One leading problem, he said, has been corruption – Afghan officials on the take.
“During my first several months, we had a guy that was corrupt,” said Luong, who added that he was able to convince the Afghan government to remove the official. But that official was “followed by a guy that was halfway illiterate.”
Then, “about six months ago, we were able to gain a very, very competent leader” along with 6,000 additional Afghan National Security Forces. That has yielded dividends, Luong said.
Luong points too to the influx of an additional 30,000 US troops into Afghanistan this year, which has allowed US and Afghan forces to have “increased fourfold” the number of operations in the adjacent provinces of Paktika and Paktia. This in turn has decreased the effectiveness of insurgent attacks, he said.
Still, there are some sizable strategic obstacles that the influx of US troops has not been able to solve. This includes the porousness of the mountainous Afghan border, which is 156 miles long in the Khost, Paktika and Paktia provinces, a region known as "P2K."
“As far as the border itself," Luong says, "I think it’s naïve to say that we can stop ... forces coming through the border.”
For this reason, the US military recently closed a combat outpost dedicated to intercepting insurgents on routes into and out of Pakistan. US troops are instead focusing on finding safe houses in Afghanistan, “where they have to train, they have to bed down, they have to store their caches. Predominantly our success has been there,” says Luong.