Brig. Gen. John Dolan ()
Brig. Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost ()
U.S. and NATO troops are leaving Afghanistan, but the fight is far from over. Afghan security forces have assumed greater roles in the battle against the insurgency. Time will tell whether they are ready to stand on their own.
U.S. Air Force commanders in Afghanistan point to recent victories, from the newfound professionalism of the Afghan air force to the dismantling of a rocket launching cell outside Bagram Airfield by Afghan security forces acting on their own intelligence.
"They start to see that one day, this will all be theirs," Kandahar Airfield commander Brig. Gen. John Dolan said recently from a makeshift office inside a crumbling building known as the Taliban Last Stand. More than 11 years ago, coalition troops drove the organization from its final stronghold here. In an act of symbolism, NATO raised its flag in the bombed-out center and made offices in the surviving perimeter.
"They see the transition coming," Dolan said, and they recognize that stability is prosperous.
But the insurgency is persistent and resilient. Corruption remains rampant, according to a December Defense Department Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan.
The withdrawal, long expected, became imminent Feb. 12 when President Obama announced that half of the 68,000 U.S. troops will be home in a year. Obama did not provide details on the drawdown. And there has been no decision on how many troops, if any, will remain in Afghanistan after December 2014, when most coalition forces will have left. Administration officials have said they are considering a residual U.S. troop presence of as few as 3,000 and as many as 15,000.
Handing over control
The biggest challenge to the exit is ensuring support for Afghan security forces during the transition while responsibly drawing down troops, said Brig. Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, vice commander of the Air Force Expeditionary Center.
"There's a natural rub between the two. We don't want to completely focus on redeployment to any detriment of transition planning for our Afghan partners," she said. "We want to orchestrate well with the rest of our coalition partners to make sure we're rolling up responsibly and handing things over in a manner in which the Afghans can accept them."
From his office inside a modular shelter system at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, the man responsible for base defense recounted a recent victory: Afghan security forces learned about a threat to the base.
"Our partners were sharing that with us. But then what they did, they self-initiated a very aggressive campaign," said Lt. Col. Thomas P. Sherman, commander of the 455th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron. "They were actually able to take a rocket launching cell off the battle space out of their initiative, out of their knowledge, out of their capacity to understand the aspects of what threats are important to Bagram."
Afghan security forces are controlling logistics, operations and uniform distribution, the latter of which is also important, Sherman said. "If the Afghan national police know that they are getting the uniform from the government of Afghanistan, it has a completely different connotation to it if they were handed a uniform by a U.S. service member passing by."
Sherman meets regularly with the Bagram district police chief. He makes weekly visits to the villages to meet with elders and maliks. The interaction makes all the difference in perspective, he said.
"When you actually get out there and you are amongst the people and you're amongst those folks who are trying to do the right thing, I think you get a very different vibe than what you might get from a clip on the news," Sherman said. "I think they are really growing into their own. … As we have been working this transition more feverishly within the last year, they start to see, ‘We are making progress, we are doing things on our own, we are making this work.'"
The Afghan Defense Ministry said it is ready to take on the responsibility. Some Afghans, at least, are less certain. They fear a quick drawdown will destabilize a country that is still fighting insurgents nearly 11 years after the U.S.-led invasion.
"I was surprised with this number, and I didn't expect that 34,000 U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan," said former army Gen. Amrullah Aman. The army is too weak to defend the country, he added.
Dolan, the Kandahar Airfield commander who works directly with the Afghan air force, is more optimistic. "When you take a look at all the organizations, the government, the Afghan police, the army is the farthest along in the transition," he said. "They are really in the lead when we go out with [the International Security Assistance Force.]"
The professionalism of the Afghan air force has grown exponentially, Dolan said. At first, "the whole concept of how you maintain your aircraft, the concept of how you manage your schedule for the aircraft so that you fly them for a certain amount of days and then you don't fly them so you can do maintenance … believe it or not, that was a very foreign concept to them. It was, ‘I've got a helicopter, I've got an airplane. I'm going to keep flying it until it breaks, until it won't fly anymore, and then I'm going to ask for another helicopter.'"
Not long ago, Dolan continued, Afghans thought it was acceptable to give friends and relatives a ride on military aircraft. "Now they understand these are government assets. They have a mission. Your mission isn't to help your uncle get to an appointment. Your mission is a broader sense."
The Afghans are also increasingly flying their own missions, he said. Soon, they will be able to start their own pilot training program. "You can sense the pride they have. It's very contagious."
Still, there is some apprehension about the withdrawal — not unlike the Iraqis felt in 2008, Dolan said. "There are a lot of similarities from the standpoint when someone gets used to you being around, there's some anxiety there."
And there is still a long way to go, the commander said. "When you open up the ministry of transportation as a whole, it still has some work to do. We still do air traffic control here, we still run the tower, we still run the air space. That transition still needs to happen. If you take them at a tactical and unit level, they are really making some big strides."
Retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, who was commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, said he supports a residual force, but what the Afghans really need is cash.
"I think the advisers will be important, but they are not as important in some ways as continuing the flow of resources to buy spare parts, fuel, ammunition, the other things that a military needs in order to stay in combat," he said.
Beyond those basics, the Afghans will need more cargo aircraft and helicopters to bolster their mobility capabilities, Barno said. "I don't think they should rebuild the United States Air Force by any stretch of the imagination, but I think they need helicopter lift, and I think they need a reasonable short-field transport aircraft."
The Afghans are an effective ground combat force, said Barno, but they lack a logistics system to support security forces.
"One of the reasons, I think, rightly, the United States is moving to a support mission this year — a mission to advise and assist and train instead of being in the lead — is to find out where these holes and gaps are and to assist the Afghans in fixing them in the next, basically 22 months, before we get to the end of 2014," Barno said.
That will help the Afghans learn how to operate with limited U.S. support beyond 2014.
A former soldier who has worked in reconstruction and development in Afghanistan for the last three years said the Afghan national army will have neither money nor equipment to sustain.
"The issue is this: Even with the equipment the U.S. military is going to provide them, they just can't afford it. They are going to have to have funds."
And that's just the tip of their troubles, he said. The ANA has low retention. A large number of Afghan soldiers walk off the job every year.
"We're not really sure why," said the former soldier, who writes about his experiences at http://www.republicofsnarkistan.net/">republicofsnarkistan.net. "I think the bottom line is, they join the military just long enough to feed their family and get some literacy under their belt and then they walk off the job to something else. I don't think a lot of them see it as a career."
Afghan security forces need more time, he said. "We're rushing it, is what it really boils down to."
Even so, "I really think the Afghans are going to be just fine. If we leave here, they will be better for it."
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.