WASHINGTON, July 6, 2011 - The drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan will begin this month with some 1,600 troops set to redeploy without replacement by fall, according to a senior U.S. commander there.
Army Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, commander of the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command in Afghanistan, briefed Pentagon reporters here today via video link from Kabul about the drawdown and security transition, also set to start this month.
Rodriguez, who has spent 40 months in Afghanistan since 2007, also will return to the United States this month and will assume command of U.S. Forces Command, headquartered at Fort McPherson, Ga.
The Army National Guard's 1st Squadron, 134th Cavalry Regiment in Kabul and its 1st Squadron, 113rd Cavalry Regiment in neighboring Parwan province, both part of the Iowa National Guard, are set to redeploy with a total of 800 soldiers this month. The Marine Corps' 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment in Regional Command Southwest is set to redepoy with 800 Marines in the fall, a Pentagon official said.
Joint Command has achieved progress, Rodriguez said, with a plan that began in summer 2009 to focus on population centers and commerce nodes aimed at strengthening the "trinity" of good governance, capable security forces and the people's confidence in government.
"When all three work together, we know Afghans can arrive at viable local solutions," he said. "Where we have focused our efforts, we have degraded the insurgency, built the Afghan security forces, and ultimately mobilized many of the Afghan people against those who threaten their way of life."
Afghan forces take on greater responsibility every day for preventing attacks across the country, he said.
During a recent incident in Kabul, Rodriguez said, Afghan national security forces "prevented numerous suicide bombers from killing hundreds of civilians" in the Intercontinental Hotel.
Coalition forces and their Afghan and international civilian partners work together to ensure governmental and developmental efforts quickly follow security gains, he said.
"We are no longer clearing areas again and again and again," he noted. "We spend the bulk of our military effort on degrading or destroying insurgent infrastructure, but we also ensure that the planning for local security and good governance begins early enough to be implemented as soon as the security conditions allow."
Coalition and Afghan forces have taken the fight to the insurgents since winter, Rodriguez said, targeting leaders, command-and-control networks, support bases and infiltration routes.
"Together, we have captured or killed [more than] 1,000 insurgents over the last six months, approximately 250 percent more than in the same period last year," he said.
This spring, joint forces located three times more weapon caches as during spring 2010, he noted.
Coalition forces have "begun the process of working ourselves out of a job," Rodriguez said. "We will hand over the lead to the Afghans gradually, over time, and it's going to begin now."
Handover will begin this month, the general said, in the first seven areas Afghan President Hamid Karzai designated as those where his nation's forces will assume security responsibility: Herat city, Bamiyan province, Kabul province [except Surobi], Lashkar Gah in Helmand province, Mazar-e-Sharif in Balkh province, and Mehtar Lam in Laghman province.
"As we move forward with the plan, the transition will continue to be conditions-based," Rodriguez said. "In the tougher areas, we will thin out forces and either shift [them] to other areas or send some forces home."
The commander said he believes transition is on track, and that coalition and Afghan forces can achieve the 2014 goal of complete Afghan security responsibility along with the planned U.S. troop drawdown.
"We've made hard-won progress in Helmand and Kandahar, and there have been advances in a number of other areas in the east, west and north, aided by the growth of Afghan and coalition forces over the past two years," Rodriguez said.
As the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan drops by 33,000 by the end of next summer, 70,000 more Afghan forces will enter the ranks, he noted.
"There will be over 350,000 Afghan national security forces in place to protect the people and continue the momentum," he said.
As the "look and feel" of the international presence in Afghanistan changes, Rodriguez said, the Afghan government will need to balance the responsibilities of providing security, rule of law, essential services, and the infrastructure capacity for sustainable economic growth.
ISAF's plan still emphasizes building Afghan forces' capability, increasing government effectiveness in districts and provinces, and decreasing insurgent access to Afghanistan along the "porous" Pakistan border, he said.
The focus of coalition efforts in Afghanistan is likely to shift east along that border, the general said.
"We will end up thinning out [in the south] and then focusing more and more of our energy in the east," he said. "As far as the timing of that, again, it will be conditions-based, and it's a little bit too early to take that guess right now."
ISAF's Afghanistan strategy needs more help from the Pakistani military, Rodriguez said.
"We continue to coordinate and build the relationships so we can better synchronize our plans across that border, but we still need some more support in doing that," he said.
If Pakistan's support doesn't improve, Rodriguez said, the alternative on the Afghan side of the border is to build strength in security forces and the government to "be able to handle the challenges they'll see in the future."
Provincial and district governments must ensure they're acceptable to the people they serve, so they don't threaten security, the general said.
"When the people become mobilized and they build a representative shura that both represents their people and holds their government accountable, then we're on the right track," he said. "That government of course has to first provide security, as well as justice and a representative opportunity."
The most critical task facing the coalition, Rodriguez said, is to "support good Afghan leaders and encourage them to build depth within their ranks, and inspire other leaders to join in helping create a hopeful future."