WASHINGTON – One day after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. would respond to recent insurgent attacks in Afghanistan carried out by the Haqqani network from Pakistan, a top NATO commander stoically said their jurisdiction ends at Afghanistan’s border. Instead, the coalition is focused holding the year’s gains across the country, as the war plods on into the fall and next year.
“We can only fire across the border in self-defense,” said Maj. Gen. Tim Evans, International Security Assistance Force Joint Command chief of staff, briefing Pentagon reporters from Kabul.
Perhaps he’s the wrong guy to ask. On Wednesday, following a 20-hour assault on the NATO headquarters and U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Panetta said the U.S. has pleaded with Pakistan “time and time again” to go after the Haqqani.
“I think the message they need to know is: We're going to do everything we can to defend our forces,” he said.
While Panetta would not say how the U.S. would do that, it is widely expected any U.S. strikes on key targets in Pakistan would be conducted via aerial drones or covert special operation raids, similar to the secret targeted killing of Osama bin Laden.
Evans said NATO, however, would “increase that relentless pressure” on the Afghan side of the border to follow so-called rat lines from Pakistan, killing or capturing people once they enter the country. Evans called it part of a layered defense protecting central Helmand, Kandahar and Kabul.
“That’s what we’ve been doing certainly over the spring, and the summer, with some success,” he said.
Evans is the latest official to take up the coalition line that “spectacular attacks” are a sign of insurgent desperation rather than a successful guerrilla tactic.
“We know the insurgents have changed their tactics to go for these spectacular attacks to get the media coverage. They’ve lost ground in central Helmand. They’ve lost ground in Kandahar,” he said, adding that ISAF expects more insurgent attacks on “soft” targets.
Evans asserted seeing signs of progress, in Afghan trust, security capabilities and territorial gains.
“As you’ll see from tomorrow and the next day, Kabul will be as it was prior to Tuesday’s attack, as you saw in Kandahar,” he said. “Again, after these big spectaculars life does return to normal.”
Despite the attention-grabbing insurgent assaults with suicide bombs, car bombs and rockets on military and civilian locations across Afghanistan, Evan said ISAF was focused on another metric: The overall number of enemy-initiated attacks has declined over the last few weeks. He was unable to offer specific figures, though other commanders have reported fewer-than-expected frontal assaults during this year’s warm-weather fighting season.
Now Evans has the coalition focused on planning for the autumn, seeking to exploit the summer’s nationwide gains against insurgency while the U.S. pulls 10,000 troops out of the fight by the end of the year.
The first transition phase of security control from coalition to Afghan forces is nearing completion, Evans said, and will leave 25 percent of the population under Afghan-led protection.
ISAF will begin discussing options for the second round of district handovers later this month, and Afghanistan is expected to announce its decision on those locations in December of January.