At the end of a year marked with change, a pivotal election and a massive drawdown, the U.S. general officer in charge of day-to-day operations in Afghanistan said he is confident in the Afghan National Security Forces' tactical capabilities.
"They've made many improvements," said Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, commanding general of the XVIII Airborne Corps and the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command. "It can get better, it needs to get better."
When asked if the U.S. military was concerned about drawing down too quickly and seeing a repeat of what happened with Iraqi troops in the face of the Islamic State, Anderson said the Afghans are "a very good fighting force."
"With all my time in Iraq, I would rank the Afghan army as a tougher, better fighting organization than what I dealt with in Iraq," he said. "They've got to keep working on institutionalizing, professionalizing, and keep upping the game."
Four key areas for the Afghans to focus on are logistics, intelligence, aviation and special operations integration, Anderson said.
"The key now is how they use the winter period to get ready for fighting season '15, and how do they reset, how do they rearm, refit, retrain, and get ready for 2015 when they have full security responsibility," he said.
In a wide-ranging interview Thursday with Army Times, just days before IJC was to shut down for good, Anderson also talked about his command's accomplishments over the past year and what lies ahead for the effort in Afghanistan.
Q: How would you describe this past year's deployment?
A: It was a tremendously important year for the Afghans with the election, a runoff and a recount. Especially when you put it into context of having to support those major events and everything in between, with the fighting season and about 980 operations by the ANSF over the course of the calendar year, and all of that in the midst of retrograde and redeployment, which has been an ongoing event all year.
Q: What are some of the key transitions you've made for the drawdown?
A: We're going from 54,000 U.S. troops in February to the mandated 9,800 in a couple weeks. We're at about 12,000 now, with a couple thousand to go in the next couple weeks.
We had 75 bases closed or transferred; all the headquarters realignments; the transition of functions from information operations, psychological operations, public affairs, current operations, future operations, and all of that stuff with the merger of IJC with ISAF; and all the regional commands going to train, advise and assist commands.
Plus the fighting season that continues to persist today. That's the year in review.
Q: How about the retrograde?
A: It's all down to the wire. Roughly 23,000 pieces of rolling stock have been redeployed, retrograded or divested, with 605 pieces to go until the end of the month. Non-rolling stock, we're at 1.8 million pieces of equipment. They got about 30,000 pieces to go for the rest of the month.
Q: What's the status of IJC?
A: Two weeks ago we handed off to ISAF. The last piece was the current operations, the day-to-day cell that monitors, tracks and facilitates air movements, ISR, air support. For all intents and purposes, functionally, IJC two weeks ago ceased operations.
Q: What will the force of 9,800 U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan do?
A: They're enablers, force protection, headquarters staffs and advisors.
Q: How would you describe the ANSF and how they're doing?
A: It's been a long, hard fighting season. Their current killed in action so far this year is approaching 5,000. Their wounded are 9,352.
Those aren't sustainable, so you've got to figure out everything from force protection to counter-IED and explosive ordnance. With all the enablers and tools they've been given, how to better detect what's killing them, from IED to direct fire, to how do you prepare for that, how do you train for that? How do you keep enhancing and improving medical aid, buddy aid?
It's just been a tough year of casualties because of a long fighting season and because of an election season. They've been in the lead all year.
Q: In recent weeks we've seen the enemy step up its attacks, not just in Kabul but also on Camp Bastion. What do you think might be prompting these attacks?
A: Camp Bastion was a probe. That's a 23-mile perimeter around Bastion, which we handed off the end of October. It's a huge footprint, they attempted to probe that.
There's a brand new force called the Force Protection Force, equivalent to a security guard force that has responsibility for that perimeter. It has about 2,000 guards, and it's under the 215th Corps commander down there, but they're not a fully trained equivalent of an army soldier. It's a five-week training program to get them up to speed to pull static security around that big airfield, and there's a couple other places that's happening, [Forward Operating Base] Wright in Konar and in Shindand.
That is nothing comparable to Kabul. The Taliban are making attacks in Kabul based on, probably, three lines of effort. It's probably the Bilateral Security Agreement and Status of Forces Agreement being ratified, it's probably a challenge to the new government, and it's probably an intention to show that the drawdown, the movement to Resolute Support is occurring. The Taliban is trying to prove they're an entity to be dealt with.
Q: How are conditions on the ground now?
A: We're back on track, but there remains threats to Kabul, from high-profile attacks to suicide attacks. That's real. The question is how the ANSF continues to work together, how do we keep cross-talking and making sure there's a layered defense? How do we keep making sure the checkpoints, the gates, the patrols, all those things are working based on intelligence, and using intelligence to figure out when, where and how to employ forces? That's what we keep pushing, and it continues to get better.
Michelle Tan is the editor of Army Times and Air Force Times. She has covered the military for Military Times since 2005, and has embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Haiti, Gabon and the Horn of Africa.