As the Afghan National Security Forces prepare for another tough fighting season, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said he could still recommend extending the mission and keeping more U.S. troops in country.
"I'm taking a look and assessing every day based on the enemy situation, based on how much we're getting done with the Afghans, how they're progressing on their lines of effort, how the [Train, Advise and Assist mission] is going, how the government's coming along, [and] if we can really get after the objectives that we set," said Gen. John Campbell, commander of the Resolute Support mission, during an interview Jan. 15 with Army Times.
There are about 10,600 U.S. troops in Afghanistan today; plans call for that number to drop to 9,800 by May 1 and 5,500 by the end of the year. It's too early to say, Campbell said, if he'll ask for permission to keep more troops in theater.
"Do I need to go back in and say do we need longer or do we need that glide slope? I'll continue to work that with my chain of command at [Central Command] and the Joint Staff," he said. "We just got to Resolute Support, and we have another fighting season to go through. We're just learning at this reduced level. I think in the next couple of months I'll be able to make that call."
The 13-year-old International Security Assistance Force mission became the Resolute Support mission on Jan. 1, bringing to an end the U.S. and NATO combat mission in Afghanistan. However, thousands of Americans continue to serve there, this time strictly as trainers and advisers as the Afghan forces take responsibility for security in their country.
"It was not only a drawdown in equipment, a drawdown in people, a change in mission, but really a change in mindset," Campbell said about the transition. "It's been a whole, complete turnover, a new way to do business."
In an exclusive interview with Army Times, Campbell also talked about the threats facing Afghanistan, how the Afghans are preparing, and how the mission in Afghanistan has changed for U.S. and coalition troops. Highlights from the interview:
Islamic State group
The terror group appears to be recruiting in Afghanistan, Campbell said.
"We are seeing reports of some recruiting," he said. "There have been some night letter drops, there have been reports of people trying to recruit both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, quite frankly."
The Islamic State group, or Daesh as they're called in many parts of the Middle East, have a "hard message to sell" in Afghanistan, but leaders are still concerned about any potential for the group to spread, Campbell said.
"The Taliban have their allegiance to Mullah Omar and a different philosophy and ideology than ISIS, but, potentially, there are people who are disgruntled with the Taliban, they haven't seen Mullah Omar in years, or they want to go a different way," Campbell said. "So there are people vulnerable to the Daesh message, and so we're looking at it very hard."
Afghanistan's new president, Ashraf Ghani, has voiced his concerns about possible Daesh activity in his country, Campbell said.
"We've seen bits and pieces of it," he said. "We're doing deep dives into it to make sure we're seeing everything. I've made it a priority intelligence requirement for my staff, but I have not seen a whole bunch of it yet, to tell you the truth."
The Taliban has done "very well" in the media space, Campbell said.
"Some people tell me the Taliban are winning," he said. "I think they're losing."
The Taliban failed to reach any of their strategic objectives during last year's fighting season, Campbell said.
"I think they're defeated, we've taken a big piece out of their political aspirations, a lot of their leadership is fractured, many of their leadership continue to not even be inside of Afghanistan," he said.
However, the Taliban remain a threat.
"They have upped their game a little bit with these high profile attacks in Kabul," he said. "Over the last couple weeks it's gone down, but in the December time frame there were several high-profile attacks."
These attacks were carried out by small groups of insurgents, but they have a larger strategic impact because they occurred inside the capital of Kabul, Campbell said.
"It does cause the people to have doubts about their army and their police," he said. "But I do believe that when the Afghan forces work together, the police, the army, the [National Directorate of Security], they can't be beat."
The Taliban also are ill-equipped compared with Afghan forces.
"The Taliban don't have D-30 Howitzers, they don't have Mi-17 [helicopters], they don't have near the weapons, uparmored Humvees, you name it, on and on, they don't have that," Campbell said. "What they do have is they only have to get it right in one place. They only have to strike fear."
Recent polls conducted across Afghanistan show less than 10 percent of the population supports the Taliban, Campbell said.
"That's different from many years ago, and an insurgency cannot survive if they don't have the support of the people," he said. "The message [to the Taliban] is they've got to come in. They have to come to the peace table. There's no reason for them to be fighting. There's opportunity here."
A view of Kabul at night. Gen. John Campbell said life in Afghanistan has improved considerably in large part to U.S. Army’s work.
Photo Credit: Army
Afghan National Security Forces
The Afghan army and police are doing well, but they also have a lot of work still to do.
