Listening to the Afghans

Three days in Afghanistan -- and, as usual, I came away with a cautious sense that things are moving in the right direction, particularly in the security sector -- despite all the challenges.

I was able to visit bases in and around the capital, Kabul (with a growing population pushing past six million); the bustling second largest city of Kandahar (population approaching a million); and the commercial hub of western Afghanistan, Herat.  Buoyed by an economy growing at 5-8% annually for nearly a decade, the construction and growth are visible.  The worry, of course, is a potential slow-down (already beginning to be visible) as the large coalition force draws down. EUCOM image SACEUR, Admiral James Stavridis departs ISAF Headquarters after meetings with leadership there.

I met with a wide variety of key Afghan interlocutors, including the relatively new Minister of Defense, B.K. Mohammidi (former Minister of the Interior, and an experienced soldier himself); Dr. Ashraf Ghani, the brilliant political economist leading the transition process; the career police officer Minister of the Interior Mujtaba Patang.  I also met with the Deputy ISAF Commander Patrick Carter (General Allen was in DC), the French Chief of Staff, several Ambassadors, and representatives from non-governmental organizations.

A key theme was the need to conclude a Bilateral Security Agreement for a post-2014 mission as soon as possible.  This is a discussion between the U.S. and Afghanistan that will be negotiated at the highest level and will lay out the legal framework under which U.S. forces will operate in Afghanistan after 2014 and the successful conclusion of the transition to full Afghan-led security.  The negotiation will be led by experienced U.S. career Ambassador James Warlick, with whom I was also able to meet.  This will go a long way toward assuaging Afghan concerns about the long-range commitment of the U.S. and the international community.

Though there is much work to be done, much has already been accomplished.  Here are some of the points of progress:

- Over 75% of the Afghan population is now protected by the Afghan security forces.  That will grow to 90% with the expected announcement of the fourth group of districts and provinces to transition by the end of this year.

- Afghan Security Forces now approaching the final target of 352,000.  Over 80% of all operations are led by Afghans, and virtually all are partnered with coalition forces.

- While literacy remains a challenge, NATO literacy training has provided education to well over 200,000 in the force as it is 100% mandatory -- over 3200 instructors are engaged in this at all levels. This "Afghan G.I. Bill" is a huge incentive for recruiting and reenlistment.EUCOM image Afghan Soldiers stand in formation and receive certificates after completing literacy training.

- The Afghan Air Force is growing with over 6,200 personnel and 95 pilots in training to fly helicopters and transport aircraft.

- Meanwhile, according to plan, coalition numbers are being reduced  to under 100,000 with about 68,000 from the U.S. and the rest from 49 other countries.  However, plans for a separate post-2014 train, advise and assist mission are in full swing as many nations are making formal and informal commitments of support, investing in the long term stability of Afghanistan.

- Coalition casualties are down about 30% from last year, and enemy initiated attacks are down 5% from last year, after declining 26% the year before.  While the insurgency remains stubborn, its effects are increasingly concentrated in a handful of provinces in the south and east of the country.

We need to do more listening to the Afghans.  The latest survey of the Afghan population conducted by the non-partisan and highly regarded Asia Foundation provided some positive views from ISAF's most vital stakeholder: the Afghan people themselves:

-  52% of Afghans believe their nation is "headed in the right direction," up from 46% last year.  This is higher than in most western countries.

-  The overall proportion of people with fears about safety dropped 8% this year compared to last year.

- Over 80% of the people agree with the government's national reconciliation and negotiation effort.

- Support for the Taliban dropped again, with over 60% having "no sympathy at all with the insurgency."

- Over half the population believes they are more prosperous and schools are improved or available compared to the time under the Taliban.

- The Afghan Army approval is over 90% and the police are over 80%, both very high even compared to European or U.S. polls.  In other polls, the Taliban "approval" rating is typically around 10% or less.

-  Finally, about 75% of the population gives the central government performance a positive assessment. 

Many challenges remain, of course.  Attrition in the security forces is too high.  The road to the Presidential election in 2014 will be complicated and face security challenges.  We must find ways to replace coalition capabilities as we transition to Afghan-led security operations in air, artillery, medical response, intelligence, and other enablers.  The borders remain a source of controversy and are open to the movements of terrorists in many places.  Opium and narcotics trading accounts for too much of the economy and corruption remains a persistent concern.EUCOM image Adm. James Stavridis, European Command Supreme Allied Commander, speaks to Combined Task Force Tomahawk soldiers during Stavridis' visit to meet with troops at Combat Outpost Sperwan Ghar, Afghanistan, Nov. 14, 2012.

Yet with all the challenges, I remain hopeful and cautiously optimistic.

The main parts of our plan -- build credible and capable Afghan Army and Police forces; transition to Afghan-led operations; create civil-military balance and protect the population from the insurgency; enable democracy while working to reduce corruption; and nurture the economy and wean it from narcotics are intact and moving forward.

This is a very difficult challenge -- but over 80 nations are actively involved either in security or development aid, hundreds of international organizations (above all the UN) and non-governmental organizations (International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in addition to many others) are all pulling together.

As always, I came away from Afghanistan with a mixed picture, but a sense of progress.  As we listen more closely to our Afghan partners, we will do this together, shoulder-to-shoulder; or Shohna ba Shohna in Pashto. 

Best,

Jim
Admiral, USN
Supreme Allied Commander, Europe
Commander, US European Command
"Stronger Together"

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