Brussels and the Balkans
Last week was an interesting mix of activity for me in two very different places in Europe.
I spent the early part of the week at the meeting of the NATO Defence Ministers at NATO Headquarters up in Brussels, about 45 minutes north of my operational command in Mons, Belgium.
In addition to the meetings amongst the 28 NATO Ministers of Defence, we held two key coalition meetings as well. The first was a meeting of all 50 nations in the ISAF coalition in Afghanistan. The second was with the NATO and additional troop contributing nations to our ongoing mission in Kosovo.
Let me start with the Afghanistan meeting: I'm always struck by the extraordinary character of the Afghan troop-contributing nations, from quite literally all around the world. Seeing the commitment of so many nations, demonstrated by the contribution of over 110,000 international troops and pledges of funding for the Afghan Security Forces for both the near and long term, makes me cautiously optimistic about the future in Afghanistan.
The meeting also provided an opportunity to welcome the new Afghan Minister of Defence, Bismullah Khan Mohammidi (a true Afghan patriot and former Minister of the Interior). In his remarks, he thanked the coalition for all our sacrifices, and praised the training programs that are bringing over 350,000 Afghan security forces on line.
As the Supreme Allied Commander for operations globally, I gave a strategic brief on the situation, progress, and challenges in Afghanistan. General John Allen, our NATO operational commander in Afghanistan, also briefed. Some of the key points we highlighted:
- Over 75% of the Afghan population is now under Afghan Security Force protection. That will rise to 90% before the close of this year.
- Over 90% of all operations are either led by or co-led by Afghan Security Forces. In the first six months of this year, over 80% of all operations were led by ANSF.
- Civil-military progress continues, with over 8 million children in school, nearly 40% of whom are girls-up from only half a million and no girls under the Taliban. Over 70% of Afghans today have access to health care, up from 15% under the Taliban. Seventeen million cell phones are in use, covering 85% of the country helping connect the Afghan people commercially and socially. This is up from only 20,000 cell phones in 2002.
- Coalition casualties are down more than 30% since last year, while Afghan military casualties are expectedly rising as they take the lead against the insurgents. Also, coalition caused civilian casualties are down dramatically due to ISAF's continuous efforts whereas more than 80% of all incidents that hurt civilians this year were caused by the Taliban.
- Insider threat or the so-called "green on blue" attacks are very worrisome. The coalition is redoubling efforts with vetting, biometrics, validation via elders, tactical protection procedures (like the "guardian angels"), and cultural awareness training. This is a new tactic on the part of the enemy and we're dealing with it as we have with other tactical challenges and changes, e.g. improvised explosive devices.
- Logistical planning for safely and professionally sending home our troops and equipment as we turn operations over to Afghan Security Forces-we have nearly 200,000 containers and vehicles to move over the next couple of years, and routes are not flowing freely at the moment.
- Corruption and the threat it poses to governance is a constant concern and will require more hard work by all involved.
Overall, the Defence Ministers received the briefings openly, provided good guidance, and reiterated the "in together, out together" policy that has kept us in good stead throughout this campaign. There is no acceleration of planning for transition, but rather a steady focus on shifting to Afghan-led operations.
In terms of Kosovo and the Balkans, we again see a strong international coalition, including not only NATO nations but also partners like Armenia, Austria, Finland, Ireland, Morocco, Sweden, Slovenia, Switzerland, and Ukraine. We still have 6,000 NATO and Coalition troops holding down a calm but tense situation in Northern Kosovo. While violent incidents and roadblocks are down from a year ago, we are remaining vigilant for a "re-flash." Again, the "in together, out together" approach will be key in ensuring we continue to move toward success.
Immediately after the Defence Ministers meeting, I was able to fly to Kosovo and spend a day there seeing our NATO troops in action. I'll also go to Sweden and Finland, both strong contributors in the Balkans, to discuss the situation with the leadership there.
It is interesting to note that just over 10 years ago, NATO had over 50,000 troops in Kosovo. We've gradually decreased to today's level of about 6,000, and hopefully will be able to continue reductions over the next 12-18 months. Specifically, if the ground situation permits we will consider sending our reserve battalion of about 600 home in December this year. The overall trajectory in the Balkans remains positive, and is further evidence that the international community-working together with interagency linkages and private-public partners-can create progress in security.
Finally, I'm happy to report that my potential relief has been nominated by the U.S. President, accepted by NATO, and will go before the U.S. Senate later this year for final confirmation. Assuming all goes well, General John Allen, our current commander in Afghanistan, will take over next spring, probably in April.
John is a superb officer, a Naval Academy classmate, and I strongly endorse his selection. His experience from Afghanistan will be very helpful as he moves to the strategic level on not only Afghanistan but also the Balkans, the Levant, North Africa, ballistic missile defence, piracy, cyber and many other fascinating issues as the Supreme Allied Commander for all NATO operations.
From Brussels to the Balkans, the international community is taking on challenging issues and making progress. We'll stay at it!
Supreme Allied Commander, Europe
Commander, US European Command
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