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Fort Bragg general says biggest challenge in Afghanistan still to come

U.S. troops have accomplished much in Afghanistan over the past year, but the biggest challenges may be yet to come.

Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson said the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan will begin in earnest in the coming weeks, as preparations are made to reduce the American footprint to 9,800 troops by the end of the year.

Anderson, who spoke with The Fayetteville Observer from Afghanistan, is commander of the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command and deputy commanding general of U.S. Forces - Afghanistan.

He's also the commanding general of Fort Bragg and the 18th Airborne Corps, which makes up the cores of several key coalition commands in the country.

Anderson said about 35,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan. Those numbers will begin dropping quickly as forces continue to consolidate onto fewer and fewer bases.

At the same time, the coalition mission in Afghanistan will shift from advise and assist to more advising than assisting.

But what worries Anderson is the time his soldiers are losing with their Afghan counterparts.

The Afghan government continues to recount ballots from a runoff election held earlier this year. They reached the halfway point in counting last week.

Anderson said coalition forces have no interest in the outcome of the election, but he hoped for a quick resolution.

"The political piece of it is none of our business," the general said. "It's the time we're losing. Time is ticking."

While the recount takes place, Afghanistan is at a stalemate, Anderson said. Even the average Afghan is frustrated by the stagnation, he said.

And coalition leaders are no different.

They are working on short timetables with a lengthy "to-do" list of improvements.

"There's plenty to do," he said. "We're working as best as we can."

Anderson said there's limited time to enhance medical care, artillery, managing aircraft, logistics, maintenance, engineering and counter improvised explosive device efforts.

"I remain very confident in their tactical abilities," Anderson said of the Afghan security forces.

But, he said, the frustrations in the higher levels of the military can affect readiness, and coalition forces are "losing ground" on addressing those frustrations.

"We are still very committed to being the best we can," Anderson said of the Afghan forces.

U.S. troops helped secure and move the more than 22,000 ballot boxes involved in the recount, Anderson said. And they continue to provide security for those ballots, using cameras and nighttime shifts of soldiers.

So far, the ballots have been kept safe from significant attacks, but he said a few fist fights have broken out among officials inside the recount.

Anderson estimates it will take another three weeks "give or take" before the process is finished, and said the government would likely transition in mid September.

That transition will mark the latest turnover in what Anderson has dubbed the "Year of Change," the challenging and dynamic buildup to the end of Operation Enduring Freedom and the beginning of Operation Resolute Support, the code name for the continued efforts in Afghanistan.

Over the past eight months - the 18th Airborne Corps deployed in January - coalition forces have consolidated from 85 bases throughout Afghanistan to 42, Anderson said.

By the start of November, fewer than two dozen coalition bases will remain open, with many of those housing special operations forces.

As the "collapse and consolidation" speeds up, forces will start to redeploy, Anderson said.

In the south, once bustling Forward Operating Bases Apache and Pasab have closed, Anderson said, consolidating the entire 4th Brigade, 4th Infantry Division at Kandahar Airfield. Those soldiers, from Fort Carson, Colorado, will start heading home next month.

In the east, units from Fort Hood, Texas, and Fort Campbell, Kentucky, also will soon head home, Anderson said.

Some 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers, who have been spread across the country, have already begun their return home.

At the same time, U.S. forces continue to move equipment and vehicles out of the country. Anderson said those retrograde efforts are ahead of schedule.

Forces have moved 17,600 pieces of rolling stock, including vehicles, from Afghanistan and will move another 4,500 pieces by year's end.

The equivalent of 4,300 20-foot containers also have been removed from the country, with another 1,300 20-foot equivalents set to move by year's end.

"We're getting a little close," Anderson said of the mission.

But, he said, soldiers haven't lost sight of the mission.

"We miss Fort Bragg and we miss North Carolina," Anderson said. ". But we have a job to do."

The 18th Airborne Corps will be the last three-star unit to serve as ISAF Joint Command.

That command will cease to exist once the corps leaves later this year.

Regional commands across Afghanistan, once led by two-star generals, also are transitioning. Those commands will become Train and Assist Commands and will be led by one-star generals.

Anderson said regional commands North, West and Capital have already transitioned to the new structure. The South and East commands will transition in October.

Thousands of Fort Bragg soldiers are serving in Afghanistan.

The 44th Medical Brigade has nearly 175 soldiers deployed, and the 1st Theater Sustainment Command continues to oversee logistical efforts there.

Local soldiers also serve as part of the special operations forces contingent in the country, which includes parts of the 3rd Special Forces Group and other Army Special Operations units from Fort Bragg.

Local soldiers continue to play important roles in Afghanistan, but even those will change as the year draws to a close.

Elements of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division serve as theater response forces, supporting Afghan National Security Force operations.

Parts of the 82nd Airborne's 2nd and 3rd Brigade Combat Teams also are in security force roles, facilitating movement between bases and protecting key leaders.

But those missions will be passed on to other units by the end of the year, Anderson said.

Meanwhile, the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade is in the process of deploying and will provide helicopter support for the entire country, replacing two aviation brigades in theater.

Anderson said Fort Bragg will have a smaller role in the country after the new year, but its presence will continue to be felt.

brooksd@fayobserver.com

©2014 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.). Distributed by MCT Information Services

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