WASHINGTON (American Forces Press Service, Oct. 19, 2007) - Training the Afghan National Army remains the key to stability in Afghanistan, the commander of NATO forces said in a Pentagon briefing.
Army Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe and commander of U.S. European Command, also said NATO must do more to stop narcotics cultivation -- primarily the opium trade -- in Afghanistan.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force took full control of the security situation in Afghanistan a year ago. With 37 countries involved, almost 40,000 soldiers now are involved in the effort. The United States is the largest provider of forces for the NATO effort.
Gen. Craddock said the security situation in southern and eastern Afghanistan remains difficult, and NATO has been forced "to conduct continuous military actions to counter those who want to bring the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan to a halt."
The key to security in the country is training and equipping more Afghan soldiers and police. "NATO's task is the army," he said. "We've got to put an Afghan face on security."
A survey by the Asia Foundation found that nearly 90 percent of the Afghan people trust the Afghan National Army. The force is fully integrated with soldiers from every area of the country, and is well on its way to reaching the projected end strength of 70,000 soldiers by 2010. "That means field, train, equip, and have competent leadership capable of operating on their own," Gen. Craddock said.
The Afghan army is showing improvements, with retention rates for units higher than 50 percent. NATO commanders and soldiers told the general during a recent trip to Afghanistan that they value the Afghans as partners and want more Afghan National Army soldiers as they conduct operations. "They are eager to assume responsibility," Gen. Craddock said. "They want to take the lead."
But NATO needs more operational mentoring and liaison teams to speed up the process, and NATO nations are coming forward with the 15- to 20-man teams. The teams not only mentor Afghans but also have the radio communications to call for fire or medical evacuation if needed.
The alliance needs to sustain its commitment to Afghanistan, Gen. Craddock said. "We always militarily prevail," he said, stressing that NATO troops routinely defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda in combat. However, the Taliban have adopted terror tactics that strike against the very population they claim to represent.
NATO must maintain its military effort and support to fight this terrorism. "We must convince the Afghan people that the Taliban era of terror and intimidation is over," Gen. Craddock said.
He said the alliance could send a clear signal to the Taliban and their ilk with the "complete filling of our agreed statement of requirements -- the number of troops, units and organizations we need on the ground."
The alliance is still short of some key capabilities and enablers. In addition to trainers, these include helicopters and fixed-wing transport aircraft. "I believe a completely resourced force list will send a clear message to our adversary and the Afghan people that we are committed to achieving success," he said.
The general called on the international community to increase development efforts. "We continue to stress that continued success in Afghanistan will not be measured in a military victory," he said. "Success depends on offering a better way of life for the Afghan people. That means providing them jobs, electricity, schools, and health care."
He said the NATO provincial reconstruction teams have been successful in providing short-term "impact" projects, but only the international community can provide the long-term investments needed to create jobs and long-term opportunities.
NATO also must continue to engage with Pakistan, Gen. Craddock said. The alliance already has extensive military-to-military contacts with Pakistan, and there has been some progress, but this needs to continue and expand, the general said.
Working with the Afghan government to do more against the narcoterrorism problem is another task the alliance must address, Gen. Craddock said. State Department officials estimate that as much as 70 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product comes from opium poppy cultivation. NATO can work with the Afghans and provide intelligence, work with the police, and give life-or-death aid to police engaged in counterdrug operations, Gen. Craddock said. But for long-term success, he added, Afghanistan must hit the labs refining the product, the traffickers and the kingpins.
"Much attention is focused on the eradication," he said. "Simply focusing on eradication only leads to disaffection by the element that benefits the least from the narcotics trade -- the farmers. It's my belief that for long-term success, you must address all the areas that contribute to this complex problem."
Finally, NATO must continue to stress and refine a comprehensive approach to operations in Afghanistan. The Afghan government or an international organization needs to coordinate military and civilian organizations as Afghanistan moves forward. This includes the United Nations, non-governmental organizations, military organizations and civilian agencies of many governments, Gen. Craddock said.
"The effective application of this comprehensive approach by the whole of the international community is the means to enable peace in Afghanistan, a country and a people ... that has been in conflict for more than three decades," the general said.
Coalition Forces Pummel Taliban, Support Afghans as Winter Approaches
Taliban fighters are facing overwhelming coalition firepower and abject rejection from Afghan citizens, a U.S. Army commander said.
"I think we have the Taliban in pretty bad shape," Col. Thomas McGrath told online journalists and "bloggers" during a conference call from Kandahar, Afghanistan's second largest city. "They lost thousands of fighters in the last six months, and they continue to lose more on a daily basis."
Col. McGrath leads Afghan Regional Security Integration Command South, which oversees the training of Afghanistan's army and police forces. He said Taliban fighters simply refuse to face coalition forces in the open.
"They cannot stand to fight against us. So they're moving to more asymmetrical attacks: improvised explosive devices, rocket attacks, things of that nature," Col. McGrath explained. "It shows they are not gaining the support of the local populous, because they're losing sanctuaries in large areas, areas like Kandahar and other major cities."
When Taliban fighters do engage coalition forces from their hiding places, the colonel explained, they do so indiscriminately. "They'll shoot up a convoy, but they also don't hesitate to shoot up civilians who are driving by in their own vehicles," Col. McGrath said. "They're also murdering Afghans regularly."
For instance, just a week and a half ago, the colonel said, an Afghan teenager was executed by the Taliban, just for possessing American currency.
"They hung a 15-year-old boy in public in a local village for carrying five U.S. dollars on him," Col. McGrath said. "And as they were hanging him, they stuffed the money in his mouth."
Many new Taliban recruits are young men "led astray" to cross the 500-mile border with Pakistan and fight coalition forces with no idea of the resistance they will face, the colonel explained.
