Afghanistan's Way Forward: A Talk With Gen. John Campbell, Decoded

Nov 11, 2014
Originally published on November 12, 2014 8:20 am

As the U.S. military winds down its role in Afghanistan, the U.S. commander there, Gen. John Campbell, says Afghan forces have improved enough to handle the Taliban forces that are still waging war.

The Afghan military is "the strongest institution in Afghanistan," Campbell told NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep in an interview broadcast on Veterans Day.

The strength of the Afghan military is crucial in light of what has played out in Iraq. There, the U.S. military pulled out entirely at the end of 2011. By this year, the Iraqi army had crumbled in the face of the advancing Islamic State.

The U.S. is concluding its formal combat role in Afghanistan at the end of this year, but will keep a small force in the country for the next two years.

Here are some key questions, Campbell's answers and context:

Are Afghan forces ready to fight on their own?

Campbell: "I think they've done very well here over the last summer, as they've really taken on the fight themselves. They have the equipment, they've had the training. They need to do a little bit more work with their leadership. They've got to change out some leaders, they've got to hold some folks accountable. But whenever the [Afghan security forces] get involved with the Taliban, the Taliban cannot hold ground, they can't hold terrain. The Taliban can continue to strike fear and go after small outposts way out on the frontier, and that's what they do — they attack those soft targets. ...

"But I'm telling you what I've seen — the change from a couple of years ago to today. They do have the capability to protect themselves. They are the strongest institution in Afghanistan."

The context: Taliban attacks tend to peak in the spring and summer, and there was intense fighting in the south and the east of the country that was widely considered to be heavier than last year. The Taliban are massing in larger groups because they don't have to worry about U.S. airstrikes as they did in the past, according to analysts. The Afghan forces have taken the lead in the fighting and generally held their ground, but they have suffered heavy casualties.

How bad are conditions in Afghanistan?

Campbell: "If you take a look at where we were in 2001 — and look where we are today — there are many areas outside the security realm that we try to talk about that really show changes and the goodness in Afghanistan that sometimes don't make the media.

"You know, airlines, airports, TV, radio stations that are out there, the number of Internet users, the number of schools, the number of teachers, the number of young kids going to school now, the number of females in school, the literacy rate — I mean, on and on.

"Life expectancy has changed by about, over 18 years, and that's pretty incredible, as the infant mortality rate goes down. I think a lot of the things we never talk about are a result of really what's happened for the last 13 years with the coalition forces and the Afghan security forces really stepping up their game, and it starts with security. It starts with having confidence in the security forces, and, again, with this new government, I'm excited about the future here."

The context: Afghanistan has improved on many fronts. The country had its first peaceful, democratic transition of power this fall as Ashraf Ghani became the new president, replacing Hamid Karzai. However, the withdrawal of Western military forces has also been accompanied by the departure of many aid organizations that have propped up the economy over the past 13 years. And Afghanistan is still plagued by problems such as opium production. Despite U.S.-led eradication efforts and more than $7 billion in spending, poppy production was at its highest level ever last year.

Could Campbell propose slowing the U.S. withdrawal?

Campbell: "I've been on the ground about 2.5 months. I constantly, every day do assessments on 'risk to force' and 'risk to mission.' So I owe that to my chain of command, and I think it's too early in my tenure here to make any adjustments to the ... plan, but I do look at that that every single day.

"And if I feel that as we continue to transition and retrograde some of our resources out of here, if we're making some of those purely based on time, and the conditions on the ground are not set for that, then I owe that to the chain of command to raise that."

The context: The U.S. now has fewer than 20,000 troops in Afghanistan from a force that topped 100,000 at its peak. The U.S. forces are set to end their combat mission at the end of this year. There will be 9,800 U.S. troops at the beginning of next year, and their role over the next two years will be to train and assist the Afghan forces and to carry out counterterrorism raids. But analysts have questioned whether the U.S. force will be large enough should the Afghan forces run into trouble against the Taliban.

So is the withdrawal plan only an aspiration?