"A lot of times the advisers, myself, we get accused of painting too rosy a picture for our partners," Campbell said. "We live with them, we've worked with them for 13 years, we want them to do well, we have confidence in them. But we do understand the challenges they have. They understand the challenges they have."
Some key areas that need work include leadership and holding people accountable, Campbell said.
"They've said themselves that they've got to get after this corruption piece," he said. "It really has been the enemy that's been hurting them from continuing to progress."
U.S. and coalition troops also are working with the Afghans in areas such as logistics and intelligence, Campbell said.
"We'll continue to work with them, and when they collaborate together, they're actually quite good," he said.
The Afghans also need help with retaining and sustaining the force, Campbell said.
Last year, the Afghans saw a 5 percent to 6 percent increase in casualties, mostly among its police force, Campbell said.
"We weren't out there … so [the enemy] would focus on the ANSF," he said." They were taking on the security on their own. Their operations tempo was about four times greater than it was in '13. Any casualty is bad, but if you put it into that kind of context, it makes a little more sense."
The Afghans also are fighting hard, Campbell said.
"They're in this thing," he said. "They want to win it for Afghanistan."
Many of the casualties have occurred in remote areas of the country, at police checkpoints, Campbell said.
"They're not the best trained, they don't have the best equipment," he said. "The Taliban know that, and they take advantage of that. The Afghan Local Police have probably taken the greatest casualties, but they're the greatest threat to the insurgency because they live with the people."
Some of the Afghans are worn out.
For example, many of the casualties from last year's fighting season were suffered in Helmand province, Campbell said.
"A lot of those same people have been there," he said. "They need to rotate. They need to get into a cycle where they get some rest, they get some leave, they get some training, and then they fight. This has been a long fight for them."
The training mission
The "seams and gaps" that need to be worked on include close-air support, aviation, intelligence, special operations, logistics and sustainment, Campbell said.
Afghan President Ghani "has said the systems and processes we leave will be more important than anything else, so we have to continue to work through that," he said.
In addition, the Resolute Support mission is focused on eight essential functions, Campbell said.
• Multi-year budgeting and execution of programs.
• Transparency, accountability and oversight.
• Civilian governance of the Afghan Security Institutions, which includes the army and police, and rule of law.
• Force generation, which includes recruiting, training and equipping the force.
• Sustainment, which includes supply, medical, maintenance and logistics.
• Strategy and policy planning, resourcing and execution, which is the ability to plan and resource campaigns.
• Intelligence capabilities.
• Strategic communications.
"We're really working hard to make sure that the Afghans are doing everything they can during this winter to prepare themselves for what we think will be a very, very tough fighting season," Campbell said. "This will be the first one where they're totally on their own, and the Taliban know that."
Contribution of U.S. troops
"Many soldiers have doubted the difference they have made," Campbell said. "I tell everybody that comes through here, it was absolutely worth it."
The Army, in particular, has done much of the heavy lifting in Afghanistan for the last 13 years, Campbell said.
"We paid the price. We cannot forget the fallen, we can't forget the families and their sacrifices," he said.
The U.S. hasn't suffered another attack like the one on Sept. 11, 2001, since it has been in Afghanistan, Campbell said.
"That's pretty huge," he said. "Believe me, there are people who continue to want to do bad things to the homeland. Being here, we've built up the capacity for the Afghans to be able to help us with that."
Throughout the years and back-to-back deployments, American soldiers have given the Afghan people a hope for "a better life, a better future," Campbell said.
"Whether it's the number of roads, the number of people on the Internet, the literacy rate, how many schools are open, how many females are in school, on and on, it's incredible," he said.
One key improvement, according to information from Campbell, is Afghans' life expectancy.
"In 2001, it was 43 years of age. Today, it's 64 years. That's 21 years in a very short span that their life expectancy has gone up," he said. "Every loss we've had, every soldier who's been injured, I want them to understand they've made a difference over here."
Campbell said he understands why some who have served and some Americans back home are skeptical about the mission and don't believe the U.S. should be investing blood and treasure in Afghanistan.
"When you think back to 9/11, when the nation was galvanized, that's why we came here in the first place," Campbell said. "Many people will tell you that the world we live in is worse than it was in 2001. It continues to be a very dangerous world."
This instability is part of the reason why the U.S. must stay engaged, he said.
“What’s happened is this radical Islam, this extremist piece, we pushed it out of Afghanistan, and it’s gone to other places. Yemen, Iraq, Syria,” he said. “People see what happened in Iraq, and they saw the blood and treasure there, and they don’t want it to happen here. We have to stay engaged. Our presence is a good thing.”
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.