By Adam Levine
There are signs of a thaw in a Pakistani freeze on cooperating with the United States and NATO after 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed at a border post last month, the most senior American commander in Afghanistan said Tuesday.
Pakistan intends to send its liaison officers back to coordination centers it had staffed along with the Afghans and NATO forces, Gen. John Allen told reporters in Kabul. Allen said he spoke to his counterpart in Pakistan, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani on Monday.
"I do have a sense of progress," Allen said. He would not go into details of the conversation, but did say, "The outcome was that we stayed at our mutual commitment to address any shortfalls that might have caused this event, but also to ensure that we work closely together, because the border is always going to be there."
In the aftermath of the border attack, Pakistan recalled staff from coordination centers on the border and in Kabul and closed down key shipping routes for NATO supplies in Afghanistan.
Allen said the relationship has "chilled to some extent," but he has instructed his officers to act as if that has not happened.
"Should there be a need for cross-border coordination, and often that comes from insurgent attacks against our forces from within Pakistan, we will pick up the phone and call," he said.
"The intent is to restore as much normalcy as we can to the border coordination as early as we can," Allen said. He added that the Pakistanis have that same desire. "We are careful in obviously what we say and what we do to ensure neither our words nor our actions might be misinterpreted."
Allen said U.S. forces will begin to be deployed next year within Afghan units as advisers and trainers, reducing the direct combat role of foreign troops in the country.
Afghanistan's growing security force has surpassed 305,000 and is headed toward 352,000 next year. At the same time, the United States is withdrawing forces through 2012, aiming to bring the number of American troops down to 68,000 by next year from over 100,000 after a 33,000 troop surge last year. There will also be 38,000 troops from other NATO countries.
Having Afghan forces take the lead with American advisers is the goal as the United States hopes to increase the indigenous force, but it is a challenging shift as Afghan forces have not proven to be uniformly cohesive or reliable as the numbers increase.
"That will in many respect be a preview of how we'll see our forces postured in the years to come," Allen said. "The crossover point where we become largely an advisory, assisting, an education force, versus a force that is engaged at any given moment in counterinsurgency, that crossover point remains to be determined."
But even as NATO and U.S. forces look for Afghanistan to take the lead, Allen acknowledges significant U.S. counterterrorism operations will have to continue, especially in the east.
Next year, he said, "we hope to consolidate much of the advantage that we have achieved in the south with respect to the Afghan forces moving to the fore, protecting the Afghan population, continuing to deny the critical terrain in the south to the enemy."
At the same time, he said, "we are also going to conduct significant operations in the east. They will be aimed at supporting the growing (Afghan security forces) presence in the east and there is much that still needs to be done in that regard."
Allen also said the United States and Afghanistan are in discussions about an extended U.S. presence.
"The U.S. is in the process of a strategic partnership agreement. That may well result in a U.S. military presence here after '14 for some period of time," Allen told reporters. "We are not departing at the end of 2014."
That presence, Allen said, could help win over some Taliban to stop fighting and reconcile with the Afghan government.
"Our sense is there are many, many foot soldiers who are tired of this," Allen said. "The fact we are not going to be gone on the first of January 15 is a blow to the narrative that the Taliban will have their way with the Afghan government when the ISAF and U.S. forces depart at the end of '14. We are not departing at the end of '14. The IC, the international community, is going to be here a long time."
But Allen said that by his estimation a key terror group is not likely to concede: the Haqqani network, which has been responsible for a number of high-profile attacks in Afghanistan against U.S. and NATO troops.
This summer, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton revealed that at the behest of the Pakistanis, U.S. officials had preliminary talks with a representative for the Haqqani. But Allen said he doubts they would ever be willing to reconcile.
Asked if the Haqqanis are irreconcilable, Allen replied, "For me they are at this point."