Marine battalions.

The Afghan government is now building its processes to initiate the transition process, the general said.

"It's going to be another month or two until all that gets worked out so that we can officially start moving along the transition process," he said.

When the ISAF troop reduction does get under way, Rodriguez said, some combat troops may be shifted to a training role, and those troops who will remain in Afghanistan longest will be those who can augment the Afghans' efforts to build their own capacity.

"The things that require a longer time to develop are the command and control that the headquarters provides, the integration of a significant level of intelligence, access to joint effects -- air being the most important one, but some artillery -- and then logistics and medevac," he said. "Those things take a longer time to build than an infantry company. So as we look over time, [those are] the ones that will be there longer, relative to all the combat troops."

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