Speaking this week in a video-link news briefing from the Bagram airfield in Afghanistan, Brigadier General Joseph Votel, deputy commander of NATO's regional eastern command, praised the Afghan National Army's growing competence.
He also praised its ability to cooperate not only with NATO forces, but also with local authorities and its Pakistani counterpart across the border.
He told the briefing that the Pakistani military’s increased military presence in Pakistan’s restless tribal areas, which followed the siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad last month, may already be having an effect on the cross-border traffic of insurgents into Afghanistan.
"Over the last week compared to the week previous to that, border incidents -- activities along our forces [at the]border here at Regional Command East have really decreased by 50 percent. Over time, if we look at about a month or so, there has been a slight rise, but as I mentioned, just recently over the last week we've seen a little bit of a decrease," Votel said.
"Whether that is caused by the Red Mosque incident [in Islamabad], the activities there, or the increase in Pakistani military activity in the Federally Administered Tribal Area, that could be one explanation for it."
Votel said that in a "normal week," his forces are involved in some 10-20 "incidents" along the 900-kilometer stretch of border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which they patrol. He said the length of the border and the extremely rugged terrain in the region mean no one really knows how many illicit incursions into Afghanistan go undetected.
Votel said the mainly U.S. forces in the area are braced for further insurgent movements across the border as military operations on the Pakistani side of the border continue. He said his troops are in "near real-time" tactical contact with Pakistani units across the border.
"We rate their capabilities as becoming very, very good. They are definitely moving in the right direction."
Although the region is one of the most difficult, Votel said the Afghan National Army (ANA) is doing very well.
He noted that its main shortcomings have to do with what are known as "enabling capabilities" -- the equipment and logistics needed to support a military operation -- rather than manpower or skills.
"We rate their capabilities as becoming very, very good. They are definitely moving in the right direction. We look at the Afghan company-size formations, we look at their battalions and we [see that] they are capable of conducting operations, [although] in most cases they are still dependent on ISAF forces to help them with some of their logistics, to help them with aerial movement, to help them with close air support in situations where it is needed and certainly to help them with [medical evacuation] capabilities," Votel said.
Votel also praised the ANA's "leadership qualities." He highlighted one particular recent operation in eastern Ghazni Province, in which an Afghan corps commander was in overall command of a force consisting of both ANA and NATO units.
Although Afghan officers have previously led operations involving NATO units in other parts of the country, none is said to have matched the scope of that in eastern Ghazni.
Votel said the ANA's standards are improving against the backdrop of a heightened threat presented by the insurgents. He said there exists an Al-Qaeda "influence" in Afghanistan's eastern provinces, which manifests itself in the presence of foreign fighters who lend local insurgents "confidence and expertise." Apart from the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, numerous other groups are known to be active in the region, further complicating the situation there.
Votel also noted the increased use of heavy weaponry by insurgents, citing increased attempts to target NATO aircraft from the ground with rockets. He said some of the weapons recovered from insurgents were manufactured in Iran, but added there is no evidence about whether the weapons signify the Taliban enjoy direct support from the Iranian government.
Votel said that surveys conducted within NATO's eastern command region show the ANA is seen by the Afghan population as "one of the most respected institutions." He said, however, that the country's police force lags behind the ANA by comparison.
"Certainly there is work left to be done with the police structure here. We think we've got a lot of good things in place to do that. It will take some time, the Afghan National Police are probably a year or more, probably a couple of years behind where the army is right now. We've got efforts to really focus on area, and make sure we give them the capabilities they need to be successful," Votel said.
Votel did not answer a question about how long it will take for the Afghan army and police to be able to provide security in the country's east without a constant Western presence. However, he did say he "grows more optimistic every day" of the possibility of such an eventuality.
Votel said he believes that given the choice, Afghans will chose the vision of a stable and democratic Afghanistan over the "vision of the Taliban."