Signs of a war winding down can be seen throughout Afghanistan.
The Afghan National Security Forces are taking the lead on patrols, allowing the shrinking number of American and NATO troops to take an “over-the-shoulder” advisory approach.
About 80 percent of the population is living within the secured urban areas of the country, where substantial growth has made way for improvements in government services and resources.
Lt. Gen. Mark Milley expects these advances to improve so Afghanistan will be ready to stand on its own come December 2014, when NATO and American troops will completely withdraw after 13 years of war.
The III Corps and Fort Hood commander is currently serving as the second in command of Afghanistan as the commander of the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command in Kabul. The Phantom Corps deployed in April, making up a portion of the 7,000 Fort Hood soldiers currently serving in the country.
“(America) came here as a result of 9/11, and when we started out in Afghanistan we said that our objective was to ensure Afghanistan never again become a platform or a launching pad for terrorists to attack the United States. So at the end of the day, that remains our goal,” Milley said.
During a teleconference with local media last week, the three-star general spoke about how the U.S. will know it won in a war-weary country.
“Victory is an Afghan security force that can maintain insurgents and manage the violence, so that it doesn’t attack the U.S. And that will require continued effort by us and that’s what we continue to do.”
More than 350,000 Afghans serve in the country’s police and army, which must not only be able to conduct operations, but also be seen as legitimate by Afghan civilians to be successful.
“Tactically, they are performing very well,” Milley said. The Afghan army is conducting 1,000 to 2,000 patrols a day and performing well in battalion-level operations. This summer they began incorporating indirect fire support using mortars and field artillery to combat the enemy.
“It’s refreshing to see the Afghan National Security Forces in the lead,” said Lt. Col. Phil Brooks, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division’s 3rd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team. His unit has been serving north of Kabul, working primarily with Afghan police officers.
“I’ve got soldiers that are out on patrols supporting the Afghan National Police in what we call ‘over the shoulder,’ because they are in the lead clearly and we are there for support if it’s required,” he said.
Challenges remain for the Afghans on combined arms operations, air support, logistics, medical systems and intelligence, Milley said.
“They are extraordinarily brave; they are tough as nails and they are very good tactically. They clearly out-match the enemy,” the general said. “However, as a system, there’s plenty of room to improve and we’re focusing our efforts on those areas.”
But growth hasn’t come without a high price. At the height of the fighting season, about 100 Afghan security force members were killed a week. That number has dropped off considerably in the last three weeks, Milley said.
“They’re fighting for their life; they’re fighting for their country. They’re fighting for their very existence, and the future of their children and grandchildren,” Milley said.
The security forces have gained respect through professional demeanor and minimal civilian casualties, whereas the Taliban killed 150 civilians last month alone. The security force is the “most respected” institution in the country, Milley said.
As improvements continue over the next 15 months, the presence of American troops will drop. Since April, there’s been a nearly 20 percent drop — from 66,000 down to about 54,500 in late September, the Army Times reported.
When III Corps prepares to leave next spring, that number will drop below 34,000. Those projections aren’t expected to impact any Fort Hood troops currently deployed.
“Our orders here have us on a nine-month deployment and we are still on track for a nine-month deployment,” said Col. Robert Whittle, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division’s 2nd Brigade.
The unit deployed in July as a theater assistance force providing security and retrograde operations. This includes closing forward operating bases, keeping roadways safe and escorting convoys.
“The Black Jack Brigade Combat Team is one member of the team out here in (ISAF Joint Command). We bring a lot of capability for Lt. Gen. Milley to employ,” Whittle said.
Milley said he does see American troops playing some sort of role after 2014, but it’s unclear what that will be.
Regardless, his vision of victory is possible.
“Will there be a bomb? Yes. ... Will there still be murders? Yes. If the Afghan security forces progress at the rate they are progressing now, it’s clear in my mind they’ll prevent Afghanistan from becoming a launching pad for international terrorists to attack the U.S., its interests or its allies,” Milley said.