Emphasizing that the mission in Afghanistan remains “job one,” NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe said a busy autumn season lies ahead as the transition there continues.
Even so, Navy Adm. James G. Stavridis, who also commands U.S. European Command, recognized Syria and the Levant in his command blog last week as “the wild card” that requires the alliance to stay vigilant.
“The civil war in Syria continues to burn, with over 20,000 dead and perhaps a million pushed out of their homes,” he wrote. “Lebanon is increasingly affected. Israel is deeply concerned, even as they continue to watch Iran. The Eastern Med[iterranean] is full of warships from lots of different nations.
“With struggling diplomatic efforts for Syria, there are increasing calls for military and human intervention,” Stavridis continued. “From both a NATO and a Eucom perspective, we need to stay ready for anything.”
Meanwhile, despite recent setbacks in Afghanistan – a deadly Black Hawk helicopter crash and an uptick in Afghan security force attacks on coalition troops – Stavridis reported continued progress there, particularly in the security sector.
“We are transitioning to Afghan-led security in 75 percent of the country, and our plan to turn over complete control by the end of 2014 remains on track,” he said. Afghans now lead more than 50 percent of the security operations and partner with U.S. and other coalition forces in 90 percent of them, he noted.
As Afghans step to the lead, coalition casualties have dropped about 25 percent compared to last year, Stavridis reported. Afghan security forces now number about 350,000, and are taking casualties at about five times the rate of coalition soldiers, he said.
The admiral expressed concern about the rising number of attacks by Afghan security forces on coalition forces. These tragic incidents, while statistically small in light of the regular, close interactions between coalition and Afghan forces, “can have a negative impact on morale and perception out of proportion to their military impact,” he said.
“We’re reviewing all our procedures carefully, vetting incoming Afghan security forces even more precisely, developing procedures to protect our troops and using biometrics thoroughly,” Stavridis said.
With the approach of fall, he told his commands to expect a busy time with the focus to remain on transitioning to Afghan-led security. That, he said, will include continued training for Afghan security teams and the building of combat capability in the east while consolidating gains made in the south.
“The key in the security sector will be maintaining mentoring, training and funding for the Afghans through the transition,” he said.
A related emphasis, Stavridis said, will be on the continued drawdown of coalition combat forces – to drop soon to 68,000, from a high of more than 100,000 – and on redeploying their equipment.
Looking ahead, “There will be good days and bad,” Stavridis cautioned. He emphasized, however, “the overall trend is positive, and we’re on track to success.”