The number two American commander in Afghanistan says in spite of continuing fighting and high U.S. and Afghan military casualties, there is an "upward trajectory" toward establishing security and the authority of the Afghan government in the strategically key southern part of the country.
Lieutenant General David Rodriguez says commanders expected higher casualties during this period, as more U.S. and international troops move into Taliban strongholds in the south. But, he says, even with the level of violence still high, he is seeing signs that the strategy and troop increase President Barack Obama announced in December are beginning to have a positive effect.
"The important part is the people continue to participate with their government, the bazaars continue to be open and there are more and more schools open all the time," said General Rodriguez. "This is a contest of will and a contest of threat and intimidation versus people who are going to stand up for themselves and their government, and then the security forces who are charged with protecting the Afghan people."
General Rodriguez, who is the chief of operations for U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, spoke via satellite with reporters at the Pentagon. He said he sees the beginning of a shift in momentum away from the Taliban and toward his forces and their Afghan allies. And he says he expects to be able to demonstrate more conclusively that the approach is working in time for President Obama's strategy review at the end of the year.
"As the people increasingly participate in their government, I think that it will show that by November, December that the strategy and the efforts that we're making with the Afghan security forces and the Afghan government are working," he said.
The general notes that last week violence was down slightly for the first time in the contested town of Marja in Helmand Province, where the new approach was first implemented several months ago. Officials have acknowledged that effort has progressed more slowly than expected.
Rodriguez says in neighboring Kandahar Province, troops have established about two-thirds of the planned security areas, and he says lessons learned from the Marja operation are being used to improve the effort in Kandahar.
"Most of them had to do with prior planning, preparation, setting the political context and communicating early with the people," said Rodriguez.
Rodriguez also says the increased allied presence has enabled him to deploy troops to "partner" with 85 percent of Afghan Army units.
Still, the general says there are sometimes problems coordinating operations at night, which is what he believes happened early Wednesday when an allied helicopter crew apparently fired on Afghan troops, thinking they were a Taliban unit. Five Afghan soldiers were reported killed. Rodriguez says a joint NATO-Afghan investigation committee established eight months ago is looking into the incident.
General Rodriguez said there have been no major changes since General David Petraeus took over as top NATO commander from General Stanley McChrystal, who resigned two weeks ago. Rodriguez says Petraeus has stressed that allied troops need to be given all the firepower they need to protect themselves, but also need to focus on preventing Afghan civilian casualties.
The general's upbeat assessment comes as many analysts and some members of Congress are questioning whether the revised strategy is working. Obama administration officials have appealed for time to demonstrate progress toward making good on the president's promise to begin bringing U.S. troops home by the middle of next year.