Welcome home, 173rd Airborne: Kamiya: Battles' context is key
May 2, 2006
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VICENZA, Italy — Maj. Gen. Jason Kamiya says he may never be sure how to accurately measure a successful mission in Afghanistan.
But the commander of the Southern European Task Force (Airborne) and former head of Combined Joint Task Force-76 is certain of how he'll not want it remembered.
"I didn't want our mission to devolve into a body count, where we measure our success on the number of people we killed," he said in an interview in early April in his office at Caserma Ederle.
Kamiya acknowledges that might seem strange coming from a career military man. Especially when most of the news coming out of Afghanistan during the task force's stint involved a greater number of firefights and American casualties than had been seen at any time since the American invasion in late 2001.
"It is one of the great ironies," he said, acknowledging an impression in Europe and the States of a somewhat deteriorating situation in Afghanistan because of an increase in fighting.
"From a purely military perspective, we celebrate the number of contacts we have," he said. U.S. forces, their NATO allies and the fledgling Afghan National Army win such encounters overwhelmingly, Kamiya said. In fact, commanders in the field report they have trouble getting enemy forces to stay and fight.
But, "all the international community sees is the numbers," he said. "It left the external audience with the thought that it was getting more violent."
Such battles need to be put in context, though, he said. He points back to an interview he gave shortly after arriving in Afghanistan in which he discounted a potential spring offensive by Taliban forces . He promised the coalition would actively seek out and engage anti-government forces in places the coalition had rarely or never been before, and then follow up with projects to make the local quality of life better.
Afghanistan, as many soldiers like to say, is a place that time forgot. It has isolated mountain villages where communication with the outside world is virtually nonexistent.
Bringing education — in the form of dozens of new schools – and accessibility — with hundreds of kilometers of new roads – brought coalition forces into contact with pockets of those opposed to change.
The Taliban, Kamiya said, views "education and communication as the real threats" because as the Afghan government grows stronger the more interaction villagers have with other communities and the outside world.
"There are so many more important ways to measure an insurgency than by the number of people killed," he said.
He pointed to the town of Shinkay in Zabul province, where the price of a sack of wheat dropped dramatically after elements from the 173rd Airborne Brigade built a road connecting the community to Qalat. Businessmen said improved transportation and a lack of bandits on the road allowed them to lower costs.
The Afghan National Army doubled in size during the task force's stint and increasingly took responsibility in operations. The federal government's control spread to places where it had not been acknowledged before. Officials who didn't do their jobs were replaced. U.S. forces spent more than $88 million on various projects during the fiscal year. The country held landmark parliamentary elections in September.
"That can't be discounted," Kamiya said. "Those are the things that are really important. I said at the beginning that I hoped we would leave Afghanistan and those we came into contact with … much better off. Looking back, I think we accomplished that."