The outgoing deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan said Wednesday that the planned pullout of U.S. troops poses a minimal risk to gains against Taliban insurgents, as violence in the country has increased.
"We can achieve sufficient stability across Afghanistan by 2014," Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez told reporters at the Pentagon by video link from Kabul, referring to the announced drawn down of 33,000 troops set to begin this month.
The general, who will be leaving his post next month, said the troop cut announced by President Obama two weeks ago will not negatively affect Afghanistan's security.
Some 70,000 new recruits will be added to Afghan national security forces by the summer of 2012, brining the total number to more than 350,000, he said.
"It's the growing capacity of the Afghan national security forces and the strengthening of their organizations that enable us to continue the momentum without increasing the risk by a significant level," the three-star general said. "We've begun the process of working ourselves out of a job."
Despite the positive signs, Gen. Rodriguez said he remained cautious, noting that progress against the Taliban "is still fragile and reversible," a phrase echoed by multiple ISAF commanders in the lead-up to the president's troop decision.
"We've still got a little bit more way to go," Gen. Rodriguez said. "We will stay the course with a plan and not chase transition."
The recent insurgent attack on Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel was a sign of the growing strength of Afghan security forces, Gen. Rodriguez said. The Afghans prevented the deaths of hundred of people in countering the attack, he said.
"Each day, [Afghan forces] are taking on greater responsibility and helping prevent spectacular attacks across the country," he said.
The attack on the hotel, housing mainly wealthy Afghans and foreigners, lasted six hours, and was ended when NATO helicopters killed three insurgents on the hotel's roof.
The troop drawdown comes in a year marked by increased violence by the Taliban and other insurgent groups, a situation that Gen. Rodriguez saw as a sign of their desperation.
"In places where we focused our energy, [attacks] are down," he said. "There is a significant increase in direct fire attacks that are very ineffective."
The reason violence was not dying down as quickly as in Iraq, he said, was because Iraq's insurgency was based in towns and cities, while the Afghan insurgents are in rural regions.
The general said that during the drawdown, troops will be moved across the country. Some units will be leaving while others deploy to the east near the Pakistani border, where Taliban forces have been regrouping after coalition offensives in the southern provinces for the past two years.
Pakistani forces launched an attack Wednesday on North Waziristan, hitting insurgents on their side of the border.
Gen. Rodriguez said the first stage of the troop drawdown will begin later this month. Three battalions based in different parts of the country will finish their deployment and will not be replaced.
In addition to bolstering local military forces, Gen. Rodriguez also said the success of the U.S. mission depends on supporting the Afghan government.
"What is most critical is that we support good Afghan leaders," he said, "and inspire other leaders to join in helping create a hopeful future."
Gen. Rodriguez said that outside influences, such as Iran, have not increased efforts within the country since the announcement of the drawdown, noting that arms trafficking across the Iranian border remained "pretty consistent for the last several years."
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