Recalling his previous deployment here, commanding the sole U.S. brigade in Afghanistan – at a time when the United States had 15 in Iraq -- Army Brig. Gen. John Nicholson said he sees the influx of forces as an opportunity to turn the tide on violence.
"To me, to see this increase in U.S. forces means we are now resourcing our counterinsurgency appropriately to accomplish what it is we have laid down in our [Afghanistan-Pakistan] strategy," said Nicholson, deputy commander of Regional Command South.
"So I am very encouraged and feel that this is going to make a big difference."
Speaking with reporters during Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates' visit here to check on preparations for the incoming sailors and Marines, Nicholson said they'll help secure the local population in a way the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force couldn't without more troops.
"So with this additional U.S. force complementing what they are already doing, we are ... approaching the force levels necessary to secure the population and enable the kind of development activities and other things that we believe will change the situation," he said. "So yes, we are optimistic that we are going to see some changes down here."
Nicholson made no bones about the fact that he expects violence here to increase initially before abating. It's most likely to increase as troops move into areas where they previously had no presence, he said, and in the lead-up to Afghanistan's presidential elections this fall.
"There will be an increase of violence initially, because the enemy will not easily give up their hold on the population," he said. "But this will be a spike, not a continuous upward slope. There will be an increase, then a decrease in violence. Afterwards, we will have improved security."
U.S. and other RC-South forces are working to preempt enemy interference with the elections. But Nicholson conceded, "We do expect there to be a significant security challenge" as Election Day approaches.
Exacerbating the problems is that NATO hasn't come through with all the forces it had promised to temporarily beef up ISAF through the election period. Army Gen. David McKiernan, commander of ISAF and U.S. Forces Afghanistan, expressed frustration last week that ISAF will be two battalions short of what he had expected.
Nicholson said workarounds are being explored, in cooperation with the Afghan Independent Election Commission and Afghan national security forces that will take the security lead.
"This will be an Afghan-run election, Afghan-secured," he said. "We will back up the Afghan security forces, but they will provide the principal security for the elections at the polling places."
Looking beyond the elections, when he expects violence to start to drop, Nicholson said the focus can move from improving security to laying the foundation for other critical developments. This includes helping the Afghan government improve governance and boosting reconstruction and development.
Another focus will be on helping the southern agricultural areas transition from a poppy-based economy to one built on legitimate crops such as fruits, vegetables, saffron or cotton. Nicholson is less enthusiastic about wheat as an alternative crop, not only because it's currently plagued by a blight, but also because it's an annual crop that will force farmers every year to make the decision to replant wheat or revert to poppy.
This agricultural transition – one assisted by the U.S. Agency for International Development and U.S. Agriculture Department – is "instrumental to our success down here," Nicholson said.
"We think this is quite achievable, given that this was the breadbasket of Afghanistan as recently as the 1970s," he said. "So we are looking to help them return to where they once were, feeding the country and providing enough products for export so they have a thriving agricultural economy."
Another ongoing priority will be growing the Afghan security forces so they're better able to face down insurgents. U.S. and ISAF forces are "pushing as hard as we can to accelerate the growth of their security forces and the growth of their capacity," he said.
A challenge in this region, birthplace of the Taliban, is that many of the insurgents are locals who don't stand out from the general population in the way foreign fighters do in the eastern part of the country.
This creates "a fundamentally different challenge in how we conduct counterinsurgency," Nicholson said. That's because the key first step is separating the enemy from the rest of the population, he explained. Ideally, the next step is to "bring them over" so they abandon their loyalty to the insurgents.
Nicholson reiterated the importance of good governance that delivers services to the people in promoting this effort. "This goes a long way toward enabling the people to believe in the government [and] side with the government," he said.
Afghans in this region endure a "very tough existence," he said, with a life expectancy of 45 years, fatalities for one in five children before age 5, high illiteracy and high unemployment.
He dismissed any notion that the people naturally align themselves with the Taliban. "The Taliban appeal in the past was that it brought order out of anarchy," he said, albeit an extremely harsh form of order.
The Afghans "prefer what this modern Islamic government has to offer, but they want to see it deliver," he said. "So when this government begins to deliver in a way that affects lives, I think we will see a shift.... and a willingness to support the government."
Nicholson called the troop plus-up a big step in helping the Afghans help themselves achieve their potential.
"The Afghans want this to be their fight. They want to win this war themselves," he said. "They appreciate our help very much. They know they need our help, but they are also willing to do it themselves."
So the critical path now, he said, is to improve security and grow the capacity of the Afghan security forces and the government. "And the faster we can do that, then the sooner we can move on" into an advisory role, he said. "But in the interim, they do need our help."