Less than a week before the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a senior U.S. officer assigned to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan said each such observance “serves to remind me of why we are here.”
Army Lt. Gen. James L. Terry, commander of ISAF Joint Command, spoke Sept. 5 with Pentagon reporters via satellite from the Afghan capital of Kabul. The general offered an assessment of Afghan forces, ISAF’s future role, challenges involving the Pakistan border and the Haqqani network, the insurgency and this summer’s drawdown.
“I understand the importance of this mission, and over time my understanding of Afghanistan has grown, as has my appreciation for the people of this country,” Terry said.
The general noted this will be his third 9/11 anniversary over his three tours in Afghanistan. There has been “tremendous progress” in Afghan security since his first deployment there in 2006, he said.
“Back then, [Afghan army and police forces] were barely 132,000 strong,” he said. “The [Afghan forces] are now approaching 352,000, and more importantly, they are growing more capable every day.”
Terry noted that with the third phase of security transition from ISAF to Afghan forces now under way, Afghanistan’s own army and police units are in charge of providing security to about 75 percent of the country’s people. The combined ISAF-Afghan team and its campaign make up a continuum that will arc naturally over the next 28 months toward Afghan-led security throughout the country, he said. Meanwhile, Terry added, ISAF’s structure for its supporting role is taking shape.
“The way or the method will be security force assistance,” the general said, as ISAF is moving toward developing security force assistance brigades that will advise, assist and build capability within Afghanistan’s army and police forces.
Each brigade will man, equip, train and deploy together, the general said, and “will come with typical brigade-level enablers in terms of battle command, intelligence, communications, fires, sustainment and force protection.”
ISAF’s resolve and commitment remain strong leading up to 2014 and the decade beyond, Terry said, and he acknowledged the coalition will retain some combat role.
“We will fight alongside them,” he said. “[Security transition] does not mean that there will be no challenges along the road ahead. It does mean that we have momentum. And while our role and our methods are changing, our commitment will endure.”
Responding to reporters’ questions, Terry said the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and cooperation between the two countries, remains a key factor in long-term security.
“What I would offer is that we’ll continue to make military-to-military contact,” he said. “I think that is going to provide a mechanism that potentially will be calming over time and reduce some of the tension that’s up on the border.”
The Haqqani network based in Pakistan is “very lethal,” but has recently succeeded in mounting fewer attacks in the Kabul area, Terry said.
“We have arrayed our forces so that we can counter that threat, and at the same time [have] arrayed the Afghan national security forces … in depth from the border back. It appears to be pretty effective,” he added.
Insurgents, including the Taliban, remain threatening and deadly, but “are trying hard to stay relevant,” the general said.
“The insurgents’ position with the people of Afghanistan – these are the very people the insurgents seek to control – is continually eroding,” he said.
Insurgents are killing and maiming Afghan people “at an alarming rate,” he said. “Their intimidation and assassination campaign is working against them,” he added, “their leadership is under constant pressure, and their resources are strained.”
Most Afghans are tired of war and tired of “the heavy-handed approach of the insurgency, an insurgency that attempts to control the people of Afghanistan by limiting their education, controlling their freedom of movement and intimidating them,” he said.
Terry said the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program, designed to bring former insurgents back into their communities and into support for the Afghan government, is “alive and well.” More than 5,000 former combatants have formally entered the program, and about a thousand more are waiting to be accepted, he said.
“It’s very effective,” the general said. “It’s most effective where the provincial and district governors get involved in it. And I think it provides some opportunities for the insurgent population to come back home.”
Terry said the surge of U.S. forces, which began in 2010 and saw an additional 30,000-plus troops deploy to Afghanistan, is “on track” to end by late September, when U.S. troop levels will return to the previous level of 68,000.
“The surge has served to break the momentum of the insurgency and has provided the time and space for our Afghan partners to develop,” the general said. ISAF is setting the conditions for an Afghanistan that will contribute to regional stability and never again provide safe haven for terrorists, he added.
“There is progress over here in the campaign; we have momentum,” Terry said. “And the Afghan national security forces, again, are steadily moving out into the lead. I think that the insurgents out there are really growing more concerned about that every day.”