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Commander Cites Progress in Afghanistan, but Key Analyst Remains Skeptical

US troops in Afghanistan (file photo)
US troops in Afghanistan (file photo)

The operational commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan says his forces made good progress last year, and are working through the winter to create a less hospitable environment for Taliban fighters when they return to the battlefield in the spring.  But a senior analyst of the war says 2010 was not as good as it could have been, and is calling for some changes in strategy.  

General David Rodriguez said the past year, with more international and Afghan forces and a better coordinated effort with civilian agencies, has brought expanded areas of security and improved the lives of ordinary Afghans.

He told a Pentagon news conference that during the current winter lull in fighting, when Taliban fighters blend in with the local population or flee to Pakistan, his forces are working to make it difficult for the insurgents to launch a spring offensive.

“Our immediate focus right now is to accelerate certain effects throughout the wintertime, a time that traditionally sees less violence, when the enemy refits, rearms, retrains, and prepares for the upcoming spring and summer operations. And while this is going on, we're conducing shaping operations to make the environment for the enemy much more inhospitable than it was last year,” he said.

General Rodriguez said the presence of more international and Afghan troops, and more Afghan civilian officials in previously Taliban-controlled areas, have helped make progress that he believes will be more durable than in the past.  He said the people are reporting on more Taliban bases and weapons caches, and his forces are effectively targeting insurgent leaders.  
But General Rodriguez also acknowledged there is much work to do, saying the Taliban “is not on the ropes” and will try to come back strong in the spring.  The general predicts the group will not directly confront international and Afghan forces, as it did last year, but rather will adopt a new strategy.

“Because of the different conditions there, they're going to come back with a different type of strategy, the enemy is, which I believe is going to be focused on the leadership much more than it ever has, the political leadership, the people who are supported the government, and the government leaders,” he said.

The general says the Taliban will also likely target former members of the group who have gone over to the government side.  He says the formal reintegration program now has about 1,000 participants, and the Afghan government system is in place to accept more.  

Indeed, much of the general’s assessment focused on troops, civilians and systems put in place for more progress this year.

But one longtime analyst of the Afghanistan war says that is a disappointing report for what was the ninth year of the conflict.  Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution published a paper Tuesday calling for strategy adjustments to make faster and more long-lasting advances in governance and the fight against corruption, and to inspire more help from Pakistan in closing insurgent safe havens on its side of the border.

“I don’t think 2010 was a disaster.  There were a lot of good things that happened in 2010.  But let’s not get too caught up in talking positively just for the sake of maintaining national morale,” O'Hanlon said.

O’Hanlon, whose Iraq war analysis helped turn the tide of American public opinion toward more patience at a key stage in 2007, is not particularly impressed with General Rodriguez’s claim of success toward establishing the groundwork for progress this year.

“I don’t really disagree and I’m not really on the opposite side of the debate from General Rodriguez.  I would consider myself an admirer and supporter of what he’s trying to do overall.  But I’m also a skeptic.  I’m struck by the fairly low standard that’s being held out here to claim success,” he said.

O’Hanlon is particularly concerned that violence should come down sharply in 2011, that normalcy should return to more areas and that the Afghan government should actually do a better job of delivering services - rather than just making preparations to do so.  If that doesn’t begin to happen within the next few months, he says the United States should consider a more significant strategy change -- including a faster U.S. troop withdrawal, a slower expansion of security zones and an accelerated transition to Afghan responsibility.

On the issue of Pakistani help, General Rodriguez said he would like to see Pakistani forces do more along the border to destroy Afghan insurgent safe havens.  But he said if they do not enter some key areas, such as North Waziristan, that would not be a “mission stopper” for his effort to defeat the Taliban inside Afghansitan.

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