The NATO commander in Southern Afghanistan expects hostilities to increase as thousands of additional US troops will be deployed in the region in the coming months. However, Dutch Major-General Mart de Kruif added that later this year and next year there will be a significant improvement in the security situation in the six southern provinces of the country. General de Kruif made his remarks during a video press conference with journalists accredited to the Pentagon on Friday March 20th.
On behalf of NATO, the Dutch general is currently in command of some 23 thousand troops from 17 nations in the area, known as ‘Regional Command (South)’ of ISAF (the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force). That number is expected to increase to some 40 thousand in the coming months, mainly due to additional ISAF troops deployed by the United States. But why would an increase of troops levels initially lead to an increase in hostilities? Major-General de Kruif:
“Once we will see the influence of the U.S. forces that will give us that capability and the capacity not only to expand the areas where we do the shape, clear, hold, build, but also put significant more pressure on the insurgency, on the leadership and on the nexus between that leadership, the narcotics and the IEDs. So that will lead in the first couple of months after the influx of U.S. forces to what I think is going to be a significant spike in incidents. After that and after the elections, however, I think that what we are doing now is actually planting the seeds and that we will view a significant increase in the security situation across southern Afghanistan next year”.
Earlier, the overall commander of NATO and US troops in Afghanistan, four-star US General David McKiernan spoke of a ‘stalemate’ in the South of the country, which includes the restive provinces of Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan. Elaborating on that assessment, Major-General de Kruif said:
“It’s fair to say that from an ISAF point of view, we are not stopped by the insurgency, but we just run out of troops. What do I mean with that? It’s clear to say that two years ago, the insurgents changed their overall strategy from attacking our strength, being ISAF, towards focusing on terrorizing the local nationals, the Afghan people. And one of the elements of that is the use of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices, hdv) . For ISAF, that means that we have to deliver a 24/7 security in the focus areas where we are placed. It’s no use of getting into a village at 8:00 in the morning and then leave that village at 5:00 in the evening. So once we start the shape, clear, hold and build concept in a region, we have to stay there. And with the available troops we have currently right now in theater, we were able to clear parts of central Helmand and in central Oruzgan. But to be able to extend these focus areas, we definitely need more troops.”
The regional ISAF commander added that a mere increase in the number of troops is not enough. Echoing the agenda for the upcoming Afghanistan Conference in The Hague on March 31st, he spoke of the need for a ‘comprehensive’ approach, integrating the available fighting power with civilian elements:
“It’s not just bringing in the military capability, it’s also bringing in the capability to support governance and reconstruction and development. And what we plan here in RC South is that the capabilities regarding governance and reconstruction and development that will come in, hopefully, with the inflow of the U.S. forces will be nested within the existing structure of the PRTs, especially in Helmand and Kandahar. So what I hope is that we do not only see a surge of military capabilities but also of civilian capabilities.”
The Dutch general was asked about the degree to which the Taliban and other insurgent groups control areas in the South – an issue about which widely varying estimates circulate. In his view, the NATO-led force currently is in control of some 60 percent of the populated areas in the region:
“Sometimes people come up to me and say, “Hey, 80 percent of RC South is occupied by the insurgency.” Well, I can tell you I’m out three, four days a week. I travel a lot, visit all the task forces, and I can tell you that 80 percent of the territory here is occupied by nobody, because it’s desert or it’s just mountainous terrain. Where the people live is concentrated along the rivers and the green zones. And it’s fair to say that about 60 percent of the areas where most of the population is concentrated are dominated and controlled by ISAF. So there are absolutely pockets where we don’t have control about, and that is one of the reasons that we need these additional boots on the ground.”