By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 27, 2013 – With the International Security Assistance Force mission in Afghanistan shifting from combat to support later this spring, the ISAF deputy commander briefed reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels today on progress and the hard work that remains.
The Afghan national security forces’ assumption of the operational lead across Afghanistan will coincide with the fifth and last “tranche,” or geographic area, of transition in the country. If NATO and the Afghans approve, the transition will be implemented starting this summer.
The last tranche includes areas along the eastern front and down into Kandahar and parts of Helmand province -- areas that are the Pashtun heart of the insurgency and are expected to be most violent, said Lt. Gen. Nick Carter of the British army, ISAF’s deputy commander and the United Kingdom’s national contingent commander in Afghanistan.
From the moment the springtime announcement is made, he added, the Afghan army and police “effectively will have the security lead at the national level.”
With that, the general said, ISAF “will place our effort very much on the basis of train, advise, assist and support. The support piece is important because, as we stand at the moment, there are certain capabilities the Afghans still require us to supply for them.” These include air power, aviation, medical evacuation, some logistics support, countering improvised explosive devices, intelligence support and some help with command and control, he added.
“Those are important supporting capabilities, without which I think the Afghans would find life quite difficult at the moment,” Carter observed.
This summer, in its work with Afghan forces, ISAF will build on the concept of layered security that Carter said brings together many Afghan security force capabilities on the ground at the provincial and regional levels, producing an outcome that “is rather greater than the sum of the parts.”
“It’s our goal come this autumn that we should be able to look back with the Afghan security forces having managed the period of high operational tempo that generally comes in the summer,” he added, “and look back with some confidence on what they’ve achieved.”
This will set the stage for successful handling by the Afghan forces of Afghanistan’s presidential elections, now set for April 2014, he said.
In terms of capabilities, Carter called the Afghan forces’ success at the tactical level “impressive” and said the trick is to sustain that success “at the levels above and connecting that tactical success at provincial level up to and out to [the Afghan capital of] Kabul and to the ministerial level.”
Most attention over the next 18 months must be paid to connecting the provincial and local levels back to Kabul, he added. “The notion of ministry development, both in the [Ministry of Defense] and the Ministry of Interior, is important,” Carter said. “We’re applying some attention to that, … because it’s only through having the proper processes in place that some of the capabilities the Afghans will need in terms of logistics, command and control, and the ability to share intelligence will be transmitted down to the lower level.”
Progress at the brigade level also is encouraging, the general said. Media reports last summer said only one of 26 Afghan army brigades was capable of operating independently, hesaid, adding that the number has increased to five out of 26, and 16 of 26 are effective with advisors. “At that rate of progression, I think we can be confident that come 2014, the majority of our Afghan brigades will be able to operate independently,” Carter said.
In the Afghan forces’ fight against the insurgency, the general described those adversaries as confused at a strategic level.
“I believe that it is much harder for [the insurgents] to persuade Afghans to fight Afghans, and much easier to claim jihad if they’re focusing on coalition troops than Afghans,” Carter noted.
The general said other “confusing” behavior includes Pakistan’s release from prison over the past three months of Taliban officials and fighters, and the opening of an office in Doha, Qatar, for negotiations between the Afghan High Peace Council and authorized representatives of the Taliban. Such behavior, he said, is “causing the insurgency to have to think quite hard about its political approach.”
Afghanistan itself has “leapt forward in technological terms,” Carter said, since his first tour there in 2002.
“Some 40 percent of Afghans have the use of mobile phones now, and there are some 6 million Internet subscribers,” he said. “[And] a fourth-generation fiber-optic cable is now being laid around Afghanistan that will provide extreme bandwidth and connectivity to all Afghans.”
A transport network based on the Highway 1 ring road is 90 percent complete, he said, and 45 percent of Afghans now live in secure urban areas. Nine million Afghan children attend school, and 40 percent of them are female. The nation also has 200,000 teachers and 40,000 educational centers.
“Compare that to the 1990s, when there were only 650 schools in the country,” Carter said. “And when you look at access to health care and the fact that maternal mortality is down some 80 percent during the course of the last 10 years, I think you have a very different country. And it’s a country that the insurgency is having to think very carefully about how it re-engages with in political terms.”
At the same time, the general said, there should be no doubt that the insurgents are capable of executing deadly attacks.
“Two complex attacks that have taken place in the last 24 to 36 hours are indicators of that: one in Helmand and one in Jalalabad,” he said. “[The insurgents] also have the capability to attack Kabul and to mount spectacular attacks against government institutions and people in Kabul.”
The insurgents also have the capacity through coercion to apply the insider threat, “which we’ve come to know well during the course of the last 18 months or so,” Carter said.
“The plain fact is that it will be a political solution that will ultimately remove that capability,” he told reporters.
Though his view is optimistic, the general said, “I’m in no doubt that we’ve got two very important years ahead of us. 2013 will create the conditions for, we hope, a successful political transition in 2014, and that will be the basis on which so much of our effort over the last 10 to 11 years will be judged.”
If he had a concern, Carter said, it would involve the notion of Afghan confidence.
“Unless we’re careful, Afghans will think and do think that the end of 2014 will be like 1991,” Carter said, referring to the idea that the United States was perceived at that time to have walked away from Afghanistan.
“It’s very important that we continue to bolster Afghan confidence and to make them feel genuinely that 2014 is simply a waypoint into the decade of transformation,” the general added.