By Walter Pincus
Monday, November 24, 2008
"The notion that things are out of control in Afghanistan or that we're sliding toward a disaster, I think, is far too pessimistic," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Friday during a news conference in Nova Scotia.
Gates's view was backed up in part by two briefings, given Tuesday and Friday by Army brigade commanders in Afghanistan who spoke by teleconference to reporters at the Pentagon. Col. John Spiszer covers a four-province area of 3 million people that runs along the northeastern Afghan border with Pakistan, where mountains rise 10,000 feet and many of the passes above 7,000 feet are closed by snow. Col. John P. Johnson is responsible for five provinces to the south -- three along the Pakistani border -- where the average elevation is above 6,000 feet. The area is home to 2.7 million people.
Spiszer said that he had not seen a reduction in combat over the past six months and that in October there was more fighting than there had been a year earlier. Johnson, on the other hand, said that although there was a "significant increase" in fighting in the spring and early summer, "there's been a marked decrease over the last three months."
Both attributed the changes to increased activity by Pakistan's army and other border security forces. In Spiszer's view, increased effort by Pakistan's army in the Bajaur tribal area "might actually be pushing some guys back this way, which might account for some of the rise." Pakistani operations, he said, are "having an impact, both good and bad."
For Johnson, the decline in enemy activity in his area can also be attributed to new operations across the border by the Pakistani military, which he said have led to a "marked decrease" in the number of improvised explosive devices used against coalition and Afghan forces.
Both officers praised a sharp increase in cross-border coordination among themselves, the Afghans and the Pakistanis. Spiszer said he frequently goes to strategy sessions at a "border coordination center" at one of his forward operating bases near the Khyber Pass, where there are representatives of the United States, the Afghan National Army and the Border Police, along with Pakistani army and Frontier Corps personnel. We "figure out what's going on and coordinate our activities," he said.
This "cooperation and coordination" includes "the sharing of the intelligence, the contact numbers, company commanders meeting face to face," Spiszer said.
Johnson echoed the view. "Coordination and communications between us and our Pak mil brothers has steadily increased," he said, going on to describe 13 collaborative actions with the Pakistanis. Among them: coordinated heavy-weapons fire and the positioning of Pakistani military forces to stop insurgents from fleeing back across the border from Afghanistan.
He described sitting down with Pakistani brigade commanders who share the border area to build a relationship that he said he hopes will "assist us in coordinating specific operations designed to improve the security situation along the border."
Spiszer said the enemy includes a variety of groups. To his south, he faces what he called "the Tora Bora front," successors to an Islamist faction that includes drug smugglers. To the north is a group associated with the Pakistan Taliban. There also are Taliban and Kashmiri separatist groups, both of which come across the border to train to return and fight, either in Pakistan or Kashmir.
"Some of them come here because they're paid to," he said. "There's a lot of different reasons and different groups here that don't coordinate their activities very well, which in fact gives us an advantage here. But I don't see large numbers of foreigners."
Though many experts see the Afghan opposition differently, Johnson characterized the enemy as "any actor that draws the population away from the vision of legitimate government of Afghanistan." He described the purpose of the mission as separating "the people from the enemy physically, but more important, psychologically."
"We also strive to . . . connect them with their Afghan national security forces . . . ensuring that our number one priority is the capacity-building of the institutions so vital to convincing the people to reject any alternative vision."
National security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus pores over the speeches, reports, transcripts and other documents that flood Washington and every week uncovers the fine print that rarely makes headlines -- but should. If you have any items that fit the bill, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.