Sunday, April 05, 2009

American Brig.-Gen. John Nicholson "optimistic and unashamedly so."

Matthew Fisher has reported from war zones around the world for years where Canadian Forces are deployed. He has covered, objectively, conflicts in Bosnia and Croatia, the first Gulf War, NATO's intervention in Serbia and Kosovo, and Afghanistan, since Canada's involvement beginning in 2002. The following report for Canwest News gives some insight into the plans going forward for southeast Afghanistan.

U.S. general says surge makes Afghan war ‘winnable’

Matthew Fisher, Canwest News Service Published: Sunday, April 05, 2009

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- The American general overseeing the influx of 20,000 to 30,000 U.S. troops into southern Afghanistan is convinced the war can be won and believes that Canada's forces in Kandahar have a crucial role to play in "the toughest place to fight in Afghanistan."
"I am optimistic. It is an optimism informed by a realistic appraisal of the ground. This is quite winnable," Brig.-Gen. John Nicholson said during an interview in NATO's makeshift headquarters at this busy military airfield.
"2009 is a pivotal year. This is the year we are making the investment that can bring us to the tipping point."
That military investment includes an aviation brigade with more than 100 transport, assault and reconnaissance helicopters to work with the International Security Assistance Force across the war-plagued southeast and a highly mobile Stryker armoured brigade to take over responsibility for parts of Kandahar from the overstretched Canadian battle group that has been at war here against the Taliban and al-Qaida since early 2006.
"The heroism of the Canadian soldiers, their willingness to close with the enemy and get the job done and to go back out despite the losses that they have taken, speaks to the calibre and character of the Canadian fighting man and woman," said the general, who serves with the 10th Mountain Division, which is based at Fort Drum, N.Y., across the border from Kingston, Ont.
As Lt.-Gen. Michel Gauthier, the architect of Ottawa's war in Kandahar, recently told CanWest News Service in Kandahar, Canada's greatest shortcoming was that it did not have enough troops to secure the province.
"I think as a military man and as a commander on the ground, and knowing the nature of the difficult task your commanders have faced, I know they have wanted more resources," Nicholson said. "I am pleased that we, your American allies, are delivering some of the additional forces needed to get the job done."
Britain and Canada "have done the heavy lifting for the alliance" in the south for several years, he said.
"The challenge here, of course, and in any counter-insurgency, is holding once you clear. So the amount of force is relevant. In this case, quantity does have a quality of its own because in order to hold an area once you've cleared it requires some commitment of force."
Even though the Canadian and American forces in Kandahar are to be arrayed mostly along district lines, "the population moves back and forth so we must have co-operation," between the two armies, Nicholson said. "It is not just a matter of physical terrain but functional co-ordination. In the areas of development and governance, it is going to be absolutely essential."
While U.S. forces would take over military responsibility for less populated parts of Kandahar, "American forces will respect the primacy of the Canadian PRT (provincial reconstruction team) in the area of governance," across the province, Nicholson said. "The Canadian PRT are the ones who built the relationships, made the investments in the Kandahar provincial government and have the mechanisms in place. We will simply plug into the existing Canadian mechanisms and work governance issues through the PRT."
On the military side, the U.S. army's 2nd battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment would continue conducting counter-insurgency operations in Maywand and western Zahri/Panjwaii, under Brig.-Gen. Jon Vance of Canada.
An increase in fighting was to be expected because there would be more allied forces and "because the enemy does not give up their hold on the population easily," Nicholson said.
The key to defeating the insurgents was, he said, to have a properly resourced campaign and "a unity of effort" with civilians and soldiers from the 17 countries in the south working together alongside Afghan government agencies.
"I am encouraged by the fact that the Afghan people want this," said the former army ranger. "They want a better life. They have not seen the results though.
"Their expectations have been raised and because we have never devoted sufficient levels of resources required to win in the past, many of them have remained on the fence waiting to see how this was going to turn out."
A front page Washington Post article in late March quoted Nicholson as saying each of the NATO countries operating in the south had taken a "stovepipe" approach to development, rather than the regional approach favoured by the U.S. Some in Canada took this as criticism of how Canada had run its aid programs in Kandahar.
This was not so, Nicholson said in remarks designed to clarify his position.
"Canada and the other nations in the south have focused their investment in the province they are in and at the national level," he said, "and that is all that has been asked of them in the past."
As well as more soldiers, the U.S. is bringing additional development dollars so that for the first time a regional effect was possible, he said.
"We are talking about the creation of a regional economic core that will extend from central Helmand to Kandahar to the Pak border and upon which we would then build a self-sustaining, licit agricultural economy," Nicholson said. "We believe this is attainable and we believe this is the best way to help the Afghan people develop an economy that can sustain them and help this transition from poppy to legitimate agriculture."
The goal was to return southern Afghanistan to where it was 40 years ago when the Arghandab and Helmand river valleys were the country's breadbasket, producing not only enough food for domestic needs but for export as well.
""We are seeking to complement what is going on and reinforce, not replace."
If water, power and roads were improved and the traditional economy began to function again, it would blunt the poppy industry, which represented $3 billion to $4 billion in annual profits, more than half of Afghanistan's gross domestic production and, according to NATO estimates, provided $80 million to $400 million in revenue to the Taliban.
"Given that they've got a financial engine in the form of narcotics and a ready supply of manpower in the form of unemployed youth, they could continue indefinitely unless we accomplish this transition from poppy to a traditional agricultural economy," Nicholson said. If this could be achieved it would also limit the corrupting effect that the narcotics trade had had upon on the government, undermining its legitimacy with the people.
"In short, if we encounter narcotics and insurgent activity together then both are legitimate targets," he said. "In fact, we do encounter that quite frequently in Zahri/Panjwaii, in particular. When that has been encountered we have taken appropriate action and that is to call the police and deal with it . . .
"The point is this disrupts the narco-trafficking trade and this is a positive thing. There is a nexus between the two. Not only does the enemy receive financial support. What we often see is that the enemy actually arrays IEDs and conducts their insurgent activity to defend poppy production areas."
It has already been "a tough year" because the NATO armies in the south and, in particular, the Canadians "have been aggressively going after the insurgency," he said. "We have had a higher level of contact and inflicted greater losses on the enemy and disrupted his operations more.
"Nobody should interpret that as a resurgent enemy. They should interpret that as aggressive and courageous behaviour on the part of our soldiers and especially of the Canadians in Kandahar. It has had an extremely disruptive effect on the enemy."
Looking ahead, he said: "I am optimistic and unashamedly so. We can put all this together in a coherent fashion and move things forward."

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