Commander in Eastern Afghanistan Notes Progress
By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan, April 21, 2011 Coalition forces eventually will have to say they’ve done all they can in Afghanistan, but “we’re not there yet,” the commander of Regional Command East said here yesterday.
“We’ve got to give this a chance to work,” Army Maj. Gen. John F. Campbell said. “We need time. It takes time.”
Campbell commands the 101st Airborne Division, which deployed with him when he assumed command of Regional Command East in June. He told reporters that dealing with 14 district governors and a wide range of tribal affiliations while maintaining a secure zone around Afghanistan’s capital and encouraging provincial and district growth is “a very complicated problem set.”
When the division deployed, Campbell said, he and his officers decided to put their efforts into reinforcing success, focusing on densely populated districts with good opportunities for economic development.
“We said, ‘We’ve got a short period of time, we’ve got to show progress,’” he said.
Since NATO extended the coalition timeline in Afghanistan through 2014 at the alliance’s November summit in Lisbon, Portugal, the International Security Assistance Force’s partnership with the Afghan government and population has strengthened, Campbell noted.
“That’s four more years that they know we’re going to be with them. … I think that has really turned the tide in the last couple months,” he said.
Campbell said district reinforcement has been an effective approach, as key political, army and police figures in Afghanistan are linked through complex relationships of family, tribe, language and influence.
“If you make a decision here, you’ve got to understand the second- and third-order effects of who it’s going to impact,” he said. The Army has become better at decoding the complexities inherent in Afghanistan, Campbell said, and has formed its own network of relationships within the ranks.
“These battalion and brigade commanders … have grown up with each other,” he said. “I couldn’t touch these guys when I was a brigade commander. They’re just very, very good.”
Campbell’s brigade commanders and troops are working hard to strengthen bonds at all operational levels with their Afghan military, police and civilian counterparts, he said.
Campbell’s bottom line, he said, is that if NATO forces pull out of Afghanistan in 2014, he’d like to see one clear objective achieved.
“Personally, I think we’ll be here for a while,” he said. “[But] if we do nothing but increase the capacity of the [Afghan forces], and professionalize that force, I think that’s a great accomplishment.”
Egypt offers an example of how a professional army can help to hold a nation’s people together, he said.
“I don’t know what will happen with [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai and the rest of the central government,” Campbell said. “But if we can build [army and police] capacity and they can defend themselves, I think that’s a huge game-changer.”
The Afghan army graduated its first academy class of 300-plus lieutenants about a month ago, he said, and that number will increase to 400 next year, then 500.
“We’re going to see the professionalism of their officer corps continue to get better, and we’re going to work on their [noncommissioned officer] corps as well,” he said.
Campbell also sees civilian leadership as critical to building Afghanistan’s stability. District governors are appointed by the central government, and of the 14 in his regional command, eight are “very good,” he said.
“They’ve got a vision for their province, they’re very active,” he said. They engage the people.” He described three others as “OK,” adding that the command will continue to work with them.
“And then there are probably three we need to get rid of or throw in jail,” he said.
Campbell has scheduled a gathering of all 14 governors this month, where “they get a chance to compare notes and talk to other governors.” The meeting will focus on reintegration of former insurgents and the transition of security lead to Afghan forces, the general said.
Progress has taken place in areas where Afghan governors and subgovernors are effective, Campbell said. At the village level, the Afghan local police program employs and trains local men, vetted by their village elders, in supporting provincial police by helping to protect their own villages.
The program has great potential, Campbell said, but he noted that a local police site had been attacked recently.
“The insurgents are going to try to attack those things which are working,” he said. Afghan army and police forces, border and local police, and provincial officials all are potential targets for attack by increasingly desperate insurgents, the general added.
Campbell said his forces spent much of the winter finding and destroying insurgent arms caches. “We think we’ve really made a difference and changed the battlefield geometry,” he told reporters.
In recent months, more Afghans who had joined the insurgency are laying down their weapons and returning to their communities, Campbell said. “What makes people reintegrate is pressure, continued pressure, and giving them no other options,” he said.
Some Afghans have been forced into insurgency, and must be allowed to return to Afghan society “with honor,” Campbell said.
“In Kunar, we just had 37 guys come in, lay down their arms and pledge allegiance to Afghanistan,” he said. “That’s going to continue to grow.”
Campbell said his forces are working now on a series of “Spring Eagle” offensives, linking coalition and Afghan brigades in operations targeting insurgent areas.
“We take all the intel reports of where [insurgents] come in, their staging areas, where they put [bombs] together, areas where their support bases are, … and we’re going to attack all those,” he said. “That’s our spring offensive.”
Campbell and his brigade commanders -- both ISAF and Afghan -- are working now on operational plans for the summer, he said.
Afghan commanders’ planning capacity has become “much, much better” through constant partnering with coalition forces, Campbell said, and targeted operations will continue through summer, along with enduring security missions along highways and the border.
“The people are standing up, they’re turning in more tips, [and] they’re gaining more confidence,” he said. “That’s a good sign.”