Top U.S. and NATO military officials are warning that the withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 will have little in common with the relatively orderly and violence-free pullout from Iraq, where the fighting had mostly died down by the time U.S. forces were shipping gear south to Kuwait in 2011.
U.S. Lt. Gen. John Campbell, deputy chief of staff of the Army, G-3/5/7, told Defense News in an interview that the retrograde of almost 90,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 is “going to be very tough — very different from Iraq. The level of violence isn’t the same drawing out of Afghanistan as it was in Iraq.”
At an Aug. 26 briefing in Kabul, a NATO spokesman told reporters the coalition has already shuttered more than 200 bases while transferring nearly 300 others to Afghan forces. As part of the drawdown, U.S. forces have also handed over some 20,000 pieces of equipment with a value of about $3 million to the Afghan government. These closures and handovers have taken place even as fighting between the coalition and Taliban and Haqqani forces has showed no signs of slowing.
Offering a glimpse at how difficult it is to close even small combat outposts while still conducting combat operations, Campbell spoke of an operation the 101st Airborne Division undertook when he commanded the unit in Afghanistan in spring 2011. Campbell launched a drive to transition out of three combat outposts simultaneously in the Pech valley in eastern Afghanistan.
“I was trying to close one, transition one to the Afghan forces and downsize one,” he said. “That was a brigade-level operation that consumed that brigade for about three weeks. It was a combat operation” where his troops had to pack up gear while continuing to patrol and engage the enemy regularly.
“As they downsize in Afghanistan, they’ll have to continue to fight,” he warned, “they’ll have to continue to train the Afghans. They have a very good plan, but it’s going to be very hard; I don’t think we should kid ourselves.”
Campbell said while the U.S. recently reopened the Pakistani supply route after Pakistan closed it last year to protest U.S. UAV strikes, “it’s going to take 60 to 90 days to begin to reap the benefit of that. So the retrograde, and with soldiers doing that in contact, is going to be very, very hard.”
In June, the Army asked Congress to trim more than $300 million from the budget for the service’s developmental battlefield network, the Warfighter Informational-Tactical program, to make up for extra logistics costs from using alternate supply routes during the Pakistani border shutdown.
Further complicating the logistical difficulties of performing a fighting retrograde is the fact that many of the brigade combat teams deploying to Afghanistan in 2013 won’t be full brigades, but instead will be security force assistance (SFA) brigades. Campbell said these brigades will be deployed “at levels much smaller than a full brigade — about 1,500 people — that will be focused on the training [of Afghan forces]. In Afghanistan, [International Security Assistance Force commander Marine Gen. John Allen] has made the decision to go with SFA brigades. But with rotations, you probably won’t see SFA brigades across the whole battlespace until probably next spring.”
While smaller than brigade combat teams, the SFA brigades will be capable of providing their own force protection, as well as command-and-control and fires while partnering with Afghan forces. Campbell said the SFA brigades are preferable to the security force assistance teams (SFATs) that had been deployed earlier.
“The problem with the SFAT was that they weren’t from the same unit as the battlespace owner and so may not have trained with the unit. So we learned those lessons,” Campbell said. The SFA brigades “will have trained and worked together with all their own security embedded, as opposed to relying on the brigade commander [to whom they had been assigned] for security.”