US Army Gen. John Campbell will oversee the drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan. (David Vergun/US Army)
WASHINGTON — When he takes over command of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan on Aug. 26, US Army Gen. John Campbell will preside over the precipitous drawdown of US forces and material from Afghanistan, falling from about 22,000 US troops to 9,800 by December.
In a Friday afternoon discussion with reporters at the Pentagon, Campbell, who will be on his third deployment in Afghanistan, while his son, a sergeant, is currently serving his second, was candid about the challenges he’ll face in command of a war whose outcome is far from certain.
With recent well-publicized Taliban gains in the south, “we have kind of lost the information war there” he said, “and the Taliban are trying to go do what they couldn’t do for the elections and conduct spectacular attacks.”
Taliban fighters have recently shut down the Kabul International Airport on two occasions, once by setting up in an adjacent building and firing rockets and small arms fire at the airport, and another more recent suicide bombing at one of the airport’s gates.
There has also been a more sustained campaign in the south, marked by the assassinations of police civilian government officials, along with the routing of Afghan forces at several checkpoints.
But Campbell insisted that the 352,000 active duty Afghan troops, which the United States has invested $62 billion into training and equipping over the past decade, are up to the task of beating the assaults back.
He insisted that the Afghan Army is equipped and motivated enough to beat back these new attacks, and have already gained some ground back that was recently lost.
But the Taliban are taking advantage of the uncertainty that is following the NATO drawdown and the unease over the runoff presidential election that happened in June. Candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani are still fighting it out to decide who will replace Hamid Karzai.
“In any kind of transition you’re vulnerable, and they’re going through a political transition and also a military transition as we come down in numbers” Campbell said, making it a fertile time for the Taliban to try and create more chaos with stepped up attacks.
Once he’s on the ground in Afghanistan later this month and wrestling with shipping troops and equipment out of the country by the planeload, Campbell said the biggest issues that he’ll have to contend with are how to best offer the Afghan government key “enablers” like logistic support, aerial lift and surveillance, medevac, joint fires, and intelligence collection help, with fewer and fewer troops to perform those tasks.
One of the realities of the drawdown is that the next ISAF commander won’t have a feel for what’s happening at the tactical level across the country in the same way that previous commanders had.
“The reach that you used to have is much more reduced,” he said. Currently in Regional Command East there are two Afghan Army Corps, the 201st Corps and the 203rd Corps, both of which have received heavy and sustained training from US forces over the years.
But now NATO troops will probably only be able to have personnel stationed with one of those corps, with only intermittent visits to the other crops when there are personnel available.
But the general is trying to look at that as a positive. It means that the Afghans will have to become more self-sufficient without the crutch of constant US help. But the help that ISAF will continue to provide — as much as it can — resupply and air support will be the key contribution going forward. ■