Top US general in Afghanistan: Taliban succeeding with its messaging
Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, greets U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, James Cunningham, and Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, Commander, International Security Force, upon his arrival in Kabul on March 8, 2013.
Stars and Stripes
KABUL — The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said that while the Taliban appear to be facing organizational breakdown and resource shortages, they are succeeding in the important battle for the minds of the Afghan people.
In a wide-ranging discussion with reporters Sunday, Gen. Joseph Dunford, who took command in February, outlined his vision of the final phases of a war in which U.S. troops are rapidly shifting to an advisory and training role while Afghans take over most of the fighting.
He spoke in Kabul on the same day that visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was forced to cancel a joint press conference with President Hamid Karzai and rearrange other meetings because of an unspecified security threat.
Hagel was returning to the United States on Monday after two days in Afghanistan punctuated by series of security issues as well as anti-U.S. statements by Karzai.
On Saturday, a suicide bomber killed 10 people outside the Afghan Defense Ministry, a “message” to Hagel, a Taliban spokesman said.
“There is one place where the Taliban are still successful, and that is the messaging,” said Dunford, who called the primary challenge of the remaining months of the war a “psychological” one.
Two powerful though contradictory Taliban messages are resonating with the Afghan public, which fears instability and uncertainty after the NATO combat mission ends next year more than it fears the Taliban, he said.
“One (message) is the coalition as occupiers, and the other is that the coalition will abandon Afghanistan at the end of 2014,” he said.
But Dunford said that several processes in motion could counteract those ideas, ultimately persuading the Afghan public to throw its support behind a democratic government allied with the United States.
First, the capability of the nation’s security forces is developing rapidly, he said, putting an increasingly Afghan face on the fight against the Taliban. With U.S. and NATO forces in the background, he predicted, ANSF would handle the Taliban in the 2013 fighting season and be able to secure the Afghan national elections in 2014.
The ANSF are doing most of the fighting and nearly all the dying now, Dunford said. Since he assumed command, he said, over 200 Afghan troops had been killed in battle, compared to one American servicemember, as of Sunday. Two U.S. soldiers were killed Monday in Wardak province.
“This is evidence the ANSF is truly in the lead and bearing the brunt,” he said, adding that U.S. commanders are working with Afghan counterparts on tactics to reduce Afghan casualties.
Secondly, Dunford said, the fear of abandonment and instability will be calmed in the coming months as a series of security pacts are signed, including a U.S.-Afghan bilateral security agreement and a NATO status-of-forces agreement.
Those will set the stage for solid commitments of aid and troop levels for training and counterterrorist activities after 2014, he said.
“I think we address that message of abandonment, and that’s with the bilateral security agreement and commitments post-2014,” he said. “[W]ith Afghans in the lead this summer and Afghans providing security across the country, I think we then address that challenge of us as an occupying force.”
On Sunday, Karzai charged that the United States and the Taliban were essentially working together to destabilize Afghanistan. In a nationally televised speech, he said the Defense Ministry attack and another suicide bombing in Khost on Sunday benefits the United States, which he portrayed as trying to stir up fear about the impending end of the war.
Though Karzai has publicly lashed out at the United States over issues including coalition airstrikes and custody of prisoners in recent weeks, Dunford said that he has an effective working relationship with Karzai in private.
Afghanistan is an embattled country trying to rise from the ashes of nearly constant war, and diplomatic flare-ups should be kept in perspective, Dunford said.
“These issues… are a natural tension as Afghanistan increasingly asserts it sovereignty,” Dunford said. “We do not have a broken relationship, we do not have a lack of trust. We have a relationship that actually can absorb this tension as we work through difficult issues.”
Upon his return to Washington from his first trip to Afghanistan as defense secretary, Hagel will “seek ways of deepening and our engagement with Afghan leaders, some of whom clearly have issues they want resolved,” according to a written statement from a senior defense official.
“The top priority for Secretary Hagel will be the Bilateral Security Agreement, which he sees as the lynchpin of U.S.-Afghan relations in the years ahead.”