WASHINGTON, July 16, 2009 – Defense leaders are encouraged about operations in Afghanistan, but meeting long-term objectives there will require “an enormous” worldwide commitment to train and grow Afghan forces, a Pentagon spokesman said. 

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates “is encouraged thus far by how things are going operationally” in the U.S. Marine-led offensive that began two weeks ago in Afghanistan’s southern provinces, Geoff Morrell told reporters at a Pentagon press briefing yesterday. 

Morrell acknowledged it has been “an extraordinarily difficult month” with 22 U.S. servicemembers and 17 other coalition members killed in the offensive dubbed Operation Khanjar, or “strike of the sword,” primarily in Helmand province. 

Despite those losses, troops “have met little resistance” as they’ve moved into the Nawa and Garmsir districts and have “generally, been welcomed” by residents, he said. 

“But, obviously, as we move into areas where we have not traditionally been operating, we are confronting insurgents along the way, those who are not running and hiding,” Morrell said. “There are those who, through [improvised explosive devices] and indirect fire, hit-and-run operations, are trying to impede our progress.” 

The combined force of some 4,000 Marines and 650 Afghan soldiers were deployed quickly to the provinces to secure the area from the Taliban in time for next month’s scheduled national elections, he said. 

“The security situation, particularly in the South, was not conducive for holding free and fair and safe elections in August,” Morrell said. “Everybody agreed we had to change that dynamic on the ground, and the only way to do it was to get forces there and get them there fast. And that’s what we have done, and that’s what our allies have done, and that’s why we are moving out and trying to improve the situation in the limited window of time that we have.” 

With the roadside bomb threat growing in Afghanistan, Morrell said, Gates pushed to move some 3,000 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles to Afghanistan. At least 5,000 more MRAPs — newly designed as an all-terrain vehicle — are to be shipped there, as well, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets also are increasing, he said. 

“We’ve got to tackle this threat from 360 degrees,” Morrell said. “We’ve got to get them from the air. We’ve got to monitor the roads. We’ve got to watch patterns of life for these [improvised explosive device] networks. We’ve got to provide force-protection measures that will keep our troops safe if they do encounter them. And we’ve got to increase our intelligence on the ground to ultimately dismantle these groups. 

“But fundamentally, you got to win over the population. You got to have them believe that you are there for the long haul; you are there for their best interests. We are the ones they should trust, and we are the ones they should provide information for about the people who are trying to make their lives miserable.” 

Securing the southern provinces is part of the Obama administration’s long-term strategy to move control from the Taliban and to the Afghan government, he said. 

“We are committed, for the long run, to maintain a force presence in as many populated areas as possible to protect the population from the Taliban and other terrorists, and to help the Afghan government to be able to exert itself more throughout the country to provide services, to provide economic development so that people there have something else they can believe in other than the bankrupt ideology and the fear that is promoted by the Taliban,” he said. 

Ultimately, Afghan security forces will need to take over, and that will require much more training and recruitment to build those forces, Morrell said. Plans are under way to grow the Afghan National Army from its current 90,000 members to 134,000 by the end of next year, and to train some 28,000 soldiers per year, he said. 

Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who recently took over command of both the NATO International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan, is considering whether the Afghan force needs to grow bigger and faster, Morrell said. 

Gates has said even getting to 134,000 trained Afghan soldiers “is going to be a real challenge,” Morrell said. “Trainers have been at a premium. We’ve had to contribute more of them than we would like because it’s been difficult getting them from our allies. If we all believe that it is necessary to grow the Afghan National Security Forces even beyond that, it’s going to take an enormous commitment from not just us, but with the world to provide the trainers necessary to get it done in a time that can have an impact on the ground, and also to pay to sustain this force in the long run.” 

Defense Department officials budgeted $7 billion this year to grow and sustain Afghan forces and plan to deploy a training brigade to Afghanistan this fall. That will “make a big difference,” but it won’t be enough, Morrell said. 

“If we are serious about this, if the world is committed to this, it’s going to require all of us accepting additional responsibility and burden in this area, both in terms of trainers and in terms of financial contributions,” he said. 

Morrell declined to say how long Operation Khanjar might last. “Suffice it to say, this is not the only operation we are going to undertake. There will be many such operations. If this operation is ultimately not sustained over the long run, trust me, there will be many more to follow. This is all part of a renewed focus and effort to protect the population in Afghanistan. And you have a new commander and a new strategy, and that’s where we’re headed.”

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