KABUL, Afghanistan — NATO commanders were overly optimistic when they predicted quick success taking the key Taliban-held town of Marjah last winter, the outgoing deputy commander said.
There are now fledgling signs of a turnaround, but burned once by Marjah's unpredictability, the military will be more restrained in forecasting success, British Lt. Gen. Nick Parker told reporters Saturday at the headquarters of the NATO-led force.
U.S. Marines and Afghan troops overran Marjah, a major Taliban logistics center and opium poppy-growing community, last February and announced plans to stand up an effective Afghan administration. The idea was to develop Marjah as a model for counterinsurgency techniques in hopes other communities in Helmand province and elsewhere in the south would turn against the Taliban.
Instead, the Taliban have fought back with hidden bombs, ambushes, assassinations and intimidation, undercutting NATO's efforts to win public support. That has fueled doubts on Capitol Hill and among the American public that the Afghan war can be won.
Parker, who leaves his post at the end of this month, said it was "nobody's fault" that the Marjah campaign has gone slower than expected, but is simply a product of the "complexity of the environment we're operating in."
"I think we were probably a little bit over-enthusiastic," Parker said. He acknowledged that he himself was "a little bit too positive," because he wanted to stiffen the resolve of troops doing the fighting. "You want to convince people that what you're doing is right," he said.
He said only now is security beginning to take hold in a "persistent" way that allows the Afghan government to start functioning there. But he said no one should be drawing conclusions, or raising expectations that the positive security trends will continue.
"We've got to stay on the balls of our feet and react properly," to whatever happens, Parker said.
Nonetheless, Parker said it was reasonable to expect the Afghans will take charge of their own security in the next four to five years. President Hamid Karzai has said he wants Afghanistan's own forces to be in full charge nationwide by 2014.
President Barack Obama has promised to begin withdrawing American troops next July, although the administration says the pace will depend on security conditions then.
Parker said he "absolutely accepts that there would be a national debate" within the United States and other troop-continuing countries about their role in Afghanistan. The Dutch withdrew their combat troops last month and the Canadians plan to pull out next year.
Parker served as acting commander of the NATO-led force between the dismissal of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, whom Obama fired after comments by his staff critical of the White House appeared in Rolling Stone magazine, and the arrival of the new top commander, Gen. David Petraeus.
Parker said the turnover went remarkably smoothly, because McChrystal's "plan was so good," that it remained in place, with the addition of what he called, "Petraeus nuances."