"They're coming from outside, and they're just coming up here and getting killed," he said. "It's been a colossal failure for them."
To stop the flow of foreign fighters, coalition "mentoring" teams have been training border police in counterinsurgency techniques, Col. McGrath explained. And in the past month, pay for border police has gone up to match that of the Afghan national police, which has helped recruit better qualified candidates.
"We're moving in the right direction," he said.
Coalition training of Afghanistan's national army also continues to proceed with significant results, Col. McGrath explained. He cited a major exercise just completed in conjunction with the British-led Regional Command South.
"It was a huge success, a big step forward for the corps," the colonel said. "We assisted the Afghans in the development and execution of independent combat operations, and the staff performed brilliantly."
Col. McGrath said he expects the first independent brigade-size operations to be conducted by Afghan National Army forces sometime in the spring. "The ANA are very aggressive," he said. "They're fearless. They're not afraid to engage the enemy in combat, and they're not afraid to put their lives at risk."
Equally important to destroying the insurgency, Col. McGrath explained, is helping educate Afghan citizens about how horrifically the Taliban destroys lives.
"That's when we come in with the non-kinetic side and say, "Hey, what have they done for you lately' They're forcing you to harbor them, to give them food, money. They're terrorizing you,'" he said.
To help Afghan citizens, the colonel explained, coalition teams visit with village elders to get a sense of what each community needs.
"We're aggressively pursuing construction projects throughout the region," Col. McGrath said, "including district centers, police stations, schools, mosques, wells."
Sometimes all a community needs is something as simple as tools, seeds or medicine, the colonel said.
"It's a very inexpensive way of bringing up the quality of life of people in the area," he said. "And it's a very good way of reaching out and winning their hearts and minds."
Afghan Forces Focus on Haqqani Network
Among the many negative influences contributing to the insurgency in eastern Afghanistan, one man has vied for the lead role as the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan's prime antagonist.
Siraj Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani network, has become one of the most influential insurgent commanders in eastern Afghanistan. Recent operations planned and led by Afghan National Security Forces and supported by coalition forces have effectively worked to disrupt insurgents in that area.
"A desired effect of these operations has been to disrupt the Haqqani network," said Army Lt. Col. Dave Anders, Combined Joint Task Force-82 director of operations. "Siraj Haqqani is the one who is training, influencing, commanding and leading," Lt. Col. Anders said. "Kidnappings, assassinations, beheading women, indiscriminate killings and suicide bombers - Siraj is the one dictating the new parameters of brutality associated with Taliban senior leadership."
According to CJTF-82 officials, Siraj Haqqani's tactics are more closely aligned with international Jihadism than the tactics of Afghanistan's elder insurgent leadership like Mullah Omar and Jalalludin Haqqani. Jallaludin Haqqani, Siraj's father, a famous mujahedeen fighter whose network established camps in Khowst Province that trained fighters during the Soviet-Afghan war. He maintains strong tribal connections in Khowst and Paktya Provinces, as well as in Pakistan.
"Siraj is part of a younger, more aggressive generation of Taliban senior leadership that is pushing aside the formerly respected elders. Now, the Haqqani network is clearly in the hands of Siraj, and the face of it is evolving, becoming more violent and self serving," according to Lt. Col. Anders.
"He is growing more and more powerful within the Taliban networks, and some would argue his authority exceeds that of elder leaders, who Siraj may believe are becoming obsolete," said Army Maj. Chris Belcher, a Combined Joint Task Force-82 spokesman. "The younger leaders demonstrate little respect for the elder leadership. They have become more brutal. They disregard the former motivations for fighting, and they tend to look for opportunities to displace or undermine the old leadership. Some believe that's happening now."
Yet, because of Siraj's absence from Afghanistan, some Taliban senior leaders openly question the sanctity of his cause and his commitment to his own fighters.
Haqqani is the principle suicide facilitator in the region responsible for numerous attacks this year throughout Afghanistan, including attacks in Afghanistan's capital city of Kabul. He is also believed to oversee several madrassas in Pakistan responsible for the training of future Taliban and Haqqani fighters.
Siraj has expanded his father's original provincial operating areas of Khowst, Paktya and Paktika by exerting more of a leadership role in Ghazni, Logar, Wardak and Kabul while offering support to insurgent networks in Kunar, Nangarhar, Helmand and Kandahar. His close connections with al-Qaida have enabled him to accumulate more financial support from Middle Eastern countries and have created a larger recruiting pool of fighters from other countries.
"Siraj Haqqani's extended reach brings foreign fighters from places like Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, Turkey and Middle Eastern countries into Afghanistan. His reach now certainly exceeds that of his father, and Siraj is working to rival Mullah Omar for the Taliban leadership," Maj. Belcher said. "In many ways, he's simply smarter and more respected."
To date, recent ANSF led operations have detained more than 30 Haqqani fighters possessing IED making materials and has confiscated more than 50 weapons, 25 RPG rounds, six mortar rounds and two mines. ANSF and Coalition forces have recovered more than 18 pieces of unexploded ordnance including five 1,000 pound bombs and two 500 pound bombs.
"Given the number of detainees related to the Haqqani network, we can expect to continue to refine this picture of Siraj Haqqani, his leadership, and his efforts to expand his power base in Afghanistan and Pakistan," Lt. Col. Anders explained.
ANSF supported by Coalition have conducted more than 150 combined patrols to separate Afghan civilians from the insurgency, clearing more than 63 villages of enemy presence while disrupting Haqqani operational goals. The Pakistan military has also contributed to the disruption and capture of insurgents along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.
As part of its recently instituted Most Wanted program, CJTF-82 has issued a $200,000 reward for information leading directly to the arrest of Siraj Haqqani.