CAMP HANSEN, Afghanistan – A major threat to the success of President Barack Obama's Afghan war strategy is the clandestine traffic that snakes along the rough roads of the country's East and South, providing insurgents with weapons and other supplies from neighboring Pakistan.
The farm towns of the central Helmand River Valley are safer, the Taliban are less intimidating and less capable nearly a year after the region became a test case for a revised U.S. war strategy for Afghanistan, commanders there said Thursday.
But those gains are undercut by the ease with which militants exploit the fluid border with Pakistan.
"There's a ratline running right down there" into Pakistan, said Col. David Furness, a Marine commander who gave an update on Helmand's restive Marjah district hours before the White House offered an upbeat assessment of the nine-year war.
"They go back and forth in small groups," using civilian trucks and other vehicles to ferry supplies to militants fighting U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Furness told reporters. His Marines find electrical components for homemade bombs that bear the stamps of Pakistani manufacturers, he said.
Pakistan's role as a refuge and supply source for militants is a big fault line in Obama's plan to secure major population centers in the southern and eastern Afghanistan, the two places where fighting is heaviest.
The role of Afghanistan's eastern neighbor in sustaining the insurgency is a major reason that the White House's review of the war warns that while the momentum of the Taliban has been reversed in some areas, those gains "remain fragile and reversible."
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, toured small U.S. bases near the front lines in Helmand and Kandahar provinces Thursday, where he said he saw evidence that the strategy is paying off with better trust among U.S. and Afghan officers and civilians and signs that local government figures are more responsive and accountable.
Overall, he said he saw qualified progress.
"There have been improvements but there is still a long way to go," he told reporters who accompanied him.
In Pakistan earlier in the week, Mullen spoke about the problem of militant refuges there that allow fighters to regroup and rearm before returning to Afghanistan to fight U.S. and NATO forces.
A five-page public summary of the classified White House Afghan war review frames the delicate problem of Pakistan's role in the insurgency in mild terms, saying dealing with safe havens will require "greater cooperation with Pakistan along the border." The areas of most concern — the Pakistani provinces of North Waziristan and Baluchistan, are not mentioned by name.
Pakistan has made progress against safe havens over the past year, the summary says, and suffered great losses as a result. But Pakistani authorities have almost exclusively focused on militants who pose a threat inside Pakistan. So far they have refused a U.S. request to take on militants in North Waziristan, the place used most frequently to target U.S. forces.
The White House summary softens the rough edges of Washington's often contentious dealings with Pakistan, apparently in recognition that a confrontational approach has not worked and endangers the fragile U.S.-backed civilian government.
Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Washington this week that combined US-Pakistani efforts along the Afghan border to interdict insurgents have been moving faster in the past two months than in the previous 18 months and that the insurgents' ability to do cross-border operations from their Pakistani safe havens has been "measurably diminished."
"Is it enough? Not yet," Cartwright told a Pentagon news conference. "But it is in fact turning in a direction and accelerating at a measurable pace. It is definitely starting to have an effect."
Mullen visited this plywood and canvas base near the key town of Marjah, which has served as a model for the counterinsurgency strategy Obama outlined a year ago. To carry out that plan, Obama pledged 30,000 additional U.S. troops, the first of which were the Marines sent to Helmand Province.
Mullen thanked Marines, many of whom had served three or sometimes four tours in southern Afghanistan.
"As difficult a fight as Marjah was initially, against sort of the expectations that were laid out there … I think progress there has been significant," he said.
It took longer to flush militants from Marjah than military planners expected, and even longer to fill crucial local government billets. The town is mostly quiet now, but militants or low-level fighters remain there, military officers in Helmand say.
Mullen came away from his visit to Forward Operating Base Wilson in Kandahar Province worried about what militants flushed from the area may do when warm weather returns in the spring.
Some may have taken refuge in Pakistan, although in this region it may be more likely the militants have slipped deeper into the countryside.
"We have rooted out the Taliban where they have been for a long time — years,' Mullen said, referring to areas of Zhari Province where the base sits, and surrounding areas.
"It's the first time that has happened. So the question is where do they go and what do they do after the fact? Do they come back?"