III Corps completed its mission in Afghanistan on Saturday, but the work of Fort Hood’s soldiers is not finished.
As thousands of soldiers from the Phantom Corps and 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, return, thousands more are preparing to deploy in the coming months.
“(There’s been) a lot of progress. ... It’s been made because of the blood and treasure and sweat and tears and sacrifice of American soldiers over the last 13 years of war here,” Milley said during a news conference last month. “There’s been a lot of progress in that country and that progress has a few more steps to go.”
Fort Hood’s highest headquarters closed its Afghanistan mission with the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command in Kabul on Saturday when it transferred authority to the 18th Airborne Corps of Fort Bragg, N.C. Milley served as the second in command of NATO forces in the entire country. He’s expected to return to Fort Hood today.
Preparing to deploy
About 2,400 soldiers from Fort Hood’s 3rd Cavalry Regiment and 1st Cavalry Division headquarters are expected to deploy this spring.
To prepare, the division conducted mission command exercises, and the Brave Rifles head to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., next month.
“We’re not doing combat operations,” Milley said of future efforts in the war-torn country. Instead, coalition soldiers are advising, teaching, coaching, mentoring and training the Afghan National Security Forces — now 350,000 strong.
The biggest challenge he sees in the next year for Afghanistan is providing security for the April 5 presidential election. This will be the first time there’s a transfer of power from one elected official to another. Campaigning began this month, and current President Hamid Karzai is not running.
“Right now everything is focused on elections,” said a senior official with ISAF Joint Command. “People have the desire to vote, which is just as important.”
Up to 20 million of the country’s estimated 30 million residents are registered to vote, Milley said. Of those registered, 76 percent said they are very likely or likely to vote in the upcoming election.
A successful election would be a “huge, significant death blow to the enemy,” Milley said. “I anticipate an increase in enemy activity and associated levels of violence as we approach the election in April.”
The idea of a Taliban government-in-waiting outside of Afghanistan is ridiculous, the ISAF official said. There are too many teenagers and young people in the country who’ve never been under Taliban rule and enjoy the increased freedoms, prosperity and educational opportunities now available.
“Those are the things these younger people know and you can’t go wrong when putting your vote behind the younger population,” he said. “They’re going to want and demand to be part of a larger society. They get the fact that the Taliban is not the way to go.”
Election security is in the hands of the Afghan National Security Forces — as is security for a majority of the country, the official said.
“This is Afghan security forces taking responsibility and wanting and demanding taking responsibility almost. They’re very prideful in this operation,” he said. “ISAF, we are absolutely in a support role, if you will, for any type of capability or capacity for anything they don’t have.”
This includes providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
After seeing success as the Afghans took charge and secured parts of the country this summer, the official said he is confident in their abilities.
Aside from elections, Milley said the enemy does not want a status force agreement with NATO. Many future operations in Afghanistan depend on the Afghan president signing a bilateral security agreement beyond 2014, which would leave thousands of American troops in the country, including some from Fort Hood.
“I would tell you that we have a base plan, and everything that we’ve planned is built upon an assumption that an agreement will be reached,” Milley said. “That’s what NATO has instructed us. That’s what our plans are. Unless directed otherwise, we’ll proceed.”
Since the end of 2013, Karzai has resisted signing the agreement, saying he prefers for a decision to come from his successor.
‘Ready to go’
Meanwhile, Congress quietly downscaled Washington’s ambitions for the final year of the Afghan War, substantially curtailing development aid and military assistance plans ahead of the U.S. troop pullout. Development aid was slashed in half, and U.S. defense officials were barred from embarking on major new infrastructure projects.
III Corps is included in the units impacted by the unsigned agreement. Officials are preparing for potential redeployment to the country in 11 months, should it be signed. If it’s not signed, people could see a quick exit from Afghanistan — similar to the Iraq exit in December 2011.
“We’ll see what happens beyond 2015,” said Col. Paul Reese, who served as the ISAF Joint Command floor director from III Corps. “We’ve done a lot with (the) 18th Airborne Corps to get them ready to go.”
Since June, Reese said he’s been corresponding with his counterparts at Fort Bragg to set them up for success.
“We have a very deliberate plan folks have prepared for them to make sure our replacements are ready to go,” Reese said.