NATO presence in Afghanistan gives Afghan forces ‘another year of improvement’
By CARLO MUNOZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 30, 2015
MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan — In a valley of northern Afghanistan beneath the massive peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains, Georgian troops move hastily to secure a helicopter landing zone.
With the green smoke marking the landing zone wafting overhead, Georgian troops assigned to the quick-reaction force at Train, Advise and Assist Command-North rush to the waiting aircraft, while other soldiers fix their eyes and weapons on the ridge lines crisscrossing the valley plain. After circling the mountaintops for several minutes, the helicopters swoop back into the valley repeating an assault drill.
Weeks before, members of the command’s quick-reaction force — along with the rest of the U.S. and coalition forces stationed at TAAC-North — were focused on drawing down their presence in northern Afghanistan after the spring and summer fighting season.
Now, with the Obama administration’s decision to keep U.S. forces in the country at current levels for all of 2015, the quick-reaction force is set to remain until the end of the year.
Washington’s move was partly motivated by concerns over the collapse last year of another U.S.-trained force, the Iraqi army, in the face of a lightening offensive by Islamic militants. Insurgent forces had been kept largely at bay in northern Afghanistan, but recent large-scale Taliban offensives have exposed critical shortfalls in weapons and supplies for frontline Afghan forces.
The decision to keep forces in country longer will give coalition commanders much-needed “breathing room” to prepare Afghan security forces for what promises to be one of the most intense fighting seasons since Afghans took the lead in combat operations in 2013, said TAAC-North Deputy Commander Col. Paul Sarat.
“A lot of the decisions have not yet been made” at the tactical level for the small contingent of U.S. forces based at the German-led command in northern Afghanistan, Sarat said. But the decision to extend the withdrawal timeline gives him and other American commanders time to shore up gains made in the train-and-advise mission.
“It gives us the entire fighting season (and) buys them another year of improvement,” Sarat said, referring to the local military and police units stationed in the north and elsewhere in the country.
American and NATO advisers are working to close gaps within Afghan forces, by honing their intelligence-sharing capabilities, as well as streamlining their logistics and support chains, Sarat said.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced in May that the alliance would keep a military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2016, when U.S. forces are expected to withdraw, though he said troop numbers had yet to be worked out.
Gen. John Campbell, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said in May he anticipates a sizable American troop presence in the country past 2016.
After 13 years of conflict in Afghanistan, much of Europe is suffering from the same war weariness as the United States, and any decision to prolong NATO’s presence in the country will come down to alliance members’ political will, TAAC-North commander Brig. Gen. Andreas Hannemann said.
Given the stakes for Afghan forces and the country’s security situation, lack of political will “is not a [good] reason not to do it,” Hannemann said. “We can use every [extra] day” to help improve security in northern Afghanistan.
Swedish Col. Joakim Karlquist, a senior NATO adviser to Operations Coordination Center-North, the main coordinating body for security forces in northern Afghanistan, echoed Hannemann’s comments.
The time-consuming process of getting Afghan commanders up to snuff on running a modern military and police force means foreign advisers need all the time they can get, Karlquist said.
During a visit to the center, located in Mazar-e-Sharif, Karlquist’s team spent an entire day attempting to convince Afghan officials on the need to coordinate operations among military, police and intelligence units.
At the end of the meetings, Afghan Maj. Gen. Seyad Sajadi, the coordination center’s chief, agreed to establish a framework to begin that coordination. These types of “baby steps” or small victories have come to define the work of U.S. and NATO adviser teams, Karlquist said.
The adviser teams need time to accumulate enough of those small victories to create large-scale changes within the Afghan security forces. But with the Taliban having launched their spring fighting season on April 15, time may be running out for those forces.
Dubbed the Azm campaign, the Arabic word for “resolve,” the campaign aims to target Afghan military bases and diplomatic centers as well as “intelligence, interior and defense ministry officials,” the Taliban said in a statement.
The transition from full-scale combat operations to a train-and-advise mission has kept U.S. and allied forces largely inside the wire, leaving Afghan military and police to fend for themselves in northern Afghanistan.
Taking advantage of that, the Taliban and other insurgent groups have launched a series of coordinated attacks against the army and police positions in the north, once seen as one of the most stable regions in the country. In northern Badakhshan and Kunduz provinces, insurgents overran army and police defenses. In a counteroffensive in Kunduz, launched in late April, officials said 200 insurgents were killed as were a dozen Afghan security forces.
In May, Afghan security forces launched a massive counteroffensive in Badakhshan to reclaim territory lost to Taliban fighters there in the earlier attacks.
The wave of attacks in northern Afghanistan provides only an inkling of what the fighting season holds for Afghan forces and their western allies.
Hannemman offered his view of a grim future for local forces in northern Afghanistan: “We have to expect higher losses” among the Afghans, he said. “This [is] part of the game.”