First of a five-part series.
Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images
Gen. Dan McNeill, head of NATO's International Security Assistance Force, says the eastern region, led by U.S. troops, is making more progress than the southern part of Afghanistan, where Canadian troops are in the lead and attacks are on the rise.
Gen. Dan McNeill, head of NATO's International Security Assistance Force, says the eastern region, led by U.S. troops, is making more progress than the southern part of Afghanistan, where Canadian troops are in the lead and attacks are on the rise. Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images
NATO/International Security Assistance Force
Seven years after U.S. troops and their Afghan allies ousted the Taliban, the Islamist militia is far from beaten. This five-part series explores the state, and future, of Afghanistan and the war against the Taliban.
Afghanistan Study Group Report
Read a Jan. 30, 2008, report by the Afghanistan Study Group, co-chaired by Retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones and former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Thomas Pickering.
There is growing worry at the Pentagon and elsewhere in Washington about the future of Afghanistan and the NATO-led military mission there. Taliban attacks are increasing, and support is dwindling for the Karzai government. One recent study said Afghanistan was in danger of becoming a failed state.
But military leaders point to one bright spot: The American-led counterinsurgency effort in the eastern part of the country. More than 12,000 U.S. troops are spread over a dozen Afghan provinces, hard against the border with Pakistan in what is known as Regional Command East.
It's one of the few parts of Afghanistan where things seem to be improving. That's what Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress recently.
In the eastern region, January was the first month "where the level of violence was actually less than it was two years ago," Gates said. "It's our area of responsibility, and the counterinsurgency's going very well there."
Besides a large number of U.S. troops, tens of millions of American dollars are being poured into the region. That's giving the people of eastern Afghanistan more basic services. At the same time, local councils are slowly taking over more responsibility for governing.
"The Afghan citizens are noticing these improvements," says Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez, the commander there. He told reporters at the Pentagon that recent surveys show a sense among the population that better days are ahead.
"Half the population expresses satisfaction with the ability of medical care, drinking water and education, which were all very, very low before," he says.
That's not to say all is well in eastern Afghanistan. There are kidnappings and nests of Taliban fighters. Many Afghans still fear to even drive through this region to reach the city of Kandahar in the south.
But Gen. Dan McNeill, the top commander of the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, says this eastern region is farther along than the southern part of Afghanistan, where Canadian troops are in the lead and attacks are on the rise.
"That's not a derisive comment about anybody or anything, certainly not members of the alliance," he says. "It's just that clearly the U.S. has put the effort into making this piece of it right, and the counterinsurgency there ... the term used by many NATO allies is, [we've] got to be more comprehensive."
Longer Military Tours
Comprehensive begins with longer tours. Americans serve 15 months on the ground, compared with six months for most other NATO troops. That longer time allows the Americans to build closer ties with the locals.
U.S. troops also have more training in counterinsurgency, McNeill says. That means not only how to shoot, but how to rebuild and work with local officials. American forces are flush with money for reconstruction.
There's a need for more allied troops in the south. But not in the east, Rodriguez says.
"We got enough troops for what we need to do, and the Afghan troops is what we need more of, and they're coming more all the time," he says.
One British military officer says American troops are farther along because they have been working in Afghanistan now for more than six years. NATO came on board less than two years ago. He says it will take training and time — years perhaps — before Canada, Britain and other alliance forces can make a difference in the south, like the Americans have made in the east.
Retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones, who stepped down as Supreme Commander of NATO just over a year ago, agrees that the allies took over a dangerous area.
"What happened was when NATO went south, they went into an area that had never really had any kind of permanent military force and was really quietly in the hands of the bad guys, including drug traffickers, criminals and the insurgents," Jones says.
More Troops Now, Shift to Local Forces Later
Defense Secretary Gates says the immediate problem now is the need for more troops in the south. He has been pressing NATO to send more. The alliance has largely refused, so Gates has ordered 3,200 Marines to the country this spring, most of them to the south.
"The way to deal with that long-term, clearly, is the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police to be able to hold [as economic development proceeds] and provide security," Gates says. "So it has to be a partnership between ourselves and the Afghans, with more and more of the effort gradually shifting to the Afghans."
But that partnership is shaky. The national police force won't be at full strength until sometime in 2009, a year later than expected, because of a lack of trainers. At the same time, President Hamid Karzai has opposed the appointment of an international envoy to coordinate aid — a critical position to help turn the country around.
Now, Jones says, Afghanistan is in danger of becoming a failed state. Besides international support, he says, much more needs to be done by local leaders: governors, police chiefs and top ministers who have to get out of the capital and around the country.
"That government has got to do more than simply live in the palace in Kabul," Jones says. "They've got to get out there and be seen and felt and stimulate the enthusiasm of the people."
A military officer like Rodriguez can provide security, and build roads, schools and clinics, Jones says. Real change can only come from the Afghans themselves.