Payoff seen in Afghan surge

Taliban demoralized and changing sides, military says

The U.S. military is starting to see signs that the troop surge in Afghanistan is working on a timetable similar to the Iraq reinforcement campaign in 2007, according to an outside adviser and military sources.

“There are already some early signs of a beginning of a momentum shift in our favor,” retired Army Gen. Jack Keane told The Washington Times.

Gen. Keane just returned from a two-week tour of the battlefield, where the focus is on ousting the Taliban from Kandahar, its birthplace, as well as from Helmand province and other southern and eastern areas.

Gen. Keane reported his findings to Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Kabul, who saw the surge of 30,000 troops completed in August, placing about 100,000 American service members in country.

An architect of the Bush administration’s surge of troops in Iraq, Gen. Keane advised Gen. Petraeus when he was the top commander there.

Gen. Keane told The Times he has witnessed in Afghanistan the same shift in fortunes: Taliban fighters are changing sides, villages are being cleansed of the enemy and protected, and intercepted communications show flagging Taliban morale.

“Overall, we can see now that the surge forces are starting to make a difference,” he said. “And you have to be encouraged by some of the progress that’s being made. All that said, we’re in a tough fight, and I believe we will continue to gain momentum.”

Gen. Keane offered two observations as evidence. First, most commanders with whom he spoke said they are encountering Taliban who want to stop fighting and reintegrate into Afghan society. “That’s a big deal,” he said.

Second, “There’s evidence of erosion of some of the will of the Taliban. We pick it up in interrogations, and we also pick it up listening to their radio traffic and telephone calls in terms of the morale problems they’re starting to have,” Gen. Keane said.

A military officer in the U.S. who monitors the war confirmed that Taliban radio chatter sounds a bit frantic.

“The Taliban are not anxious to engage us, because we come after them once they start shooting at us,” the officer told The Times on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press. “One of the translations I saw came out as ‘Marines are insane.’ So, maybe that means that little by little things are getting better.”

Gen. Keane said the drop in Taliban morale can be traced to soldiers and Marines going after hillside hamlets and safe havens. The Taliban has thrived in such areas, where they regroup, plan raids and store ammunition.

“What is happening is, the Taliban’s freedom of movement,” he said. “We are literally taking away from them things they are used to. We are denying them some of the safe havens that they have in the south. We are denying them the support zones they’ve been operating out of with impunity.

“Support zones are up in the mountains, where they use villagers to help hide their weapons caches. Safe havens are up there, too, usually away from everybody, and we are denying them the use of those. We are interdicting and disrupting their operating areas, which had a tendency to focus on the roads quite a bit, and we’re interdicting what they’re doing there.”

Gen. Petraeus is on a schedule to show positive results by July 2011, when President Obama’s war strategy calls for the beginning of a troop exit.

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