Ash Carter Visits Troops in Afghanistan on Thanksgiving
By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT, Nov. 30, 2013 Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter spent Thanksgiving and the next day -- some of his last days in office -- in Afghanistan, shuttling between forward operating bases in Blackhawk helicopters, looking troops in the eye, shaking their hands and thanking them for their sacrifice and service.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter serves soldiers from the 4th Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, Thanksgiving lunch at Forward Operating Base Gamberi in Afghanistan on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, 2013. DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Carter’s wife Stephanie was beside him, on her first visit to the war zone. For years they’d spent weekends visiting wounded warriors together at the hospital now called the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md, he said.
“Her heart’s in it the same way mine is, but she’s only had the opportunity to see wounded troops after they’ve arrived back in the states, so it was good for her to see what these magnificent men and women look like when they’re actually doing their jobs,” the deputy secretary said.
Stephanie hears from him about Afghanistan “all the time,” he said, “for all these years, and it was wonderful for me to see in her eyes all the things I’ve been telling her.”
Carter announced Nov. 22 that on Dec. 4 he would return to private life, after nearly five years serving President Barack Obama and defense secretaries Chuck Hagel, Leon Panetta and Robert Gates -- first as undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics and for two years in his current position.
The deputy secretary began his Afghanistan visit on a hazy Thanksgiving morning in Kabul at the International Security Assistance Force headquarters, where he met with ISAF Commander Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., who also commands U.S. Forces-Afghanistan.
The men discussed progress made by Afghan national security forces, ISAF progress toward concluding its combat mission at the end of 2014, continued international advisory and enabling support to Afghan forces and ongoing U.S. retrograde efforts.
Over the next two days, Carter visited coalition operating bases, their leaders and their troops in the country’s east, south and southwest regions, meeting and dining with the men and women who are making possible the international mission in Afghanistan.
“I wanted to give them encouragement that the campaign they’re conducting is succeeding, because it is,” Carter told American Forces Press Service about the reason for making Afghanistan one of the final stops before he leaves office.
“It may be hard for them to see that, because many of them won’t have been involved in it … as continuously as I have over the last five years,” he said, “and they haven’t seen the remarkable progress being made.”
Carter included in that assessment “the remarkable progress of the Afghan security forces and therefore the very good prospects of the transition we have been working toward for all these years, once the bilateral security agreement is signed.”
Later that morning, the deputy secretary visited Forward Operating Base Gamberi in eastern Afghanistan’s Laghman province, where he met with Army Brig. Gen. Ronald Lewis, deputy commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division and Regional Command East. There he also met with Maj. Gen. Mohammad Waziri, commander of the Afghan National Army’s 201st Corps.
Next, Carter shook the hands of 150 troops, thanked them for their dedication and service, and gave them challenge coins before he and Stephanie headed for the Gamberi dining facility.
There, the Carters got behind the DFAC’s steam tables and for a while became enthusiastic servers of turkey -- “White meat or dark meat?” they asked the men and women in uniform who accepted their offerings and then passed down the serving line toward stuffing, gravy and other holiday staples.
“When you’re in the Department of Defense, the thing you wake up to every morning when the country is at war is the fact that we have people fighting in Afghanistan,” Carter explained.
“That’s been my highest priority since Bob Gates asked me directly to make it my highest priority five years ago,” he added. “I wanted to come back one more time and honor and thank the troops here.”
That afternoon Carter visited Regional Command East Headquarters at Bagram Air Base in Parwan Province and the next day visited Regional Command South Headquarters and a retrograde facility at Kandahar Air Base and Regional Command Southwest Headquarters at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province.
At each stop, Carter spoke with troops, shook their hands, and told them how much he and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel appreciated their hard work and sacrifices.
At several stops, Carter himself was honored as a champion for troops in moving the Pentagon acquisition process beyond bureaucracy and into the business of saving lives with a range of tools, produced in a timely manner.
These include mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, unmanned aerial systems, counter-roadside-bomb equipment, persistent surveillance by way of the aerostat, or an immobile balloon-type structure filled with a lifting gas -- what Carter called a poor man’s Predator or Reaper unmanned vehicle -- and medical advances produced throughout the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The deputy secretary expressed confidence in the ultimate success of the coalition mission in Afghanistan and in the region.
“Once the [bilateral security agreement] is signed -- which I’m confident it will be, because it is overwhelmingly supported by the Afghan people, who know they need it to succeed -- then I am confident we can bring the campaign to the conclusion we’ve planned for all these years,” Carter said.
He described that as an outcome in which the Afghans increasingly take control of their own sovereignty, security and institutions, and the role of the international community diminishes.
“For the United States,” Carter said, “it means that Afghanistan won’t again be the source of attacks like it was on 9/11, and that Afghanistan can be a stable country in what is still a very dangerous part of the world.”
As neighbors, Afghanistan and Pakistan each have a part to play in a stable future, Carter added.
For all their economic relations, Afghanistan and Pakistan -- as well as India and every other country in South Asia -- depend on peaceful relations and trade with the other, he said.
“The top priority of all those governments, they’ll tell you, is economic prosperity, and that can’t be had without security within their borders and with their neighbors with whom they have to trade,” the deputy secretary observed.
This final trip to Afghanistan is Carter’s ninth official visit, four times as undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, and now five as deputy defense secretary.
“It has been my most solemn responsibility and by far and away my greatest commitment to support our war effort,” Carter said. “How could it be otherwise when you’re an official of the Department of Defense?”
(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter @PellerinAFPS)