10/11/06 — Eikenberry says troops getting job done, but more to do

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Eikenberry says troops getting job done, but more to do

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on October 11, 2006 1:55 PM

For Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, it was a long dash home from Afghanistan to Goldsboro to visit his ailing father, Harry, Tuesday. But after encouraging all the soldiers under his command to tell their stories to their hometown media, he felt the need to do the same.

"Once I was asked if Afghanistan was the forgotten war," said the three-star general in command of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. "That's up to the American people, but one thing I'll assure you of -- for the 20,000-plus troops on the ground, it is not a forgotten war.

"They are leaning into this mission and are acquitting themselves well. They have extraordinarily high morale. They know what the stakes are and they enjoy working with the Afghan people.

"I've seen great service and sacrifice from people from right here in Goldsboro and all across North Carolina, and I have absolute faith that our government is in this -- that they know the situation in Afghanistan and are fully committed to it."

And after a busy year, it's a situation the 1969 Goldsboro High school graduate knows well.

In May 2005, after a stint as the U.S. security coordinator in Afghanistan, Eikenberry assumed command of the U.S.-led coalition forces there.

At that point, he said, his job was to focus on two things -- continuing the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban and reconstructing the nation's infrastructure.

Last week, Eikenberry transferred control of the 12,000 U.S. troops in the eastern and southeastern portions of the country over to NATO commander British Gen. David Richards. It was the final transfer of command as NATO assumed full control of military operations in the country.

"The transition to NATO has been very smooth," Eikenberry said. "There really was no change on the ground. The only significant changes were the flags flying over the bases. In addition to the United States flag, they now have the NATO flag over them as well. NATO's success is the United States' success is Afghanistan's success."

And that success, he continued, is based on the same goals as it was a year ago -- driving out the enemy while rebuilding the country.

"This is a challenging military mission for NATO -- the most challenging operation in its history," Eikenberry said. "But I believe the NATO alliance will be successful in Afghanistan.

"We're fighting an enemy that cannot defeat us -- NATO, the United States and Afghanistan -- militarily. Militarily our forces dominate wherever we go."

The key, now, is rebuilding Afghanistan's infrastructure.

"The government of Afghanistan is still new. It's trying to stand itself up. You can imagine that after 30 years of brutal warfare this is a very slow process."

Yes, he said, there are still some areas where the insurgency has a foothold, but those are areas the fledgling government is only now trying to reach.

"It's not that the enemy anywhere is that strong," Eikenberry said. "It's that the government and security forces are still weak. There hasn't been anywhere in Afghanistan where there's been a strong government presence that the enemy has pushed it away.

"Wherever we go, we dominate."

That, he continued, is why there has been a "steady shifting of (the enemy's) tactics" to suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices in attacks on schools, children, secular institutions and moderate religious leaders.

"They're targeting the will of the Afghan people. I don't look at that as a sign of strength. I look at it as an atrocity and a crime against humanity.

"I remain very confident the Afghan people will not be intimidated."

But, Eikenberry stressed, there is still a long way to go in rebuilding the country. New roads and schools must continue to be built. New economic structures must continue to be put in place. Judicial systems must be created. And social services must begin to be offered to the people.

"More has to be done by the international community. More has to be placed into reconstruction efforts, but I believe if the effort is made, this campaign is very winnable."

And those are efforts that Eikenberry will continue to oversee as the commander of nearly 12,000 U.S. troops outside the NATO umbrella.

Part of that 12,000 will be charged with training Afghan military and police forces and doing reconstruction work, as well as providing administrative, logistical and air support.

The rest of that force will focus on counter-terrorism -- attacking the al-Qaida and international terrorist networks still trying operate within Afghanistan. They also will continue to operate U.S. prisons and interrogation centers.

Included in that mission is finding Osama bin Laden.

"In fighting the international terrorist network, it's not about any one person. It's about the network. There's no one particular part in the network that will cause the destruction of the network."

"It is important, though, that bin Laden is one day captured or killed. It's important in terms of justice. The hunt continues and one day he will be brought to justice."

But all of this will take time -- a point Eikenberry hammered home again and again.

"We need time. We need patience. And we need commitment from the American people. We are winning, but we have not yet won," he said.

"This country was just absolutely devastated by three decades of brutal warfare. The baseline we began with in 2001 was extremely low, and it's going to take time."

Since Operation Enduring Freedom began in 2001, though, much has changed and much has improved.

"As I look at how we operated in 2002 and 2003 and if I look at the learning that's occurred, it's been remarkable."

Those lessons have changed not only the way the military is fighting the war, but also the way they are working with the Afghan people.

Their doctrine now is to "engage, clear, hold and build."

That means, he said, going into an area, making contact with the local leaders, pushing the enemy out of the area, making a commitment to stay and then building up the infrastructure.

"We've learned the importance of partnering with the Afghans to achieve success on the ground. Through that partnership, we're defining success in ways that are most important -- through the eyes of the people. This is a mission that's all about building mutual trust and mutual confidence."

And that, he continued, has helped the international coalition maintain the support of the Afghan government and the Afghan people.

"There's no question that still today the Afghan people support the presence of international military forces on the ground. They know that after the past three decades, the international military presence, for some time, will be essential."

It's a military presence, however, that will outlast his time in the country.

"If we look at this as a football game metaphor, on any one of our watches right now, no one is going to get the ball across the goalline," Eikenberry said. "Our job is to get another first down and help move the ball toward the goalline.

"If you say the ball was on the one-yard line in 2001 ... I don't know where the ball is right now, but I know we've got some first downs."