Campbell: "Many of these decisions were made back in the springtime. We started setting some of those assumptions way back in the fall of '13. Things change on the ground, things change in the world. As the commander on the ground, that's what my senior leadership expects me to do. ... To make those assessments and provide my best military advice to my leadership, and that's what I'll do."

The context: Ghani signed the security agreement with the U.S. on Sept. 30, immediately after he assumed office. But there are indications that the Afghans would like the Americans to stay longer and in larger numbers to give the Afghan military more time to solidify

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Americans serving overseas on this Veterans Day include General John Campbell. He's the new commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. General Campbell has served numerous combat tours overseas and he carries three-by-five cards with names and stories of people killed under his command. Yesterday, he came to a phone in Kabul and told us he does have a few new cards. When you look at those cards, General, are you clear in your mind what they died for?

GENERAL JOHN CAMPBELL: Yeah. The hope that we brought Afghanistan over the last 13 years is quite remarkable. The Afghan people, when I interact with them, not only at the senior level, but when you walk the streets of Kabul or other places, they come up to you. They say thank you. They are very, very appreciative. And they understand where they are today is because of a lot of the sacrifice not only from their men and women that have served, but more so from the coalition.

INSKEEP: General Campbell says we should make no mistake, conditions are improving in Afghanistan. The government has changed. New schools are open. The economy is open to the world. Numbers show the results - life expectancy in whole country is up. But the war with the Taliban is still very much on. Campbell faces a tough job now - continuing to reduce U.S. forces - they're heading down to zero over the next couple years, ending the U.S. combat role at the end of this year and turning over responsibility to the Afghan army.

CAMPBELL: They are the strongest institution in Afghanistan. That's the big difference. Three years ago when I was here, if the Taliban took over a district center or some checkpoints, it would be a rough time for the Afghan Security Forces to go take that over. Now there's no question in my mind that they have that capability and will continue to grow that capability over the years here.

INSKEEP: That raises a couple of questions, General. One has to do with the cost of Afghan fighting in lives. It's our understanding that over the last couple of years, they've had close at 9,000 troops killed in action, which, of course, is several times more than the United States has suffered in the entire more than a decade of war in Afghanistan. And one of your subordinates, Lieutenant General Joseph Anderson, described that as not sustainable, not a sustainable rate of casualties for the Afghan Armed Forces. What are the implications of that?

CAMPBELL: Well, in the last two years, as expected, the number of casualties has risen. The greatest number of those casualties were an uptick on the police side. Again, maybe, a lot more on the Afghan local police, which are way out in the outskirts and the far reaches of Afghanistan. They have minimal training. They don't have the same type of weapons as the army or the regular police. You know, we're working very hard to continue to build their medivac capability so that when they do sustain casualties, more of them would survive. The recruiting, quite frankly, they have not had big problems with the recruiting - and retention, same thing.

INSKEEP: You know, when you talk about a lot of police being killed, that makes me imagine Taliban forces finding places where the army is not and going after symbols of civilian authority, local authority. That sounds like it could be serious if it continues over time.

CAMPBELL: Well, they're going to try to go after those soft targets. And I think, again, the Afghan Security Forces understand that. There are some areas they'll continue to work to kind of close the gap.

INSKEEP: And you mentioned, General, that you feel that the Afghan forces can control the ground they're standing on. They can dislodge the Taliban from a position. How much do you worry about the areas of the country where the Afghan forces are not, such as eastern Afghanistan where you spent a lot of time? A lot of those areas are clearly outside of government control.

CAMPBELL: There's 34 provinces here in Afghanistan. The Afghan Security Force is 352,000 strong if they're completely manned at 100 percent - can't be everywhere. The main cities, I would tell you that the Taliban cannot get a hold on any of the cities here, where the majority of the population resides. But in out in some of these very remote areas - up in Nuristan - rugged, rugged terrain. You know, they'll continue to work through that piece. But what's happening, I think, now is you do have anti-Taliban movements starting in many places where the people are just fed up with the Taliban and their tactics. You know, 94 percent of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan are caused by the Taliban. So they're fed up with it, they're starting to stand up. I think the huge difference I've seen here is with the new administration - with President Ghani - with the CEO Abdullah. President Ghani said he is a commander-in-chief. He has told the army and the police, you know, I'm responsible for your welfare. They didn't have that before. He's talked to core commanders. He's gone to their training. He's visited military hospitals. And just that, just having a commander-in-chief that does those kind of things has raised the morale and psyche of the Afghan Security Forces. And I think as we go on, that's going to make quite a difference as well.

