(CNSNews.com) – U.S. forces in Afghanistan have not detected any noticeable effect on the battleground from the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the commander of U.S. and coalition forces there said Wednesday.
Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, speaking via teleconference in his first Pentagon press briefing since taking command three weeks ago, was asked whether there had been any change in the levels of support seen from across the border since the death of the fugitive terrorist, who was killed in a U.S. Navy SEALS raid last May.
“We’ve not seen … that the death of Osama bin Laden has had direct effect on the battlefield in Afghanistan,” he replied. “Certainly, there’s rhetoric among the Taliban on some occasions and in some places, that they are conscious of the death of Osama bin Laden. But that has not become a new cause for the Taliban.
“It has not increased the numbers that we have seen in cross-border operations or inside Afghanistan,” Allen added. “So at this juncture, I would say that, if there will be effect – an effect of the killing of Osama bin Laden – it has not been felt on the ground inside Afghanistan.”
Speaking four days after the deaths of 30 U.S. Special Forces personnel and eight Afghan soldiers when a CH-47 Chinook helicopter was downed in the single deadliest incident of the decade-long war, Allen described the tragedy as “a singular incident in a broader conflict in which we are making important strides and considerable progress.”
While acknowledging that there would be “tough fights” ahead, he gave an upbeat assessment of the mission.
“All across Afghanistan the insurgents are losing,” he said. “They’re losing territory. They’re losing leadership. They're losing weapons and supplies. They’re losing public support. And across Afghanistan, more and more, the insurgents are losing resolve and the will to fight, and they face relentless pressure from coalition and, increasingly, Afghan forces.”
Allen’s briefing coincided with an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) announcement that coalition forces had tracked down and killed the Taliban insurgents involved in Saturday’s Chinook crash.
It said in a statement a precision airstrike in Wardak province had killed a Taliban leader named as Mullah Mohibullah as well as “the insurgent who fired the shot associated with the Aug. 6 downing of the CH-47 helicopter.”
“While it has not been determined if enemy fire was the sole reason for the helicopter crash, it did take fire from several insurgent locations on its approach,” ISAF said.
“After an exhaustive manhunt, Special Operations forces located Mullah Mohibullah and the shooter after receiving multiple intelligence leads and tips from local citizens. The two men were attempting to flee the country in order to avoid capture.”
“This does not ease our loss,” Allen said of the successful Wardak operation. “But we must and we will continue to relentlessly pursue the enemy.”
‘Long days ahead’
During the briefing, Allen was asked about the basis for his assessment that the Taliban was a weakened force, given recent high-profile attacks including the helicopter downing, the assassinations of top Afghan officials, and a brazen Jul. 29 attack on a hotel in Kabul
In reply, he said that coalition forces had not only stopped the momentum of the insurgents in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar and elsewhere, “but we’ve rolled it back.”
“It’s not uncommon in an insurgency, when insurgents are losing ground, to resort to spectacular attacks,” he said, adding that the enemy was targeting “those areas where they can get a high-profile payoff.”
“What’s not necessarily apparent every single day is the progress with respect to the establishment of Afghan Local Police units in villages and towns across Afghanistan,” Allen continued.
“These villages that seek to embrace Afghan Local Police in the Village Stability Operations program are mobilizing their communities for their own security. That’s not widely understood. It’s also not widely covered. But that’s a great example of where the Taliban are losing ground and they’re losing influence because they can no longer get inside the population of these areas.”
Allen also reported on the ongoing “reintegration” program – an ISAF-supported Afghan initiative that aims to persuade tens of thousands of low-level fighters to abandon the Taliban by offering jobs and incentives to those who renounce violence.
“It’s a relatively new program, and across Afghanistan we’re beginning to see the Taliban foot soldiers ultimately come forward and seek to rejoin society, and become a member of their villages,” he said, adding that more than 2,300 had been “reintegrated” into society, with “about 3,000 more in the pipeline.”
(The “reintegration” program is distinct from the “reconciliation” initiative, under which a “peace council” set up by President Hamid Karzai aims to lure Taliban leaders to end their campaign. The Obama administration says is supports the move on condition those leaders pledge to stop fighting, end support for al-Qaeda, and abide by the Afghan constitution. Allen said coalition forces were not involved in the “reconciliation” effort.)
“We’re not declaring victory, certainly,” Allen said. “We recognize that there are going to be long days ahead and some pretty heavy lifts. But there are indicators that lead us to believe that we’re moving clearly in the direction of achieving our goals.”
Looking ahead, the Marine general said coalition forces would continue to work hard in southern Afghanistan during the remainder of the fighting season, into the fall and beyond, depriving the enemy of the opportunity to “rest and refit” over the winter.
“We’re going to fight all winter,” he said. “And then in the spring and in the summer, we will continue to disrupt the enemy and then spend a particular amount of attention in the east.”