U.S. General: Afghan Forces Will Have To Step Up

Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the No. 2 U.S. officer in Afghanistan, steps down from his post Monday. He has been responsible for day-to-day operations in the war, and was a key architect of the U.S. war strategy for Afghanistan. The commander met last month with U.S. troops in Helmand Province.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now today the deputy commander of American forces in Afghanistan will end his two year tour. Lieutenant General David Rodriguez has been responsible for day-to-day operations in the war in Afghanistan, also an architect of American strategy. NPR's Tom Bowman went on a battlefield tour with General Rodriguez.

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Unidentified Man #1: All right.

TOM BOWMAN: It was midday, in the sweltering heat, when General Rodriguez arrived at Camp Dwyer, a desert base in Helmand Province.�

Lieutenant General DAVID RODRIGUEZ (United States Army): Where are you from?

Unidentified Man #3: I'm from Vessey, Texas, sir.

Lieutenant General DAVID RODRIGUEZ (United States Army): All right...

BOWMAN: He pinned medals on two Marines. At six-foot five he towered over everyone. Then he gave something of a pep talk to several dozen marines, assembled nearby under a camouflaged canopy. It seemed that nearly every day, a Marine was killed or wounded in Helmand Province, mostly by roadside bombs.

Lt. Gen. RODRIGUEZ: You have had some tough, tough losses and there's been some incredible sacrifice by some great Marines. You know, I know that's very, very tough for each and every one of you. But again, what we're doing is worth it and what you have accomplished has made a huge difference here. And we're also thankful that we got people like that who do what they do, like you do, every single day on behalf of something bigger than us.

BOWMAN: Many people in the United States and in Congress are asking whether Afghanistan is too big, too many years, too many troops.

Just a few days before I met with General Rodriguez, President Obama announced that 10,000 American troops would come home this year. Another 23,000 troops, said the president, will leave Afghanistan by September 2012.

Rodriquez said progress has been made pushing back the Taliban in Helmand Province. Now the challenge, he said, is how to reduce U.S. forces.

Lt. Gen. RODRIGUEZ: And as we draw down, we have to make very good judgments about where we draw down and what to draw down, to gain the same effects that we want and to continue the momentum that has been built.

BOWMAN: Judging from the reduction numbers, you're going to have to make some hard choices. You're going to say we might not be able to go to this place.

Lt. Gen. RODRIGUEZ: Yes, that's right. We're trying to get 10 things done. Well, we probably will have to delay nine and 10. Or take more risk in there to see if we can still get it done.

BOWMAN: Already, senior officers are talking about pulling back from some areas of Helmand Province, places where a number of Marines have died fighting Taliban forces or sweeping for roadside bombs. General Rodriguez said that one battalion - about 900 Marines - will be pulling out of Helmand Province in the fall. It won't be replaced.

The general told the Marines at Camp Dwyer that with fewer American troops, they'll likely have to work harder. But the general doubts that the security gains made by the Marines will slip away as troops are pulled out.

Lt. Gen. RODRIGUEZ: No, I think if we make the right choices in the right places we'll be alright. And again, as more area improves and becomes stable, the success breeds upon the success and then you start moving forward. That we can't estimate because, again, what you're trying to measure there is trust and confidence of people. But you can see it where it's at and where we have focused our efforts, it's made that difference.

You know, we just have to keep moving that forward. And again, the Afghans have to continue to step up in some tough situations. They're going to have to take some risks as leaders.

BOWMAN: The Afghans have to step up. You hear that a lot among American officials in Afghanistan. Rodriguez says he still believes the Afghan security forces will be able to take the lead from the Americans by the expected transfer date, at the end of 2014. But the general says success goes beyond that.

Lt. Gen. RODRIGUEZ: It's not just troops. And increasingly it's going to become more of the government than it is troops.

BOWMAN: And officers like Rodriguez are finding they can help provide security, but they can only create the conditions for a better Afghan government.

Tom Bowman, NPR News.

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