US commander in Kandahar sees ‘real fruits’ of surge
This report has been corrected.
KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — Just a few stark miles west of here lay the ruins of Tarnak Farms, the infamous former al-Qaida training camp where Osama bin Laden lived as a guest of the Taliban. For the commander of Regional Command-South, the decaying outpost remains an eerie vestige of why he’s here.
“We’re reminded every day,” said Maj. Gen. Robert B. Abrams, of the 3rd Infantry Division.
“Our goals when we came here were to help provide an opportunity for the government of Afghanistan to stand on its own and become a responsible member of the international community, have a security force that can protect itself and protect its borders,” and not provide sanctuary for al-Qaida.
And viewed within that context, he said, the progress in RC-South since the surge has been significant.
“This has been a 3-year slog, and it’s showing some real fruits of the efforts. We have invested an incredible amount of blood and treasure here. It’s mattered,” he said.
There were fewer fatalities in 2012 among coalition forces than any year since 2008.
While a spate of insider attacks garnered the most media attention in 2012, by far the greatest killer of coalition troops in Afghanistan remained the improvised explosive device. However, according to the International Security Assistance Force, the number of coalition troops killed by IEDs dropped to 135, just more than half the 250 killed in 2011.
According to a United Nations midyear report, civilian deaths fell 15 percent from the same period last year. The decrease reversed a 5-year trend in which civilian deaths had been on the rise.
Also, a report released in late September by the Brookings Institution, titled the Afghan Index, echoed the U.N. report and noted that while the frequency of insurgent attacks has increased slightly from the previous year, the report showed that the attacks were significantly less effective in terms of their ability to kill or injure both coalition and Afghan forces.
Attacks on decline
While the Taliban homeland districts of Maiwand and Panjwai remain contested, most of the south is relatively peaceful, including Kandahar City and the once-notorious Arghandab district.
According to ISAF, enemy initiated attacks from January to September fell 63 percent in Kandahar City, and 53 percent in the Arghandab district compared with same period last year.
“I was here six weeks before I heard my first gunfight — and I get out a lot,” said Abrams, who took command in early September.
In the wake of the drawdown, Afghan security forces now fortify most of the hard-won areas and, according to Abrams, those forces are increasingly autonomous. Currently, 80 percent of the 300 or so daily patrols across RC-South are Afghan independent.
“When we say they’re in the lead, it’s not lip service. They conduct, by far, the majority of operations,” he said. “They are the face of security.”
As evidence, Abrams cited a successful corps-level clearing operation last fall in Zabul province led by the Afghans.
“We didn’t provide them one ounce of fuel,” he said. “It was an 18-day operation. They were fixing their own vehicles, they were evacuating their casualties. They refueled themselves with 80,000 liters of fuel. That’s pretty damn phenomenal.”
As another measurement of success, Abrams points to the number of schools in RC-South, noting that 400 schools operate in Kandahar province alone.
According to the Brookings report, more than 8 million Afghans — more than a third of whom are girls — are enrolled in elementary and secondary education. The same report shows that less than a million students attending school under Taliban rule, virtually all of them boys.
Among the new strategies in 2012 was the implementation of Security Force Assistance Teams — small advisory units who embed in nearly every echelon of the ANSF.
“We now have an unblinking eye into every single formation. We also have it on every single leader in key positions. Everybody’s got a coach,” he said. “What that team does is they help the unit see themselves and provide them candid, unfiltered feedback.”
While the SFATs are there to advise and assist during operations, according to Abrams, their most valuable contribution comes before the mission begins.
“We’re showing them what right looks like and now they’re building muscle memory on how to do it, and it’s becoming their systems,” he said.
The plan is for SFATs to peel off as Afghan security forces reach autonomy.
“It’s not a one-size-fits-all,” he said, noting that some units will be ready before others. “It’s all on a glide slope headed toward independence.”
Among the more troubling aspects of Abrams’ command in 2012 was the proliferation of insider attacks. During his first month in Afghanistan, eight coalition servicemembers were killed in the so-called green-on-blue attacks.
“We should not, and I won’t, put my head in the sand and say there’s not really a threat. We know that our enemy has said, ‘Figure out how to infiltrate and get in there and cause some damage,’” he said.
In addition to fortifying physical barriers around U.S. positions, new safety measures and a system of checks were implemented to mitigate the threat. Since the measures were put into place in September, insider attacks have dropped off sharply.
While Abrams said that the measures were necessary, he knows that building barriers was difficult for many of his soldiers, who consider partnering a cornerstone of their operations.
“There are a lot of leaders that have said, ‘Sir, this is a bad idea.’ But truthfully, the ANSF … needed some time to do due diligence, to properly check out their guys, which they had not done exactly to standard,” he said. “And frankly, we needed the time to adjust, ourselves.”
“We’re back at it,” said Abrams about continuing partnered operations. “We didn’t spend the last years building all this trust and it was going to go away in a fortnight.”
Abrams said the pause in coalition operations gave the Afghans valuable insight into their abilities to go it alone after international troops leave in 2014.
“The ANA did get a glimpse of the future, and it was fine,” he said. “It enabled them to conduct operations more independently, build confidence in their own abilities. “The sky did not fall.”
And Tarnak remains a ghost town.
“The people who planned and executed the attacks on 9/11, they trained at Tarnak Farms,” Abrams said. “That’s not going on today in Afghanistan.”
An Afghan-led, corps-level clearing operation last fall in Zabul province refueled with 80,000 liters of fuel. The amount of fuel has been corrected.