Hopeful signs in NATO's Kandahar offensive: British general
A NATO commander on Thursday cited "encouraging signs" that a pivotal push against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan was making headway, but cautioned it would take until June to know if the offensive was making genuine progress.
In a bid to break the back of the insurgency, US-led troops and Afghan forces have cleared key roads in Kandahar province, disrupted insurgent supply lines and bolstered security in Kandahar city, British General Nick Carter told reporters by video link.
A growing number of Afghans were tipping off Western troops to homemade bombs planted by the insurgents, while some Pashtuns were volunteering to join the Afghan army for the first time, said Carter, who leads coalition troops in the southern region, the birthplace of the Taliban.
"These are encouraging signs. They are, by no means, huge measures of success. But you can see the general direction of travel," Carter said from Kandahar Air Field.
Amid waning public support for the mission in Europe and the United States, the offensive in Kandahar -- backed up by an influx of US troops -- is seen as a make-or-break effort to turn around the war in the symbolic heartland of the mainly Pashtun insurgency.
US and NATO officials have sought to portray the war effort as making slow and steady progress in Kandahar and elsewhere, but reports from the ground have been mixed.
Despite plans to begin a US withdrawal in July 2011, some US and European officials have been more skeptical in private, saying the insurgency remains resilient after nine years of war and in no rush to seek a peace deal.
Carter, however, said there was "definitely momentum, a sense that probably the initiative is now with us and not, as it was a year ago, with the insurgency."
But "it won't be until June next year that we'll be sure that the advances we've made during the course of the last few months are genuinely successful."
Next summer would be an important test because insurgent attacks in the south tended to fade in winter months without foliage to provide cover, and then in the spring, most men were busy with harvesting poppy and pomegranate crops, the general said.
If security gains are still in place starting next June, then NATO would know that its concerted campaign against the insurgency in the south was working, he said.
Carter said some main roads and highways around Kandahar city were now more secure, including Highway One to the west of the city that was once sowed with roadside bombs.
In what he called another hopeful sign, Carter said more Afghans were telling NATO and Afghan forces where homemade bombs, or improvised explosive devices (IEDs), were planted.
In the Zhari district to the west of Kandahar city, the number of explosives found or defused compared to the number that hit coalition forces -- what the military calls the find-to-strike ratio -- was at "about 40-3 at the moment," said Carter, an "extraordinary statistic."
With dozens of new checkpoints, outposts and concrete barriers circling Kandahar city, NATO and Afghan forces have set up a "ring" of security around the city that was beginning to bear fruit, he said.
As an example, he said more Afghans had ventured outside after dark during the end of Ramadan, which he called a sign of growing confidence in security conditions.
The advances were still tentative, he said, adding: "But I suspect if you wandered around the streets of Kandahar now -- and I know journalists who've done that -- they'll tell you that the man in the street is in a better place than he was three or four months ago."
In an assault dubbed Operation Dragon strike, NATO and Afghan troops last month moved to push the Taliban out of areas surrounding the city, in Panjwayi, Zhari and Arghandab.
Carter suggested the Taliban had been mostly rolled back from Arghandab, northwest of Kandahar city, and the challenge was now making sure competent figures stepped in as local leaders to win the trust of Afghans.
Coalition forces meanwhile continued to battle insurgents in Panjwayi and Zhari.
"And I sense that we'll still be clearing for another couple of weeks," he said.
© 2010 AFP