WASHINGTON -- The U.S. top general in Afghanistan today praised coalition nation, U.S. and Afghan forces operating in the country.
Army Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, head of Combined Forces Command Afghanistan, said during a Kabul press conference today that he had visited a Romanian army battalion, and was "very impressed with the Romanians' leadership, professionalism and their powerful commitment to their area of responsibility."
"They are key members of our 17-nation coalition and are representative of all the nations fighting this global war on terror," Barno said.
He also noted that the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit has "made and will continue to make a material contribution to improved stability" in the Oruzgan area "as part of a surge force helping to establish security and stability in this former Taliban heartland." He pointed out that the MEU's combat operations had resulted "in the recovery o9f numerous caches of weapons and ammunition."
Barno said the Afghan National Army should meet its goal of 10,000 soldiers by the end of this June, and its goal of 20,000 by June 2005. "The ANA soldiers I have met are tough, disciplined and professional - clearly a force of which all Afghans can be proud," he said. "Deployed across the country for Herat to Meymaneh, and from Kandahar to Gardez, the ANA demonstrates their professionalism and courage every day."
The commander also pointed out that coalition soldiers can expect to see more attempts by remnants of the Taliban and al Qaeda to "disrupt and undermine" Afghanistan's democratic process,
"These enemies of the Afghan people will continue to try and interfere with the right of every Afghan to vote for his or her own future -- and the future of their children -- by attacking the free electoral process," he said.
He warned those attacks may include Afghan leaders, security forces, nongovernmental organizations, the NATO-operated International Security Assistance Force and coalition forces.
But despite the threat he stated the Afghan people remain "courageous and committed" to a democratic future. And he added that the coalition stands "firmly beside them" in their steadfast resolve.
Much of that resolves lies in the new Afghan National Army, which Barno said continues to "expand and further enhance its reputation throughout the country."
He said the army is well on track to meet its long-established goal of 10,000 soldiers by the end of June, and should meet its long-term goal of 20,000 soldiers by June of next year.
In terms of the army's preparedness, he added that, "it is not only a matter of quantity, but quality."
"I have talked with both Afghan soldiers and our coalition forces with whom they work," he said. "The Afghan soldiers I have met are tough, disciplined and professional - clearly a force of which all Afghans can be proud.
"Deployed across the country from Herat to Meymaneh and from Kandahar to Gardez, the Afghan Army demonstrates their professionalism and courage every day."
Nevertheless, Barno said, to provide a stable and secure environment to ensure "the right of the Afghan people to choose their leaders "freely" in the upcoming elections, coalition forces will continue to work along side the army, the Afghan National police and ISAF.
The Afghans rights "will not be stolen by those bitter few - the remnants of the despised Taliban regime -- who would return all Afghans back to the dark days of terror and tyranny," he emphasized.
Barno also discussed the border issue with Pakistan, a country he said remains "a key partner" in regional security and the global war on terror.
He said coalition forces continue to conduct "complementary" operational efforts with the Pakistani military. He said the two sides recently had an "extremely productive" meeting at Lwara, a sensitive border area, where Pakistani and U.S. forces trained to better coordinate mutual activities.
"We've recently established a communications network with the Pakistani military, so that commanders on both sides of the border can stay in close communications with each other," he explained.
He said the coalition "fully supports" Pakistan's efforts to rid the tribal areas of terrorists of all sorts.
"We look forward to the final resolution of this menace, which not only threatens their government and leadership, but affects Afghanistan as well."
The general also reminded reporters about the "top to bottom" review of detainee operations in Afghanistan that he initiated in May. He said findings and recommendations would reach him by mid-June, and that he would take "rapid action on any areas of concern."
"I continue to expect all of our forces to treat every detainee here with dignity and respect throughout our processes, while maintaining necessary operational security for our soldiers."
Meanwhile, Barno explained that the coalition's counterinsurgency strategy, which began in January, continues to show results.
He pointed out that plans to have 15 provincial reconstruction teams operational by the end of June remain "on track." The teams are part of a U.S.-led civil-military project intended to help Afghan citizens build and repair infrastructure such as roads, water wells and schools.
"Our new PRTs in Farah and Lashkar Gah have achieved their initial operating capability, and are already busy identifying projects that will help the population of these provinces and extend the reach of the national government," Barno said, "while simultaneously helping establish framework of security within which other governmental and nongovernmental organizations may operate."
He said the team in Sharana should be ready by the end of June as planned, bringing the total to 15 teams.
Barno also cited better working relations with local leaders and officials, along with the improved flow of aid dollars to the country.
He said that in the face of progress in Afghanistan "terrorist elements can only serve as spoilers, offering nothing but oppression and standing in the way of the accelerating Afghan democratic process."
However, he added that the Afghan citizens remain the "center of gravity" of all military operations in the country, and that the coalition will "remain fully committed to support them in every way, leading to what each Afghan dreams a bright new future for Afghanistan."