KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghan troops battling in the Taliban heartland are improving but are not “impressive” and still need logistical support from NATO-led forces, a senior Canadian officer said.
The ability of Afghan troops to fight on their own is crucial to NATO’s goal of handing over control of security by the end of 2014, and will be a crucial focus when U.S. President Barack Obama reviews his Afghanistan war strategy next month.
Two of the four 500-man Afghan army battalions Canadian and U.S. forces are paired with in southern Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, the Taliban’s spiritual home, can now operate on their own “for several hours”, the Canadian officer said.
“Two battalions are very well trained and they have achieved a level of capability that is quite surprising,” the officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters in a briefing late on Wednesday.
“I won’t say they are impressive, but they are pretty good. They are anything but gun-shy,” he said.
However, they still lack critical logistical support such as fast evacuation of wounded from the battlefield, the officer said.
Better Afghan forces and the arrival of more U.S. troops as part of 30,000-troop “surge” ordered by Obama last year have helped the coalition make inroads into Taliban strongholds around the key southern city of Kandahar, the officer said.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has about 25,000 troops in Kandahar province, a big increase from when 2,800 Canadian soldiers tried to control the province’s 54,000 sq km (20,000 sq miles) on their own in recent years.
About 10,000 Afghan soldiers also are in the province.
The sprawling ISAF base centered on Kandahar city’s airport rumbles almost constantly from fighters and helicopters taking off or landing and from the noise of new construction.
The greater troop strength means that Canadians and other NATO forces can better protect residents from the Taliban, a key element of the counterinsurgency strategy laid out by U.S. and NATO commander General David Petraeus, the officer said.
“Before, we were chasing ghosts. We were never able to say, ‘We’re here to stay and defend you’, and then actually do it. It all comes down to boots on the ground,” he said.
“The dynamic is good. Is it perfect? No.”
Canadians have suffered 152 fatalities in Afghanistan, the third-highest total among foreign forces. They now operate largely in the Panjwai district west of Kandahar city, a Taliban hotbed.
“We always need more men, but time is the factor. We need more time,” the officer said. That would allow ISAF to train Afghan troops and assure residents that security forces would not abandon them.
The U.S. Defense Department said on Tuesday that Kandahar and neighboring Helmand province were at the heart of NATO operations with the focus “protecting the most threatened population in the heart of the Taliban-led insurgency”.
The arrival of fresh troops had coincided with a 300 percent rise in violent incidents from April to September, the Pentagon said in its twice-yearly report to Congress on Afghanistan. (Editing by Robert Birsel)