As death toll mounts, coalition insists Afghanistan war is on track

 

McClatchy Newspapers

Amid a two-day spate of attacks that killed more than three dozen people, including seven American soldiers, the U.S.-led coalition insisted Monday that the war in Afghanistan is on track and that Afghan security forces will be ready to defend their country when international combat troops withdraw.

Coalition officials made the claim even as evidence mounted that NATO is painting an overly optimistic picture of the capabilities of Afghan security forces.

“Yesterday was a tough day for Afghan civilians, coalition and Afghan forces,” said German Brig. Gen. Guenter Katz, the spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force, as the coalition is formally known.

Three Afghan policemen were killed and 18 wounded Monday in insurgent attacks in the capital of southern Kandahar province, local officials said. Eight civilians were killed in the violence, including two children, according to a statement from the Kandahar governor’s office.

The statement said 14 insurgents – including several suicide bombers – were also killed in Monday’s attacks, which began when a motorcycle bomb exploded. Insurgents shortly afterward struck a city market and the police chief’s compound, sparking fighting that lasted for about 90 minutes.

Separately, an Afghan civilian and an Afghan contractor were killed when a coalition patrol was attacked in the restive southern province of Helmand, the coalition said.

The series of deadly incidents came a day after 18 civilians were killed and 10 wounded in three insurgent attacks in Kandahar, a traditional hotbed of the Taliban, according to local officials. Katz said seven Americans were also killed Sunday in insurgent attacks.

Despite the recent spike in violence, and ongoing questions about the readiness and reliability of Afghan forces, Gen. Katz said that the war in Afghanistan was going according to plan and that Afghan forces were becoming “more and more capable.”

However, Afghans interviewed by McClatchy over the weekend were deeply skeptical about the ability of their country’s forces to protect them once foreign forces leave. On Monday, Katz told McClatchy that the coalition’s own research showed that many Afghans were positive about the Afghan National Security Forces.

“When we go out and ask the people on the street . . . they’re saying they have confidence in the ANSF,” Katz said. “They are confident that, by the end of 2014, they will be capable of doing the job.”

At a news conference Monday, Katz acknowledged two “green-on-blue” attacks last week in which Afghan service members turned their weapons on coalition soldiers, killing three British soldiers in one of those incidents. But he said this had not shaken the confidence that the coalition had in Afghan security forces.

Katz said that the complete transfer of responsibility of security in Afghanistan would take place as scheduled by the end of 2014.

“We’ve still got 29 months to go, which is quite a long time, actually,” Katz said.

He said that Afghan security forces would grow to the target of 352,000 service members by the end of summer and that 40 percent of all operations are being planned and led by Afghan forces.

Afghan security officials have told McClatchy that ISAF and the Afghan government frequently overstate the capability and role of Afghan forces in operations, including the ability of some elite local units. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Last month, a McClatchy reporter observed Norwegian special forces taking a lead role in ending an insurgent siege of a restaurant near Kabul, even though the ISAF commander, U.S. Marine Gen. John R. Allen, credited the Afghan police commandos the Norwegians train. Allen described ISAF’s role in the fight as “minimal.” Afghan government officials claimed only “two or three” Norwegian “advisers” were involved in resolving the siege, but reporters counted around a dozen.

A Norwegian Defense Ministry spokesman also confirmed that the Norwegian special forces had played an active role in operations with the Afghan police commandos they are mentoring.

“Notwithstanding that, we still say the Afghans were in the lead,” Katz said. “There were (Norwegian) special forces involved who supported them, and (storming the restaurant) doesn’t mean you are leading the entire operation.”

McClatchy special correspondent Ali Safi contributed from Kabul, Afghanistan.

Stephenson is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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