KABUL - Major General Nick Pope, who has recently taken over as the Chief of the Defence Staff's Strategic Communications Officer, has briefed members of the media on the situation in Afghanistan.
He introduced Lieutenant General David Rodriguez of the US Army, Commander of ISAF Joint Command, and Major General Tim Evans, Chief of Staff ISAF Joint Command, who both spoke to the audience via a video conferencing link from Kabul.
General Rodriguez said that ISAF objectives in Afghanistan continue to be the denial of sanctuary to Al-Qaeda and the prevention of a Taliban resurgence in the country: "To do this we will continue to destroy or degrade the insurgents' infrastructure, build the Afghan National Security Forces until they are strong enough to take the lead in providing security in their country, and ultimately mobilize the people to stand up against their enemies," he said.
To achieve this, a unique plan is being put into practice, and has proved its effectiveness over the last year. Because the majority of the population lives in less than a third of the country, the focus of the plan is on key areas such as population centres, meeting places and the routes connecting them. The intention is to establish capable security and good governance, and to develop the people to deliver and sustain this.
General Rodriguez explained the details of the countrywide campaign plan which has been given the name Operation OMID, which means 'hope' in Dari.
"This plan was made in co-operation with our Afghan partners, and it was they who selected the name, because the desired result will be greater hope in the hearts and heads of the people," said General Rodriguez.
The campaign began last year in the central Helmand River valley as this was the nexus of the narcotics industry which partially funded the insurgency, and it was also an insurgent stronghold:
"Our Pakistan partners said it was Taliban central," said the General. "This year, because of a lot of hard work and sacrifice, much of the area is now stable. The insurgents have been pushed back to the edges of the valley and into the north."
The focus of the main effort is now to the east near Kandahar. Areas of security are being expanded and connected to those already established in the central Helmand valley.
General Rodriguez described the district of Arghandab as a good example of progress. Districts such as this around Kandahar have traditionally been very tough places to be ever since coalition forces arrived.
In 2009, Arghandab was a Taliban stronghold where people could not move around without fear: "In January last year the district governor was killed, the district police chief was maimed, and there were no government officials present among the people, except at the district centre, which the locals described as a combat outpost as all it did was defend itself," said the General.
"I was just down there recently, and there were 16 government employees working with a new district governor, and there is a new police chief, whose police force is visible and responsive to the people," he continued. "There is also a local shura that represents the people and which holds their government accountable."
A more visible example of change is the preponderance of local people picnicking on a Friday afternoon along the Arghandab River valley, a sight which would not have been seen a year ago.
General Rodriguez said that changes such as these were happening throughout the country where ISAF, in partnership with the Afghan security forces, were focusing their efforts: "The Afghan security forces are in the lead, demonstrating to the people that their security forces will be able to secure the population as their capability expands across the country.
"We will continue to expand the Kabul security zone to the east and to the south. We have a long way to go in the eastern region. It contains the most difficult human and physical terrain," he said.
General Rodriguez added that, for many areas, security is improving significantly and that ISAF should be able to 'thin their forces' in some areas in the near future:
"Just a couple of weeks ago, in the north, we lost a very influential Afghan leader, the regional police chief General Dawood, as well as the provincial chief of police and several coalition force members.
"These attacks are intended to degrade the trust between the coalition and the Afghan security forces, and intimidate the people in the hope that it will make them believe their security forces cannot protect them. But, so far, the strong partnership between the Afghan security forces and the coalition remains very strong, and in many places the Afghans aren't buying the story that their security forces can't protect them," said the General.
In fact, the day after a multiple, co-ordinated attack by the Taliban in Kandahar, the locals were out and about conducting their business as usual.
The General talked about Herat city as another example of progress. He described it as a bustling city, largely free from violent incident, and ready to start the transition process to Afghan leadership this summer:
"Yes there was an attack there recently," he said, "but the Afghan forces did not allow the enemy to breach their intended target. This is a trend we are seeing more and more across the country; the increasing confidence, courage and ability of both the police and the army to render the insurgent ineffective."
The General said that the plan which had been implemented last year had required synchronicity, focus, and a joint understanding of the required approach, but it was clear that the combined team had the required momentum to make further defeats on the enemy, and that progress was indisputable.
ISAF Joint Command Chief of Staff, Major General Tim Evans, explained that approximately 200 staff from the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, a UK-led NATO HQ based in Gloucestershire, are currently augmenting the ISAF Joint Command staff, and would continue to do so until January 2012. He said that the 1,500 staff at ISAF HQ are divided into cross-functional teams focusing on current operations, the here and now, future operations looking out to about three months, and future plans ranging out as far as two years' hence.
General Evans explained that during the winter months there had been a conscious decision to take the fight to the insurgents, concentrating on their command and control, their support basis and their infiltration routes:
"We have relentlessly pursued the insurgents," he said, "and we have captured over 1,000 insurgents in the last five months."
This represents a 250 per cent increase on the numbers captured during the same period last year: "This has had such an impact that it has created friction among the various factions, resulting in the commanders based in Pakistan not wanting to venture into Afghanistan while expecting their subordinates to stay and fight," said General Evans.
He explained that all operations are carried out in partnership with the Afghan forces and that about 20 per cent of those were in fact Afghan-led: "We have also seen a 300 per cent increase in the number of weapons caches found compared to a similar period last year. For example we have found 2,900 caches since January."
Many of these finds had been made by the Afghan security forces themselves, often having been identified by local people:
"This surely is a sign of the increasing confidence that the people have in their security forces, and a rejection of the insurgency," said General Evans.
The narcotics industry, including the laboratories, infiltration routes and supply routes, have also been targeted over the winter months: "We are certainly still on the offensive, consolidating our gains, strengthening local governance and protecting the population," concluded the General.
He acknowledged that there was still much to do, and that such a proactive policy would probably mean more fighting in the summer, but added it was clear that the Afghan people were 'up for the fight'. (PR)