Dunford on first Afghanistan visit as Joint Chiefs chair: ‘years of work’ ahead
BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — A little more than a year after commanding international forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Joseph Dunford returned to the country in a different role but to a familiar landscape Tuesday in his first visit as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
When he finished his command of coalition troops in the country in August 2014, the plan was for the U.S. to close its bases and pull all but a small contingent of embassy security troops from the country by the end of 2015. But decisions changed with Afghan forces struggling to fend off an aggressive insurgency and there are still roughly 10,000 American servicemembers in Afghanistan spread out over several bases. Violence in the country has continued unabated.
As President Barack Obama has scaled back plans to completely withdraw from Afghanistan, both administration officials and military leaders have struggled to define the mission to a war-weary public, taking pains to call it a noncombat mission while acknowledging troops will still be in harm’s way. While the majority of U.S. troops are focusing on advising and training Afghan forces, Americans still see combat in the country and 16 have died this year, according to iCasualties.org.
“I still call it a war — there’s still a war in Afghansitan,” Dunford said in an interview with Stars and Stripes Tuesday. “What we’ve shifted away from is a large presence of U.S. combat forces fighting that war.”
Dunford and Gen. John Campbell, current commander of international forces in Afghanistan, were at Bagram Tuesday to meet troops as part of a USO tour and both sat down with Stars and Stripes to discuss the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
Obama, who campaigned on a platform to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has twice delayed the full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan; the current plan is for the nearly 10,000 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan to stay into next year and drop by about half toward the end of 2016 or beginning of 2017. Dunford said it may be a long process, though he wouldn’t predict how long American troops may remain.
“There’s work to do, certainly, years to do it, certainly,” he said. “But when you look at what’s happening over the last couple of years, there ought to be room to be encouraged because our goal was to stand up the Afghan forces and have them increasingly take responsibility for their own security.”
Campbell said several factors, including the rise of Islamic State militants in eastern Afghanistan, informed the need to keep troops in the country longer than expected. The fragility of the Afghan security forces, who he acknowledged still struggle with logistics and intelligence sharing, was also underscored in September when Taliban fighters overran the major northern city of Kunduz.
It took Afghan troops two weeks to fully regain control of the city and only with the help of U.S. special forces and air power. Campbell called the Afghan forces inability to stave off the attack on Kunduz a “wake-up call.”
“They can’t let that happen again,” Campbell said. “It was a huge IO (information operations) win for the Taliban.”
Despite 14 years of war, and a summer fighting season that saw record numbers of Afghan troop casualties, Campbell and Dunford disputed the notion that Afghanistan is a lost cause.
“I fundamentally believe that our presence here over the last decade-plus has made a huge difference in that al-Qaida has not been able to conduct an attack against the United States since 9/11 and I truly believe that’s in large part due to the pressure we’ve placed on al-Qaida in the region,” Dunford said.
Both he and Campbell continue to see a peace deal between the Taliban and Afghan government as the only lasting solution, though neither would put a timeline on when that might happen.
Potential negotiations may be complicated by what appears to be a splintering Taliban. Recent reports out of Pakistan said Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor may be dead or badly wounded after a shootout with a rival Taliban faction. The Taliban have since released an audio recording purportedly from Mansoor saying he is alive and well.
“Everything I have right now says Mansoor is alive,” Campbell said. “I think what it tells you is there’s a lot of uncertainty in the Taliban leadership.”