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Payoff seen in Afghan surge

Taliban demoralized and changing sides, military says

- The Washington Times - Monday, October 11, 2010

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.

The four-star general's job may have gotten tougher last week, when James L. Jones, a retired four-star Marine Corps general, quit as Mr. Obama's national security adviser. He will be succeeded by Thomas Donilon, a Democratic Party operative and lawyer who served as Gen. Jones' deputy and who opposed more troops for Afghanistan, which puts him at odds with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

In a recent NPR interview, Gen. Petraeus cited the Malajat district in Kandahar city as an area infested with Taliban but now controlled by U.S. and Afghan forces.

"A month ago, it was a sanctuary for certain elements of the Taliban who were carrying out assassinations, intimidation activities, extortion and a variety of other illicit acts," he said. "They largely controlled it. That Malajat district was [one] in which the Taliban had freedom of movement, freedom of access, and again, considerable influence in that area."

Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, the top Marine in Afghanistan, who is focused on retaking Helmand, has been guarded about war progress. But last week at a change-of-command ceremony, he declared, according to press reports: "We're hurting the enemy, and we're hurting him badly. For every casualty we suffer, the enemy suffers numerous casualties."

Stephen Biddle, a Council on Foreign Relations analyst who advises the command in Afghanistan, like Gen. Keane, has seen territorial gains.

"There are places that had been deeply Taliban-held that are now certainly contested and in some places increasingly government-controlled, like the central Helmand River Valley for example," he said on the council's website. "This may happen increasingly over coming weeks and months in previously dangerous parts of Kandahar province, where progress has not been as fast as many had hoped."

Mr. Biddle said the Obama administration made a mistake in calling out Afghan President Hamid Karzai publicly for rampant corruption, which embarrassed him in front of his people and forced him to lash out at Washington.

Now, the U.S. command and State Department have embarked on a "bottom-up" strategy to try to root out corruption network by network, he said.

There are still plenty of skeptics, given the rampant government corruption, Pakistan's inability to stop the Taliban from infiltrating Afghanistan, and the mixed loyalties of Afghan police and army. The Taliban issued a statement last week on the war's ninth anniversary claiming they control 75 percent of Afghanistan.

Robert Maginnis, a military analyst and Army consultant, said "big problems" exist. Mr. Obama's 2009 Afghan strategy put new emphasis on Pakistan-U.S. cooperation in defeating the Taliban. Yet, elements of Islamabad's intelligence service are still helping the Taliban, according to a London School of Economics study.

"Pakistan is not helping our efforts, and Obama made Islamabad a major part of the solution," he said. "Part of the problem with Pakistan is the major distraction created by the floods, but also because the civilian government is utterly incompetent."

Mr. Maginnis also said that if Mr. Obama insists on the July 2011 deadline, it will result in the Taliban simply returning from Pakistan to retake villages and cities.

"We may spend more blood and treasure in the counterinsurgency, but next summer there will be little to show for the investment other than a few population centers enjoying some security but little governance and an economy," he said.

Still, Gen. Keane said he sees Marines and soldiers methodically taking territory once controlled by the Taliban.

"We've made significant progress in Helmand province," he said. "The Marines will continue to make progress as they push farther north, as well. The effort in the south, in Kandahar, is just beginning."

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