INSKEEP: What, if anything, keeps you up at night?

CAMPBELL: Wow, great question. There's - the entire time I'll be here, we'll be in transitions - transitions of the people, of the military, of all the different ministers that they have out here - minister of locations, places. So I think about those kind of things to make sure I made the right decisions to give our forces the right resources. Force protection is key and you're most vulnerable when you do go through transitions, so we can never, ever get complacent. But at the same time, we got a long history here and we got great partnerships. A lot of what I do at my level is about relationships building. So what I do everyday is try to minimize those things I worry about. And I got great men and women, from not only the U.S., but the rest of the countries that support this coalition, that help me mitigate many of those risk areas.

INSKEEP: When you say force protection, of course, you're reminding us that you have to spend a lot of your energy making sure that your own men and women remain as safe as possible, given that it is a war zone, which makes me wonder about another thing. You, of course, in the year to come, are supposed to go from about 9,800 U.S. troops and a few thousand coalition forces to, I believe, about 5,000 U.S. troops and some coalition forces. Under what circumstances, if any, would you recommend to the president that that transition be slowed.

CAMPBELL: You know, I constantly, every day, do assessments on risk to force and risk to mission. So I have that to my chain of command. I think it's still early in my tenure here to make any adjustments to the resolute plan, but I do look at that every single day. And if I feel that as we continue to transition and retrograde some of our resources out of here, if we're making some of those purely based on time and the conditions on the ground are not set for that, then I owe that to the chain of command to raise that.

INSKEEP: In your mind then the path ahead, going from about 10,000 U.S. troops down to 5,000 and then the following year heading toward zero - is that an aspiration rather than an absolute plan then?

CAMPBELL: Well, again, I think many of these decisions are made back in the springtime - we started setting some of those assumptions way back in the fall of '13. Things change on the ground, things in change in the world. As the commander on the ground, that's what my senior leadership expects me to do that, to take a look at what's going on the ground, to make those assessments and provide my best military advice to my leadership. And that's what I'll do.

INSKEEP: Some people will know that in addition to advising the Afghan forces, there's still a counterterrorism mission for the United States. Can you help us understand what that means? You're going after remnants of al-Qaida, how many of them are there? Are there other groups you would define as being targets in this way, that are legitimate for the United States to go after? And what restraints, if any, do you have in going after them?

CAMPBELL: Well, Steve, if I gave you all those answers, I'd be giving an advantage to those guys that I don't want to have that advantage. So I'd rather not go into those kind of details. It's suffice to say that we do continue to have a counterterrorism mission. The forces that we have that do the CT mission - along with our Afghan partners because we've grown their CT capability and it's quite remarkable - I wouldn't want to be one of the guys on the ground that has to go against that CT capability 'cause you're going to have a bad day.

INSKEEP: Respecting everything that you can't say here, General, I wonder if there's something that we, as citizens, should just be prepared for. Should we be prepared for the likelihood that over the next couple of years, even though the U.S. doesn't have a large-scale formal combat mission, we may still hear, from time to time, of an American soldier killed in combat?

CAMPBELL: Yeah, absolutely, what I would tell you is that, after one January we'll continue to have 9,800 men and women working here in Afghanistan - not out on patrols - but Afghanistan. And some areas will continue to be a very dangerous place, an area of active hostilities. Remember, the insurgents - you only have to be at one certain place when you're vulnerable to have a suicide vest go off or a truck full of explosives get into a marketplace. And again - so we'll continue to do all the things that we can do on our own force protection to make sure that we safeguard the young men and women. As I told you earlier, force protection is absolutely one of my highest priorities.

INSKEEP: General John Campbell, thanks very much for taking the time, sir.

CAMPBELL: Thanks, Steve, appreciate it.

INSKEEP: General John Campbell commands U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.