Feb. 8 (Bloomberg) -- The NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan faces “a tough fight ahead” as its shrinking forces take on a weakened Taliban, the U.S. commander in charge of the allies’ day-to-day operations said.
After failing to retake the Helmand River Valley in the country’s south last year, the insurgents will try again when the fighting season resumes after winter’s end with ranks replenished partly from havens across the border in Pakistan, the commander, Lieutenant General Curtis Scaparrotti, told reporters today at the Pentagon.
“They have a regenerative capability, particularly with the Pakistan sanctuary,” Scaparrotti said. “So this is a tough fight ahead.”
The 50-nation coalition, led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, aims to solidify gains of the past two years and strengthen the Afghan army and police to take over security responsibility for the entire country by the end of 2014. The U.S. and its allies will continue a planned drawdown of troops that began with 10,000 American forces exiting last year and 23,000 more set to depart this year.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta set another marker for the transition last week, saying Afghans will lead security operations, with coalition advice and combat backup, by the end of 2013.
As the coalition cuts its forces, the U.S. will bring in security force assistance teams to further train and advise the Afghan army and police. The teams will be connected with a regional combat brigade and an Afghan army or police unit. Some will be accompanied by rifle units for security, depending on conditions in the area, Scaparrotti said.
Scaparrotti, who is in the seventh month of his second tour in Afghanistan, said the Afghans are significantly better fighters than they were when he was there in 2009 to 2010. They still need more work on leadership and logistics, he said.
“I’m optimistic about this, cautiously,” he said. “But I’m a realist in how tough this is going to be.”
He rejected assertions by an Army lieutenant colonel, published in the February edition of Armed Forces Journal, that U.S. military leaders were deceiving the public by saying conditions were improving and the Afghan army and police were becoming more self-sufficient.
“What I saw bore no resemblance to rosy official statements by U.S. military leaders about conditions on the ground,” Lieutenant Colonel Daniel L. Davis wrote in the commentary. He said he served 12 months in Afghanistan last year with the Army’s rapid equipping force and traveled to multiple provinces where U.S. soldiers served.
“I’m hardly the only one who has noted the discrepancy between official statements and the truth on the ground,” Davis wrote.
Scaparrotti said he doesn’t doubt some of the anecdotes the officer cites. Coalition leaders have more comprehensive information to draw on and a broader view, he said.
“I take in a lot of data from many different places, to include a very objective, detailed assessment we do every quarter,” Scaparrotti said. “I’m confident in my personal view that our outlook is accurate.”
--Editors: Larry Liebert, Terry Atlas
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