WASHINGTON, June 2, 2009 – Conditions in eastern Afghanistan have been challenging, but coalition efforts have paid off with improved security and development, the commander of Regional Command – East said Tuesday. One major challenge that remains is the Taliban targeting innocent civilians, Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser said during a videoconference with reporters at the Pentagon. While there is a growing realization among the Afghan people that the Taliban deliberately target civilians, it still doesn’t elicit the outrage as when coalition forces accidentally kill civilians, he noted.

Schloesser, the commander of Combined Joint Task Force 101, turns over command for Regional Command – East to Army Maj. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, Wednesday.

The Taliban and their allies continue to target and launch attacks on the Afghan people every day, the general said. “Where the enemy is attacking, they are clearly aiming for softer targets, like civilians, as well as Afghan institutions, like district centers, that represent governance at the lowest levels,” Schloesser said.

He said he has been surprised by the willingness of the Taliban to attack innocent civilians, including killing women and children.

While there is clearly outrage in many areas of Afghanistan when ISAF mistakenly kill civilians, “I don’t see the level of moral outrage” when insurgents kill civilians, he said. “The deliberate targeting of [them] is incredible to me, and I would have thought that the world would find it despicable.”

Roughly 75 percent of the attacks in eastern Afghanistan occur in just 25 percent of the 158 districts. “We have a lot of districts in eastern Afghanistan where the level of violence just does not affect the people,” he said.

Still, there has been an increase in violence in the region for the past three years, Schloesser said. This year so far, the level of violence is up about 25 percent over last year.

“Unlike last year, most of that violence I attribute to the operations that we’re conducting with our Afghan partners, as well as those new forces,” he said. “The bottom line is we’re in areas that we were not before. We’ve increased forces sometimes tenfold in those areas, and it’s making a heck of a difference to the insurgents, and I know eventually it will make a difference to the Afghan people in those areas.”

The command has grown from two brigade combat teams to five, Schloesser said. There are more Afghan army and national police units in the region. The command has worked hard on the counterinsurgency campaign that highlights security and development at the district level. “We try to do all this with and by and through our Afghan partners,” he said.

There is more development aid and growing Afghan government capabilities to help the people, the general added. “There’s no doubt in my mind there’s been substantial improvement across the board with some of these resources or all of these resources,” he said. “But I do want to highlight that we’re nowhere near the tipping point yet, and I also will say that progress is fragile.”

The progress has been tough and not without sacrifice. “We’ve lost 178 soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and civilians killed in action up till this afternoon, and 810 wounded – some of them grievously,” Schloesser said. “There’s no way we can bring them back; there’s no way that we can express enough grief to their loved ones. But I do want them to know that there’s not a day that goes by that we don’t think about their sacrifices or the sacrifices of their families.”

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