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McChrystal - changing perceptions of Afghan people is key to success

Changing the perceptions of the Afghan people about the coalition, their own government and the Taliban will be key to success in that nation, the Commander of the International Security Assistance Force and US forces in Afghanistan said last week.

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American Army General Stanley McChrystal told reporters that achieving more progress in the counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan will be a slow, deliberate endeavour, because changing perceptions is challenging.

Efforts in the country will be directed toward “changing not only the dynamics of security, governance and development, but also the attitudes of a population long pressured by insurgents,” he said.

The strategic priority in the country is the development of the Afghan National Security Forces, General McChrystal said:

While both the army and police have demonstrated considerable growth, significant challenges remain. The bottom line is there’s much more work ahead to mature Afghan security forces. But I’m pleased with the progress made thus far.

The operational centre in the country will be in southern Afghanistan, the General said. The area, including Kandahar and Helmand provinces, is the hub for the insurgents and an economic engine for the country as a whole:

Ten months ago, we began a series of operations into Taliban-controlled parts of the central Helmand River valley, expanding the Afghan Government’s influence in key areas,” General McChrystal said. “There’s been considerable progress in security and governance. But as is expected in counter-insurgency, progress is often slow and deliberate.

The operational fight will be centred in and around Kandahar City. The General said there will not be a ‘D-Day’ for the operations to begin in the city because it is a uniquely complex environment that requires as much governmental and political pressure as military involvement. He said:

This effort is being led by the Afghans, and will focus on the complex political and governance aspects of Kandahar.

While Kandahar is the spiritual home of the Taliban, the insurgents do not control the city. General McChrystal said that he and General David Petraeus, Head of US Central Command, walked through the streets of Kandahar two weeks ago. Still, he added, the Taliban are targeting local officials for assassination, and insurgents are intimidating people.

Many insurgencies use targeted assassinations as a way to intimidate the population and undercut the ability of the government to establish effective mechanisms, General McChrystal explained:

That’s what I think we’re seeing here,” he said. “Certainly, some of those murders may be criminally-related, but there is a clear insurgent thrust to the primary part of this.

Engaging the population is the way to counter this group of terrorist thugs, General McChrystal said, explaining that the coalition must engage the natural leaders - tribal elders and political and economic leaders - so that their participation helps shape the vision, and so they clearly buy into Afghan Government and coalition initiatives.

The General began shaping operations with Kandahar leaders months ago:

This is something that’s ongoing, and it’s a process, not an event,” he said.

The process will take time, and people should expect increased violence as the coalition and Afghan security forces expand into Taliban-controlled areas, General McChrystal said:

Over time,” he added, “security responsibilities will transition to Afghans.

Counter-insurgency efforts are long-term and depend more on process, not a sudden event, the General said. Coalition and Afghan troops entering an area have to secure it, and then the Afghan Government, with coalition help, must deliver basic services to the people - education, health, transport, electricity, water and so on:

It’s halting and it’s challenging,” General McChrystal said. “In areas where there has been very little capacity before, to introduce that is hard. And to convince the people is even harder, because they watch the change in security, they watch the beginnings of governance, the beginnings of development, and they have to … see it to believe it.

But they can’t just see it once,” he continued. “They have to see it until they believe it’s durable, until they believe it’s real.

In talking with Afghan groups, General McChrystal said, he is sure they want to be convinced:

I think that that is the challenge over time,” he said. “It’s really a Government of Afghanistan challenge, with our help. They must convince the people they have the capability to deliver, and then the political will to follow through.

This article was first published on the ISAF website - see Related Links.

Published 17 May 2010