McKiernan commands NATO’s International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan.
Gates arrived here today to get a direct assessment of how the new strategy is starting to take shape and what gaps remain to be filled to ensure its success. Before arriving here, he said he plans to spend much of his time here in the field, asking troops directly: “What do you need out here that you are not getting?”
McKiernan, who had pressed for additional forces, said the additional 21,000 U.S. troops to arrive in the coming month will go a long way toward breaking “a stalemate” in the security conditions here.
The first of those forces already are in Afghanistan, he said, with the rest slated to arrive throughout the summer, bringing the U.S. force from about 38,000 now to between 60,000 and 68,000 troops in time for Afghanistan’s fall elections.
In preparation for their arrival, U.S. Forces Afghanistan is “furiously expanding” infrastructure in Regional Command South and Regional Command West to accommodate them. “We are setting the conditions to introduce the flow of forces,” he said.
McKiernan offered no illusions of the plus-up being a short-term proposition, and said the time to reassess if yet more troops will be needed won’t occur until at least after the elections. He predicted the increased troops will be required for “at least the next two to three years,” but said there’s no way to assess now exactly how long.
But at the same time, the leaders here are keeping Afghan public opinion in mind, recognizing the dangers of deploying too many troops. “We have to be careful not to put too much of a foreign security face on Afghanistan,” McKiernan said.
Ultimately, the goal boils down to building the Afghan security forces’ capacity and capability so they can provide for their own security and support their own government institutions, McKiernan said.
Among encouraging developments he pointed to is the new Afghan Public Protection Program, an Afghan-initiated and Afghan-run effort in Wardak province that’s been compared to the “Sons of Iraq” program in Iraq. The program applies a “bottom-up approach” to security, with residents serving as a local security force in support of the police. A 243-member class has graduated from the three-week training program led by the Afghans with U.S. support, and a second slightly smaller class is under way now.
McKiernan called the salaries the United States pays Public Protection Program members – less than a police officer’s starting salary – a good investment with a potentially big payoff. “And that’s security,” he said.
As Gates assesses this and other efforts under way here, President Barack Obama is in Washington meeting with the Afghan and Pakistani presidents today. McKiernan said he hopes the talks bode positively for the trilateral approach he said is needed here.
The regional problem is going to take regional solutions, he said. And can Afghanistan reach a stable, secure state while neighboring Pakistan is in turmoil? “The answer is probably no,” the general said.
As he anticipated closer trilateral cooperation and the influx of additional combat power he has long sought here, McKiernan emphasized that success in Afghanistan will require more than military forces.
He admitted to being “very concerned” about those civilian assets and capabilities arriving to complement military operations, and at the required pace to support the shape-clear-hold-build counterinsurgency approach. Lacking them, he said, risks throwing operations into a continuous cycle of shape-clear-hold in the event the all-important “build” part of the equation doesn’t come through.
McKiernan also emphasized the importance of the mission remaining an international effort. Forty-two countries currently support the NATO International Security Assistance Force.
He expressed frustration that NATO hasn’t come through fully with the additional troops it had promised to have in place for the Afghan elections, leaving ISAF two battalions short of what it had expected.
Those nations who choose for whatever reason not to send troop formations, McKiernan said, should “contribute in other ways” by sending mentors or civilians with specialized skills or other critical support.
“But contribute, and stay committed to this mission,” he said.