General: National Guard is key in Afghanistan
STUTTGART, Germany — Gen. Craig R. McKinley hears it all the time, how vital his troops are.
Before Gen. Stanley McChrystal had even taken over in Afghanistan, he made a call to McKinley, leader of the U.S. National Guard. He told him that contributions from the Guard would be crucial to the U.S. mission there.
Gen. David Petraeus, head of Central Command, has already suggested they could use more of the agribusiness development teams — manned by National Guardsmen from rural areas — that train Afghans in modern farming techniques. Thirteen already are in place.
And that’s just the start for McKinley.
The head of Africa Command recently chatted with him about adding Kenya to the growing list of nations in the Guard’s State Partnership Program. And McKinley also sees opportunities for more collaborations in the European Command territory.
All this activity, however, raises a question: Between home-state obligations, frequent deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and a growing list of training partnerships with foreign nations, when does the National Guard reach its breaking point?
"All I can say is, we are not there yet," said McKinley, who was in Stuttgart last week for a conference with stateside Guard leaders and EUCOM officials. "And as long as we can keep the balance ... we should be OK for the foreseeable future."
As of 2008, the Guard represented 7 percent of the force in Iraq and 15 percent in Afghanistan.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, more than 700,000 Reserve soldiers have been called to active duty in support of the war efforts. And as of last week, there were 142,221 Guard and Reserve soldiers currently serving on active duty, according to the Defense Department.
But McKinley, who in 2008 became the first four-star general to lead the Guard, said he believes it still is able to meet its domestic obligations.
"We can’t go too far," he acknowledged. "But right now, I haven’t had anyone come to me from the States saying you’ve pushed us too far."
Some of his commanders on the ground agree.
"I don’t feel we are stretched too thin, yet," said Lt. Col. Gary Thurman of the Georgia National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment of the 48th Brigade Combat Team.
Thurman recently arrived in eastern Afghanistan with his battalion to assume command of Camp Clark, a base for teams training and mentoring the Afghan army. "I’d say at least 90 percent of the guys in this battalion wanted to come here."
But U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., said little has changed in his state since 2005, when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast at a time when half of the state’s National Guard force was deployed to Iraq.
The remaining soldiers had to be augmented by guardsmen from throughout the country.
Now, about half of the Mississippi National Guard is again deploying to Iraq, he said. He is concerned whether the state has the equipment it needs for emergencies. During the response to Katrina, the Guard had to pay a "horrible premium" to get the type of equipment that it had left in Iraq, he said.
"My engineering unit, thank goodness, once again, they’re home." Taylor said. "But they just came back from Iraq and my hunch is they left everything behind again."
Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, an adjunct professor of International Affairs at the U.S. Military Academy, said the National Guard is under-resourced in both troops and equipment to deal with disasters at home.
"On a given day, the active [Army] is probably 540,000, but we’ll have more than 700,000 in our ranks on active duty, which tells me that the National Guard and Reserve, instead of being an emergency force, has become a steady-state active-duty part of the country’s warfighting capabilities," he said. "We want an extremely well-resourced and structured engineer, medical, communication, civil affairs, military police, light infantry just for the homeland security mission."
And the National Guard’s overseas commitments aren’t limited to war zones. Without the Guard, commands such as EUCOM would be unable to meet their strategic training objectives.
The State Partnership Program — which pairs U.S. states with ally nations for training — has continued to evolve since its inception in 1993. In all, 61 countries are enrolled in the state-to-country partnership effort, including 21 each in EUCOM and in Southern Command, seven in AFRICOM territory — with more on the way — and six countries each in Pacific Command and Central Command.
Programs are tailored to the needs of a given region, whether it’s counternarcotics training in Kyrgyzstan, lessons in crop rotation in Afghanistan or noncommissioned officer training in the Philippines.
For EUCOM, the State Partnership Program has become increasingly important as force levels decline in Europe and those units that remain are repeatedly deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Those factors have put limits on EUCOM’s ability to man training missions.
Currently, the SPP accounts for more than 40 percent of all military-to-military engagements, according to EUCOM.
Maj. Gen. William L. Enyart, adjutant general for the Illinois National Guard, said all those challenges were brought into focus last summer.
The Illinois Guard had a brigade in training for a deployment to Afghanistan when the Mississippi River flooded and guardsmen were needed to protect levees.
"We were really stretched thin," said Enyart. "What we’ve had to do is be more efficient."
The Illinois Guard has teamed with Poland since the start of the State Partnership Program 16 years ago.
Poland’s ability to deploy in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is a testament the value of finding ways to do it all, according to Enyart.
"I believe that has been a tremendous long-term strategic success," Enyart said.
Stars and Stripes reporters Jeff Schogol and Dianna Cahn contributed to this report.