Outgoing Afghanistan general: US military needs to beat back Taliban

By Missy Ryan | The Washington Post | Published: February 5, 2016

WASHINGTON — The commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan has presented military leaders with recommendations that, if approved, would further expand the U.S. military role in helping local forces confront the Taliban and other militants.

In an interview, Gen. John F. Campbell said the potential steps, which include having U.S. forces accompany more Afghan units closer to the front lines and expanding the use of U.S. air power, were focused on enhancing support to Afghan military during what's expected to be a fierce Taliban offensive in 2016.

"I'm not going to leave without making sure my leadership understands that there are things we need to do," the general said during a visit to Washington.

The recommended change to U.S. authorities would once more augment U.S. military activities in Afghanistan, where foreign forces were supposed to be limited to a chiefly advisory role since Washington declared an end to combat operations in 2014.

Since then, the Taliban has proved it remains a formidable adversary, battling local forces for control of areas that symbolized the gains of President Barack Obama's troop surge, and even briefly capturing a provincial capital last fall.

To help Afghanistan's unsteady military deal respond, Obama has already abandoned plans to end the military presence entirely by the time he leaves office, and several times has approved changes to the rules governing U.S. operations there to give military officials greater flexibility on the battlefield.

Afghan forces are taking high casualties and struggling to retain soldiers as they grapple with not only repeated Taliban assaults but also al-Qaida militants and, now, an Islamic State affiliate vying for power in eastern Afghanistan. Just last month, the White House approved a new measure allowing the U.S. military to attack the Islamic State there.

Increasingly, U.S. military leaders are talking about a years- or even decades-long presence in Afghanistan.

Campbell, who will retire when he steps down from the Afghanistan command, was in Washington this week to discuss Afghanistan's security outlook with lawmakers, who on Thursday expressed concerns that hard-won progress in Afghanistan could be slipping away. Campbell also met Thursday afternoon with Obama.

In testimony this week, Campbell painted a mixed picture of security across Afghanistan, where just 2 percent of district centers are under insurgent control. He said Afghanistan's unity government was making a real attempt to rein in corruption and turn around chronic problems within their security forces.

But local forces are struggling in Helmand, where the Taliban are making a play to reclaim their traditional stronghold. Last month, a U.S. soldier was killed during a joint U.S.-Afghan special operations mission there.

American special operations forces are already taking a hands-on role in advising elite Afghan forces there. Foreign advisors are also scrambling to help rebuild the Afghan Army's 215th Corps, which has responsibility for Helmand.

Campbell said allowing U.S. advisors to accompany select conventional units closer to the front lines, they way they do with elite forces, could be helpful. Putting American air controllers with select local conventional units, Campbell said, would allow them to better use air power.

"One of the things they [Afghan forces] ask for every day is close air support," Campbell said.

Afghanistan is slowing acquiring aircraft such as the A-29 Super Tucano. But the government's lack of a robust air force has proven to be a real constraint for Afghanistan over the last year, as the U.S. air fleet there shrinks.

"Close air support is just a capability gap that we knew was going to take years and years to build," he said.

Campbell said he had tried to help compensate for the slow task of building up an air force by installing machine guns and rocket pods on Russian Mi-17 helicopters used by Afghan forces. The aircraft was originally intended for evacuating battlefield casualties.

It's not clear whether Campbell's suggestions will be addressed before he hands over to Lt. Gen. John W. "Mick" Nicholson in March. Nicholson is expected to make his own assessment of the situation in Afghanistan and the American course there several months after he arrives.

Campbell is also pressing for additional action not just from leaders in Washington but also in European capitals. He said he had also asked European nations to provide additional military advisors, support troops, drones and intelligence assets.

During exchanges on Capitol Hill this week, Campbell was pressed repeatedly on whether he supported sticking to Obama's current plan to halve the U.S. force of 9,800 by early next year. White House officials have suggested however they might again change course and keep 9,800 troops until the next president takes over.

Campbell declined to address whether Obama's plan should be changed but suggested that Afghanistan will need substantial help for the indefinite future.

"I do believe we're going to have to have a continued modest forward presence . . . for years to come," he said. "We shouldn't sugar-coat it."

Campbell spoke near the end of a long military career that has included repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The general said that Defense Sec. Ash Carter had offered him the opportunity to become the next head of U.S. Africa Command, whose current commander Gen. David M. Rodriguez is expected to step down this year. But Campbell said he had declined, hoping to spend more time with his family.

Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, during a Senate Armed Forces Committee hearing in Washington in October 2015. Campbell has presented military leaders with recommendations that, if approved, would further expand the U.S. military role in helping local forces confront the Taliban and other militants.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg


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