Highest-ranking female officer in Afghanistan would rather talk about war than gender
KABUL, Afghanistan — Sitting in her office at NATO’s Resolute Support headquarters one recent afternoon, Army Maj. Gen. Robin Fontes played down the history she made this summer.
“It’s interesting, but — whatever,” she said while passing a plate of Girl Scout cookies that she called “a good reminder of home.”
In July, the Idaho native became one of the most important leaders of NATO’s Resolute Support mission — focused on training, advising and assisting Afghan security forces — when she took command of Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, or CSTC-A.
She also assumed the highest position of any female servicemember in the 16-year war.
“You know, no pressure,” she joked when her status was brought up. A few seconds later, her smile faded and she said: “I don’t want people to judge me on that.”
Fontes would rather people focus on her work, which is vital to a mission that she believes is on the verge of unprecedented success, despite a history of setbacks.
CSTC-A is the primary organization tasked with building the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, or ANDSF, and is responsible for half of Resolute Support’s essential functions.
While those functions may not be the most glamorous — budgeting, strengthening rule of law and transparency are some of them — they are critical to the success of America’s longest war.
“A lot of it is really making sure the Afghans can sustain this force in the future, cut down on corruption and manage their money — the real big pieces that are going to lead to self-sustainment,” Fontes said of CSTC-A’s work.
Since becoming commander, Fontes has been on the move, visiting corps and zone commanders in different areas of the country, inspecting U.S. and coalition-funded projects and regularly meeting with senior members of the Afghan government. Much of her effort is spent advising the Afghans on how to use their money to support and sustain their forces.
It has given her significant insight into the war, particularly into how far the Afghans are from standing on their own.
“We’ve seen what works; now we’re just kind of tweaking,” she said. “I really think we’re on the cusp of making this happen.”
Part of that “tweaking” includes doubling the number of elite Afghan special forces and more than doubling the number of aircraft in the Afghan inventory.
Critics and hope
Critics say current efforts focus too much on force and not enough on proven counterinsurgency tactics — winning hearts and minds — and finding political solutions.
Self-sustainment, they say, will be impossible without a strong government in Kabul, which is currently divided and ineffective.
“What this general is convinced we’re on the cusp of creating is an utterly false structure that’s entirely unsustainable and inorganic to the Afghan state, and can only be propped up by us indefinitely,” said Jason Dempsey, an adjunct senior fellow of the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the nonpartisan Center for a New American Security in Washington.
Another concern is that mounting Afghan security forces casualties could negatively affect recruitment and lead to a greater number of desertions.
For example, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said in a report last month that the ANDSF was suffering “unsustainable casualty rates.”
SIGAR noted in October that the Kabul government controlled less than 57 percent of the country’s 407 districts, meaning 3.7 million Afghans — or 11.4 percent of the population — live under insurgent rule or influence. That’s a 700,000-person increase over six months.
In an interview with Stars and Stripes before the report was released, SIGAR chief John Sopko said he was optimistic about efforts to help Afghan forces become sustainable, partly because of Fontes.
His view, he said, was rooted in the seasoned leadership provided by the CSTC-A commander and others cinvolved in the mission, such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and Resolute Support commander Gen. John Nicholson.
“Fontes has had tremendous experience here,” Sopko said. “They all understand what worked and what didn’t. They are very receptive to being self-critical and saying, ‘We’re not going to do that again.’”
Fontes was first deployed to Afghanistan just months after the U.S. invaded the country in 2001 and ousted the Taliban from power. She returned in 2006 to command the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Uruzgan province. From 2011 to 2012, she commanded Regional Support Command-North in Mazar-e-Sharif, part of the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan element of CSTC-A.
The West Point graduate has also served in Tajikistan, India and Pakistan and speaks three regional languages.
“There is no officer of any service in the United States military that has more experience in this region than Maj. Gen. Robin Fontes,” Nicholson said in July, when Fontes assumed command of CSTC-A.
Under Fontes’ leadership, CSTC-A has seen the delivery of Afghanistan’s first UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and its first audit conducted in conjunction with the Finance Ministry to enhance transparency with international donations.
“She’s doing a very good job,” said Mohammad Radmanish, an Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman. “She seems really focused and wants to get things done quickly.”
‘Judge me on that’
The clock is running down for Fontes.
A third of her tour is already over. A major criticism of Afghanistan deployments is that officers with valuable experience, such as Fontes, aren’t in country long enough to affect change, a criticism voiced by Fontes herself.
It also makes officers deployed to Afghanistan less accountable for their work, according to Dempsey.
“What you have is this perfect bureaucratic system set up whereby everybody gets to avoid long-term accountability,” he said. “How is it that we continue to fail, yet everybody who passes through Afghanistan can say: ‘We’re making progress and by God, we were on the cusp of success when I left’?”
While the brevity of her tour may be an obstacle, Fontes’ gender isn’t a problem in a country often described as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman.
Although it’s difficult to imagine an Afghan woman reaching Fontes’ position, respect for the CSTC-A commander appears to be universal among the male Afghans who know her, Radmanish said.
The same can’t be said for those who don’t know her.
When Stars and Stripes reported that Fontes was assuming command of CSTC-A in July, the newspaper’s Facebook account was flooded with negative comments. Some criticized her fitness and insinuated she didn’t have to work as hard as a man to reach her position.
“Unfortunately, I’m not surprised,” Fontes said. “But you know what, if I worried about that, I wouldn’t have time to do anything else.
“I’m an Army officer,” she said. “And I want people to judge me on that.”