By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 26, 2012 - Afghan forces are improving faster than coalition leaders or they themselves anticipated, the commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said here today.
"They really are better than we thought that they would be at this point; more critically, they are better than they thought that they would be at this point," Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen told reporters during a Pentagon news conference.
The transition to Afghan security responsibility -- now in the second of a planned five phases -- is the linchpin to mission success in Afghanistan, Allen said. Though his top priority on taking command in July was to keep pressure on the enemy, he added, the push to develop Afghan army and police capabilities was a "very close second."
The general, who testified last week before the House and Senate armed services committees, noted Afghan troops' abilities will form part of the equation he uses to recommend future U.S. troop levels after the remaining 23,000 American "surge" forces leave Afghanistan by the end of September.
Allen said he won't know what level of combat power is still required until the end of this year's spring and summer fighting season. Key indicators then, he explained, will be the state of the insurgency, the operational environment commanders anticipate in 2013, and the capabilities of the Afghan national security forces.
"It is not just a matter of what to do with the remaining 68,000 U.S. troops," the general noted. "I must also carefully consider the combination of forces in-theater. There will still be some 40,000 ISAF forces in the field, and increasingly capable and increasingly numerous Afghan security forces."
His recommendation will reflect a composite number of U.S., international and indigenous forces, not an American force as "a separate and distinct entity," he added.
Two Afghan security force members died and more than 60 were wounded while combating violent protests that occurred after last month's Quran burnings, he said.
"I could just as easily point to the literally thousands of operations, some large, some small, that they conduct alongside ISAF troops, and often in the lead, every month as we go forward," the general told reporters.
During the last two weeks, Afghan security forces arrested more than 50 insurgents and killed around six, including several who were planning to assassinate the governor of Balkh province, Allen said. They also captured several caches of explosives, weapons and bomb-making materials, he noted, while Afghan police members are contributing to security in cities and towns, most recently during the Nowruz new year celebrations.
"I know people will look at these and other examples and say they're anecdotal, that we still face real challenges in attrition and ethnic composition, even corruption in some of the ranks," Allen acknowledged. "I'm not saying things are perfect, and much work remains to be done."
The general said for every bribe accepted by an Afghan troop and for every instance of so-called "green on blue" attacks pitting an Afghan in uniform against a coalition member, "I can cite hundreds of other examples where they do perform their duties, where the partnership is strong, the confidence of the Afghan forces is building, and where the trust and confidence we have in them and that they have in themselves grows steadily."
Allen said critics never will convince him that Afghan soldiers and police don't have the will to fight for their government, for their country and for their fellow citizens.
"That willingness, I believe, is the thing most hopeful about the entire effort of transition," he said. "They want this responsibility, they want to lead, and we're going to help them to do that."
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