Calling the progress in Afghanistan "slow and steady," Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, director of the Joint Staff Afghanistan Pakistan Coordination Cell, said spikes of violence are to be expected in areas where the Taliban and other insurgents haven’t been completely cleared of in the past.
Speaking Oct. 25 at the Association of the United States Army’s Annual Meeting and Exposition, Nicholson, who is Gen. David Petraeus’ representative in Washington, outlined how U.S. and other coalition forces are working to rid Afghanistan of terrorist safe havens and help guide the government in establishing democracy to a country that has now seen five different forms of government over the past 30 years.
With 35 provinces and 330 districts in the country, the current hot spots are concentrated throughout only one-third of the country – mainly the eastern and southern portions of Afghanistan that borders Pakistan, Nicholson said. Sixty-three percent of the violence in Afghanistan occurs in the Helmand, Kandahar and Kunar provinces.
However, "if you broaden the aperture, there are varying signs of progress," he said. Special Operations Forces for instance have had an unprecedented operations tempo where they are capturing or killing three to five enemy leaders every 24 hours. That has meant that the leadership age in the insurgent forces is sinking.
"We want the enemy to flee, re-join society or lay down their arms," Nicholson said.
He gave the surge of Marines in the Nawa Province in June 2009 as an example of what just about every area of the country will face where the insurgent population still has a stronghold. Once the Marines deployed, the violence immediately went up, but as the insurgents have been forcefully evicted, the level of violence has gone down.
Additionally, Pakistan has stepped up its efforts over the past four years. With Taliban and other insurgents running across the border, Pakistan has renewed its focus to secure its own country, Nicholson said.
In addition to ridding the country of the terrorist influences, the challenge is also to build up the population’s confidence in the democracy of the Afghanistan government.
"As we create these security bubbles, the Afghan government extends into the area to connect with the people," Nicholson said.
But that connection isn’t automatic as some residents are skeptical and lack knowledge of the democratic process, he said. Many villages are in remote areas that have not had any form of governance or even a police force, and establishing these new presences are important for the future of Afghanistan.
"This is the hardest part of what we’re doing," Nicholson said.
A critical area that leads to this renewed confidence includes bolstering the infrastructure, to include agriculture, schools, health care, roads and water, Nicholson said. Agriculture is especially important because of the past dependence of harvesting poppy that is the backbone of the majority of the world’s opium production.
Recently, economic trade along networks through the north – namely India and Iran – has grown to expand alternatives to opium trafficking, he said. In addition, a major effort has been made to improve electricity in the country, which expands agriculture processing.
Establishing schools is another important aspect because of the country’s high illiteracy rate, Nicholson said. In 2001, less than 1 million children went to school, but now that number is over 7 million.
"We’re now educating the next generation of Afghanistan, kids who never knew the Taliban," Nicholson said. "This next generation is crucial."
Improving health care continues to be a concern because, despite the efforts over the years, "it’s still woefully inadequate," he said. Afghans’ life expectancy is less than 50 years, so simple things like rudimentary health care can make a great difference in their lives.
This has been a landmark year in Afghanistan with U.S. operations expanding and the Hamid Karzai-led government becoming more confident and empowered. Karzai has set 2014 as the goal for Afghanistan to take charge of police and security operations. An upcoming conference in Lisbon will be an important milestone toward reaching that goal as 50 nations will gather to discuss the transition to Afghanistan’s control.