RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany —
The mission in Afghanistan will determine the number of American troops who will still be deployed there after 2014, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said here today.
Military leaders are confident that the number will match the mission. “I will not at any point ask 10,000 troops to do 20,000 troops work,” Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey told reporters.
Dempsey is flying to Afghanistan for the change of command ceremony from Marine Corps Gen. John Allen to Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford.
Dunford will be the last commander in Afghanistan of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force and the last commander of Operation Enduring Freedom when the mission ends in December 2014. He will preside as the Afghan forces take the lead for security and will command as U.S. forces draw down in the country. There are currently 66,000 American service members in Afghanistan.
As Dunford takescommand, he has to keep three things in careful equilibrium, the chairman said. These are keeping the pressure on al-Qaida and other transnational terror groups seeking to operate in Afghanistan, training Afghan security forces, and redeploying U.S. and NATO forces out of the country.
NATO and partner forces – including U.S. service members – will be leaving the country through the end of 2014 in a steady and gradual manner. This spring Afghan forces will be in the lead for security throughout the country. “As that occurs, there will be some force structure changes that grow from that decision,” Dempsey said.
But it is more complicated than simply loading personnel on planes and flying them back to the United States. “There’s never a flip of a switch,” the chairman said.
Not all Afghan forces have the same capability. In some areas kandaks – Afghan battalions – may need help. Elsewhere, kandaks may be trained, but the higher headquarters may need assistance. “You may be training a kandak in one part of the country and brigades and corps in another, just because the developmental model is different,” he said.
The enemy has a say in Afghan plans. The Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, has decreed that he wants the Taliban to make 2013 an intense year, the chairman said. “But here’s what’s different, the situation this summer – the first summer where Afghan security forces are in the lead – that intensity will be directed principally at them,” the chairman said.
The Taliban taking on Afghan forces rather than Western personnel changes the political, internal discourse in Afghanistan. “We’ll have to see how it changes it,” he said.
This shift to Afghan control is already happening. Afghan security forces are in the lead in protecting more than 75 percent of the population. And there are results from that, Dempsey said. “One vignette: Every Sunday, John Allen has a memorial service outside his headquarters to remember the soldiers who were lost in the past week,” the chairman said. “This past Sunday was the first service he held since he was commander where there wasn’t a single ISAF … soldier killed in action. First week in 19 months. However, there were 25 Afghan soldiers killed.”
This summer the Taliban will test the Afghan soldiers and police. U.S. service members will help the Afghan forces in the summer fighting season. They will not only provide their Afghan brethren physical support, but psychological support as well, and this will build the Afghan’s self-esteem. “What really hangs in the balance now is the confidence level of the Afghan security forces and its people,” he said. “We have to continue building their confidence, because they are capable fighters.”
Defense leaders have matched the number of troops to the mission. Dempsey called this a collaborative and thorough effort. “We didn’t start talking numbers until we had a clear understanding of missions,” he said. The missions for the post-2014 period are: some continued counter terror effort against transnational global threats; to train, advise and assist Afghan troops; and to provide support to other U.S. government agencies working in the country.
“Once we settled in on the missions, then we were able to provide options on how to accomplish them,” he said. For example, it requires a different number of personnel to train an Afghan kandak than an Afghan brigade. Figuring out what units need what help “illuminates what the numbers should be,” the chairman said. “So we’re not going from number to mission, we’re going from mission to number.”
Afghanistan’s neighbor Pakistan remains crucial to any solution in the region, and Dempsey said he has “seen a degree of interest and cooperation on the part of our Pakistani military counterparts that is actually quite encouraging,” he said. “They finally believe we are not going to shut out the lights and leave at the end of ’14. They see a viable partnership among them, us and the Afghans.”
Cooperation, which was always good at the tactical level, has climbed a notch to the operational level. It also helps that Pakistani leaders now assess the terrorist threat to the nation closer to the American view.
Dempsey is optimistic that the Bilateral Security Agreement between Afghanistan and the United States will be in place this year. Protections for U.S. troops under the agreement do not seem to be the same showstopper that they were in Iraq, he said.
Reporters asked about the “zero option” for U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014. “I have said publically no one has ever mentioned zero to me, and I would never recommend zero,” Dempsey said.
Ultimately political reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan government will be what ends the war in Afghanistan. While there are no active negotiations now, the Taliban are talking among themselves about this, the chairman said. “As they talk among themselves, their behavior appears to be migrating toward being a political factor in Afghanistan’s future and less a internal security threat,” he said.
This does not mean peace will suddenly break out in the nation. “There will be irreconcilable parts of the Taliban that are just so ideologically skewed that the idea of any concessions is just anathema to them,” he said. “On the other hand, I think there will be portions that will be willing to be part of the political landscape and not part of the security landscape.”