Commander Encouraged After Year in Afghanistan
By Claudette Roulo
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 7, 2014 The strength of coalition bonds in Afghanistan can be demonstrated by a recent helicopter recovery effort that involved four of the eight countries deployed to Regional Command Southwest, said Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Walter Lee Miller Jr., former commander of the regional command and the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward).
A mechanical failure caused a British Apache AH-64 helicopter pilot to jettison his fuel pods and make a forced landing near the Nawzad district of Helmand province, Miller said in an interview with the Pentagon Channel.
A U.S. Marine Corps CH-53E Chinook returning from a mission heard the mayday call from the British crew and picked them up, he said. At the same time, an Estonian patrol secured the jettisoned fuel pods and a Georgian patrol secured the downed aircraft until a joint U.S. and British recovery team arrived and transported the helicopter back to friendly lines.
“It doesn’t get more coalition than that,” the general said. “The only decision I had to make was who was in charge of the total mission.”
The eight countries that represent the International Security Assistance Force in Regional Command Southwest -- the United States, the United Kingdom, Georgia, Jordan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Tonga, Estonia and Bahrain -- come from three different continents, Miller said. Operational meetings can require five different interpreters. “And it works,” he added.
Miller assumed command in February 2013 and turned over command of the region, which is bordered by Iran and Pakistan, to 1st Marine Expeditionary Force last month. In that time, he said, the mission evolved from advising combat troops at the kandak, or battalion, level, to institutional advising at the brigade and division level.
Last June, coalition advisors across Afghanistan turned over security responsibility to the Afghan security forces -- the army, as well as the various police organizations. In Helmand and Nimruz provinces, this represents a total force of about 32,000, the general said.
The brigade-level advise and assist mission at three of the four Afghan army brigades in the region will end sometime this summer, he said, noting that the fourth already is operating on its own.
That brigade, the 1st Brigade, is responsible for an area in the southern portion of command’s area of responsibility that includes the districts of Garmsir and Marjah -- an area that U.S. Marines fought hard for, Miller added. Those are now model districts, he said, “perhaps for all of Afghanistan in how they're dealing with their own security.”
Afghanistan’s security forces have been preparing for April’s elections, the general said. In Regional Command Southwest, the Afghans developed a layered security plan, Miller said, noting that the plan will cover 177 polling places.
“What they're doing is preparing so the security is there at the polling sites so that people feel comfortable attending for fair and impartial elections,” the general said. “Around the polling sites, you would find that the national police are providing the internal security, the external security will be provided by the army outside the polling sites and outside the city.”
Miller said he expects the election to be a constructive step for Afghanistan. A generation of Afghans has grown up since the U.S. first arrived, he said.
“And those young people, for the first time, will have an opportunity to vote,” he said, “so I expect to see some really positive changes coming here in the very near future.”
Encouraging changes already are happening, the general said.
“I'll tell you about a patrol I was on,” he said. “I was in the north of Sangin … on a patrol with an old gentleman, grizzly guy, missing an eye, been at war for 30 years. And he and I as two old guys, we walked up on top of a hill and had a little discussion.
“I asked him, 'Why are you still in this fight? Why do you keep coming back each day?'” the general continued. “And he's the leader of the local police in the area, he's got about 200 to 250 fighters that operate under his command, and he said, 'Take a look at that dirt road back there. See the kids playing in the street? They have cell phones. I don't have a cell phone. They talk to Kabul. They talk to the outside. If you take a look over here, you'll see there's a paved road. It's Route 611 that the U.K. and the U.S. built. We've never had a paved road. The Taliban gave us nothing. The local government has given us this road. We can now move from Lashkar Gah all the way up to Kajaki. We can participate. We can see family. We're not going back.'"
(Follow Claudette Roulo on Twitter @rouloafps)