WASHINGTON – The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan says the U.S. has increased its surveillance over the Afghan-Pakistani border since Pakistan began pounding a militant stronghold with airstrikes, but so far officials have not seen any militants fleeing the latest offensive.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford told The Associated Press in an interview that the U.S. was not coordinating military operations with Pakistan along the border, but officials have increased the amount of intelligence-sharing with the Afghans. He said the Afghan troops and U.S. forces in that region were ready for any effects of the strikes, including extremists seeking refuge in Afghanistan.
The U.S. has long pressed Pakistan to root out Taliban militants who have found safe haven in the lawless tribal region of North Waziristan, along the Afghan border, and used it as a staging area to launch attacks against Afghan and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Dunford said officials have seen Pakistani families crossing the border to escape the military airstrikes that have pounded the country's northwest since Sunday.
"The Afghan forces as well as our forces are fully prepared to deal with the second-order effects of the Pakistani operations in North Waziristan," Dunford said in an interview from Afghanistan. He added that officials were still trying to determine how many Pakistani families have fled into Afghanistan to escape the violence, but it was difficult because many relocate to families in the southeast and northeast.
More broadly, Dunford expressed increased confidence in the Afghan security forces, and said he did not believe that the military collapse playing out in Iraq would occur in Afghanistan once U.S. combat troops leave.
He said the U.S. fully expects to get a bilateral security agreement with Afghanistan's government that will allow up to 14,000 U.S. and NATO troops to remain in the country next year to advise the Afghans and conduct counterterrorism missions. The U.S. left Iraq after the government in Baghdad refused to agree on a security arrangement.
"I don't see, at least today, the divisive politics that obviously resulted in the situation in Iraq playing out here in Afghanistan," said Dunford. "We're encouraged by the fact that we will have a bilateral security agreement. I'm encouraged by the fact that we have multiethnic (presidential) tickets."
Sunni militants are advancing across Iraq, taking control of several cities in the north and moving toward Baghdad, while roiling Sunni-Shiite ethnic tensions. In the face of the brutal al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, some Iraqi security forces have fled.
The failure of the Iraqi troops to hold off the ISIL, just three years after American troops left the country after eight years or war, has led some U.S. leaders to question whether the same slide into chaos and insurgent control will happen in Afghanistan.
Dunford said that while Afghan military leaders at times expressed frustration with President Hamid Karzai, including his decisions to limit close air support missions or other partnered operations with NATO troops, "not once was there a hint that they wouldn't follow his direction."
Noting the deteriorating situation in Iraq, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said President Barack Obama was "about to make the same mistake in Afghanistan he made in Iraq."
Asked what can be done to prevent that from happening, Dunford said the U.S. and NATO need a signed security agreement so they can continue to train and advise the Afghan security forces, and the next president "needs to have an inclusive government" and reach out to all the ethnic groups in the country.
He said there was less violence during Afghanistan's runoff presidential election over the weekend than during the initial voting in April. And he added that, overall, the level of violence in Afghanistan this month is lower than the same time last year.
"What we've seen is that the Taliban have been unable, right now, to maintain any kind of momentum against the Afghan security forces," said Dunford. "What's remarkable about that is, number one, the Afghan forces are in the lead and not us. And, second, the Taliban indicated a very strong intent to disrupt the elections and to increase the level of violence prior to the elections, and we simply didn't see any surge in violence."
He added that there was growing divisiveness and frustration among the Taliban.
"We've seen some mistrust develop between the Taliban senior leadership and the rank-and-file fighters out in the provinces," Dunford said. "I think the morale of Taliban fighters has been affected adversely as a result of the lack of success."
The U.S. has announced it will leave about 9,800 troops in Afghanistan at the end of this year. Of those, 8,000 will train and advise the Afghans, and the rest would conduct counterterror operations. NATO countries will contribute another 4,000 or more troops.