The period since February 2013 can best be characterized as a year of transition for Afghanistan’s Regional Command Southwest, Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Walter Lee Miller Jr. said March 6, 2014 at a Pentagon news briefing.
Miller, former commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force said that when he arrived in Helmand province early last year as commander of Regional Command Southwest, combat was still part of the equation for the International Security Force there.
“At the beginning, our mission placed emphasis on the transfer of lead security,” the general said. This meant slowly transitioning the involvement of ISAF troops from operations at the battalion and district level to advising at the provincial and regional level, he added.
The handover to Afghan-led security occurred nationally June 19. Miller said the second half of the deployment was focused on preparing for the April 2014 Afghan elections, furthering the transfer of lead security responsibility and continuing to develop Afghan governance -- particularly in the provinces of Helmand and Nimruz.
In addition, he said, retrograde and redeployment operations continued throughout the year, as ISAF shut down bases and infrastructure.
“I'm extremely proud of the coalition as a whole in the support of these efforts,” the general said. “But there still remains a significant challenge, and that is how, within force limitations, do we ensure long-term sustainment with irreversible [Afghan governmental] gains and prevent degradation in [Afghan security force] capabilities after ISAF's eventual departure?”
There’s no doubt that the Taliban senior leaders are seeking ways to disrupt the April elections, said Miller’s former deputy, British Army Brigadier Paul A.E. Nanson.
“Helmand's slightly different, because we believe the Taliban will still be focused at that time of the year on the poppy – because, of course the poppy harvest time is April -- at the same time as they're going to try and do whatever they can to disrupt the elections. So I think they're going to be torn in two ways,” Nanson said. The poppy harvest yields opium for the illicit drug trade, which the Taliban uses as a revenue source.
There will still be disruptions, Nanson said, but the Afghan security forces are up to the challenge.
The Taliban are looking to target the physical security of the election sites and the ability of people to move freely, Nanson said, and also to target key political and government officials. However, the security preparations by Afghan forces, particularly at the region’s more than 200 polling stations, have been very thorough, he noted.
“[The Afghan forces] are very confident that they're going to pull off the election,” Miller added. “And not only that, the local populace is showing signs that they're confident that the security is going to be there and they're going to vote.”
The true challenge remaining in Afghanistan is not whether Afghan security forces can fight, he said, but whether they can sustain themselves over the long haul.
“They still need a lot of work. … Not so much in training mechanics -- it's a lot about getting parts from Point A to Point B, and then being able to [install] those parts,” he said.
ISAF recognized the need to shift from combat mentoring to sustainability and logistics mentoring, Nanson said, but the effort was started “quite late,” and it will take more time to guarantee an enduring institutional framework is in place.
Developing sustainability within the Afghan security forces is a focus at all levels, said British Army Col. Baz Bennett, former director of Afghan security force assistance in Regional Command Southwest.
For the Afghan military as a whole, that means “understanding how to manage a vehicle fleet, manage … billions of dollars of infrastructure that's been given to them, managing the electricity, [and] managing the plumbing that's going to go with all of that,” Bennett said.
At the next level down, he said, that might include providing driver training to ensure that vehicles aren’t breaking so often or instructing drivers on how to perform daily maintenance. And, Bennett said, fostering an “equipment care culture,” which instills troops with the awareness that they can’t defeat the enemy without well-cared-for equipment.
“These are the areas that we've got to keep working on. When you add in the things such as very low literacy rate, that's very difficult,” he said.
The Afghan security forces are also working to develop an operation and deployment cycle, Nanson said. “At the moment … a young soldier will come out of training. He'll get posted to Helmand province. … He'll go into combat. And he'll stay in combat.”
If he’s lucky, the brigadier said, that soldier will get leave at some point in his enlistment, but for many, there is no break. And, he said, the grueling pace means that the Afghan army loses a significant number of soldiers to “wastage,” meaning they don’t return from leave.
“What we're trying to do is get them into a cycle, where … obviously, they have to go into combat, but then they get an opportunity to go on R&R,” Nanson said. “… And then, when they come back, they get some reset training. So they get a bit of refresher training, develop their skills a bit more, get more kit. And then they go back into the fight.”
Establishing that cycle is fundamental to addressing the problem of wastage, he said.
The Afghan security forces are going to come out on top, Miller said.
“And they're going to buy the space for the government to become popular with the locals. That's going to happen. They just need the time. It's not a McDonald's society, it's the East. Don't forget it. It's not the West. It will take time, but they'll get there.”
“Where it really lies now is with the Afghan people,” the general said. “We gave them the tools. We taught them how to use them. It's up to them. If they want to come out of this on top, they will.”