Commander: Focus of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has been 're-energized'
ARLINGTON, Va. — The U.S. commanding general in Afghanistan has “re-energized” the troops’ focus in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and other terror leaders, boosting efforts in the “unfinished business in that part of the world.”
“The sands in their hourglass is running out,” Lt. Gen. David Barno, leader of Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan, said as he briefed Pentagon reporters via teleconference from Kabul.
And as in Iraq, he continued, the “enemy” operates on a much smaller scale than in the past, shifting from large-number forces to the use of small-scale ambushes, suicide bombers, remotely detonated improvised explosive devices and the targeting of local civilians and nonmilitary targets, such as aid organizations.
“We see some potential indications of transfer of tactics, techniques and process between groups fighting in both countries,” Barno said.
So U.S. forces are changing too, “adjusting military operations to mirror and stay ahead” of the enemy, he said. There are roughly 11,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan, hunting Taliban and al-Qaida remnants and rebuilding the war-torn nation.
Part of that shift centers on a pilot program in the Kandahar region called Regional Development Zone, an expansion of the successful Provincial Reconstruction Team concept, said Col. Richard Perry, commander of the Combined Joint Civil Military Operations Task Force.
While there are many prongs to the RDZ program, one “significant change” is in the troop operations and the idea of “area ownership,” where battalion-, company- and even platoon-sized units forsake the base camp idea and instead “own” and continuously operate in their areas of responsibility. The shift lets them forge better relations with local residents and gain better intelligence on enemy forces, he said.
Larger than the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which are heavily focused on rebuilding infrastructure such as schools, health clinics and water facilities, the RDZ program focuses on a larger land area, more integration of the Afghan military and police forces, and more connections with outside agencies such as USAID and World Bank.
The PRTs play an integral security role, and there eight full-operational PRTs throughout Afghanistan. New ones are planned for this spring in Ghazni, Qalat, Khowst and Asadabad.
Also, improved cooperation with Pakistan means they’re using the “hammer and anvil approach” to squash al-Qaida elements that might flee attacks from Pakistan’s military forces and hit U.S. forces awaiting them on the Afghan side, Barno said.
While Barno said Tuesday he is intent on defeating the terrorist organizations and their leaders, he downplayed comments he made recently when he asserted bin Laden would be captured by year’s end.
“Their day has ended and this year will decisively sound the death knell of their movements in Afghanistan,” Barno was quoted as telling journalists in Kabul about bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.
But Tuesday, Barno declined to reiterate any timetable or address repeated questions about what he meant by those strong words and to include if U.S. forces knew of bin Laden’s specific whereabouts.
“I’ll just say the entire force is re-energized with that mission, but won’t provide more specifics of the direction we’ll be heading,” he said.