By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 13, 2011 - Coalition forces and their civilian counterparts in southern Afghanistan are focused on holding and extending their gains in the area before a likely spring offensive by the Taliban, U.S. leaders there said today.
"There is concern that we could lose some gains in late spring," Army Maj. Gen. James Terry, commander of the International Security Assistance Force's Regional Command South, said during a Pentagon news briefing from Afghanistan.
"We fully expect [the Taliban] to come back and contest those areas we've gained," he added.
Coalition forces control areas west of Kandahar, including the Zhari, western Panjwai and Arghandab districts. There also is increased security and freedom of movement in Kandahar City, the centerpiece of southern operations, even while an insurgent intimidation campaign continues against those who work with the Afghan government and coalition forces, Terry said.
The general estimated that 200 to 300 insurgent fighters are in Regional Command South, but said "I know of no known al-Qaida" operating there.
While sustained security is the top priority, Afghans' perception that security is real and lasting is a close second, said Henry Ensher, the State Department's top civilian in the south. That perception is best reinforced by Afghans' increased freedom of movement and dealings with local government, he added.
"People are forming representative shuras for the first time in a long time, then they are representing their villages in the first level of government," Ensher said. "That's what we're striving for now, even as we work at the provincial level.
"It's gone from zero to really significant numbers every day," he said of the growing municipal governments. "Now we have pretty solid governors in the key districts."
Southern Afghans prefer that governance happen at the lowest levels, Ensher explained, adding that recent decisions to decentralize government functions have been successful. "Most folks down here don't really look that high up," he said. "Most just look to their neighbors to work together and with the district centers" to determine how money should be spent and issues resolved.
The Afghans tell coalition civilians they prefer to have them there building roads and schools and improving government and security, Ensher said. But they don't want a repeat of the past, when they saw U.S. help go away after the Soviets left the country in early 1989.
"What we hear from the Afghans ... is under no circumstances do they want to be abandoned," he said.
Afghan security forces are becoming increasingly more competent, allowing coalition forces to spend more time training police, Terry said.
One of the biggest challenges, he said, is countering the insurgent tactic of leaving explosive devices in public places, especially in the Zhari, western Panjwai and Arghandab districts, which the coalition holds. Enemy explosives have killed 97 Afghan civilians and wounded more than 150 since the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division took over Regional Command South in November, he said.
The coalition has increased precision airstrikes during that time and compensates people for all collateral damage caused by the strikes, Terry said. Since November, it has paid $1.4 million to resolve 432 of 869 claims, he said.
"There are many positive indicators that this is a much better place than when I visited here a year ago," Terry said, "and with patience and perseverance, we will succeed in the mission."
Ensher said his staff of 100 civilians works closely with the military to build governance and improve the economy there. "It's great progress for us civilians to go outside the wire every single day with the military," he said. "The Afghans need to see a clear alternative in their own government to the Taliban."
Coalition forces are focused on preventing young Afghans from joining the insurgency by giving them better options through increased employment, Terry said. "How do we get young men to stay with the government of Afghanistan rather than the Taliban?" he said. "That is based on them having some livelihood."
As Afghan forces become more competent, coalition troops increasingly are working with border police to reduce insurgents' freedom of movement into Pakistan, Terry said. He added that he soon will meet with his Pakistani counterparts to "close the gap" along the border.
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