KABUL, Afghanistan --
There are measures of success every day in Afghanistan and the out-going commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force is very confident of victory.
Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen spoke to reporters traveling with Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shortly before turning over command to Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. Allen has been nominated to be the next Supreme Allied Commander Europe.
Allen said he is "very confident" that NATO and their Afghan partners are on the right trajectory. "We have seen some really heroic level activities occur here in just the last year," Allen said. "What happened last summer was unbelievable when you think about it. We shipped home 23,000 troops during the fighting season. We shifted from a main force strategy that relied on U.S. and ISAF combat formations to one where the (Afghan National Security Forces) were in the lead – an ANSF that was still being built while it was expanding its operations in the combat zone."
At the same time, NATO closed 600 bases in Afghanistan.
Today, another 10,000 U.S. troops have been withdrawn and Afghan forces are almost entirely in the lead for security throughout the country. Afghan government forces have taken ground, they have held ground already taken and they are forcing the Taliban to launch attacks farther and farther away from centers of population, he said.
Commanders have repeatedly stressed that there will not be a victory parade ending hostilities in Afghanistan, rather it remains a counterinsurgency battle and leaders measure progress incrementally. "Every day, there is another lamination of accomplishment," he said. "There is no decisive battle in the Napoleonic sense, just every day these laminations contributing to the end state."
The general said he is comfortable the trajectory is moving in the right direction. Allen is however concerned about a lag in efforts by the Afghan government to put structures in place to build on counterinsurgency efforts.
Still, the country has come a long way. Afghanistan has been in serious conflict for 33 years, with much of its infastructure destroyed which will take time and money to rebuild. "The school system was devastated," Allen said.
The good news is the international community has pledged to help. During NATO meetings in Lisbon and Chicago, NATO and partner nations pledged to stay with Afghanistan through this transition. In Tokyo and Bonn, nations pledged money to help Afghanistan overcome generation of tragedy. Nations understand what one of the world's poorest countries needs and have pledged a "decade of transformation."
One upcoming benchmark will be the presidential election set for April 2014. The 352,000 members of the Afghan national security force will secure the vote. "The international community is very clear that it will judge the success of what we have done by the transparency and inclusiveness of the Afghan population. We've been very clear on this: the international community is in this to a point, but we aren't in this to a fault," Allen said.
That contest he says, will be a true test of Afghanistan's progress. "The rhetoric has to be matched by real and meaningful reform. Reform that reduces the capacity of the criminal patronage networks to grip and weaken the institutions of the state." Reforms must also guarantee the rights of minorities and women, Allen said.
Donor nations must have the strategic patience, but there has to be demonstrated performance, he said.
Allen is less concerned about the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan post-2014 than he is about the capabilities needed in the country.