BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan —
The Afghan election last month marked a turning point for Afghanistan’s national security forces, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said here today.
The success of the April 5 presidential election boosted the confidence of members of the Afghan force, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey said following a meeting with senior U.S. leaders.
It was Dempsey’s second visit here in as many months. “I wanted to come over this time because I had read about the elections and I’d heard about how well the [Afghan forces] had performed,” he said during an interview. “I wanted to … learn more about what that really means.”
The chairman said one of the generals he spoke with used a sports analogy to describe what U.S. forces in Afghanistan did the day of the election. American forces, the general told him, got up, got ready, warmed up and then sat on the bench. They didn’t have to get into the game.
“Stated another way, the Afghan security forces managed the entire thing,” the chairman said. “They transported the ballots, they protected the polling places, they fought off the attempts of the Taliban to disrupt it. So for me … that election seems to be a turning point in the confidence of the [Afghan security forces].”
The Afghan forces proved they could “peak” for a momentous occasion, the chairman said. “They were able to plan, they were able to prepare, they were able to execute a big momentous event,” he added.
Afghan forces should be proud of the achievement, Dempsey said. “I think where they still require work is in the mundane -- the day-to-day things of paying and feeding and resupplying and maintaining,” he said.
Afghan forces have proved they can fight. No one questions that. But the enablers -- maintenance, logistics and intelligence -- are lacking. “I think where they need our assistance for some period of time is at the institutional level, so all of this that they’ve accomplished becomes sustainable over time,” the chairman said, acknowledging that this will take time.
Producing an intelligence analyst who has the intuitive knowledge of what’s important and -- just as important -- who needs it, is a tasking years in the making. Having personnel who can maintain trucks or helicopters in a country with literacy problems is a long pole in the tent of Afghan forces.
While it will take time, “that doesn’t mean we have to be out there walking the paths in their foothills or through their villages,” Dempsey said. “This is about helping them develop systems. That’s really what our recommendation has been for the post-2014 presence.”
The chairman said he cannot shed any light on when President Barack Obama will announce his decision on the U.S. post-2014 footprint -- a question seemingly on the lips of every service member at this sprawling base. “We’ve made our recommendations,” he said. “We’ve refined them based on changes on the ground, such as the successful elections. The decision will involve not only what’s in U.S. interests, but the interests of NATO, because this is a NATO mission.
“Would I like a decision sooner rather than later? Of course,” he continued. “There is some uncertainty in the ranks. Young men and women who serve, and their families, would like to know whether they are going to deploy or not deploy, or for how long they are going to deploy.”
For now, the mission goes on, and what’s more important than what happens in 2015 is making sure efforts in 2014 count, the chairman said. “The real strong theme today in Afghanistan is we need to make 2014 matter,” he said. “We need to use it.”
The bilateral security agreement remains crucial to the post-2014 U.S. presence. “We could make a conditional decision -- meaning if we get a BSA, here is what we will do,” Dempsey said. “But clearly, we need a willing partner to have a sustained and somewhat enduring presence here. The BSA is critical.”
While the Afghan security forces did well in the election, it was “the culmination of 12 years of effort,” by young American men and women who came to Afghanistan because the United States had been attacked by al-Qaida operating out of Afghanistan, the chairman noted.
“From that moment forward, we’ve had a very clear eye on what we had to accomplish and that is the defeat of al-Qaida, the disruption of that network and the establishment of a stable nation that would no longer be a safe haven for al-Qaida,” he said.
(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @garamoneAFPS)