War's Progress Measured By Commanders In Afghanistan
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We're going to spend some time, next, with an American military officer in one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan. His job is to follow the U.S. war strategy and also, possibly, to help adjust it. He's one of many commanders the Pentagon will listen to as it completes a broader review of the war, which is due at the end of the month.
NPR's Rachel Martin has been traveling with this commander. She's in our studios now. Hi, Rachel.
RACHEL MARTIN: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: So who is he?
MARTIN: His name is Major General John Campbell, and he's the U.S. commander in charge of the area in the eastern part of Afghanistan right along the Afghan-Pakistan border. We spent most of our time in a province called Paktika.
INSKEEP: So this is his chance to see what's going on there.
MARTIN: Exactly. Campbell is traveling around. He's in charge of 14 provinces, we should say. It's a huge area of responsibility and he takes a lot of time on the ground visiting the outposts and bases, talking with his troops. He's looking at several things. Obviously, he's looking at the strength of the insurgency.
MARTIN: This is a crucial one. He's also looking at the capability of Afghan National Security Forces. And finally, Steve, he's trying to assess the attitudes of the Afghan people. Do they think that the war is improving? Do they think things are getting better? And we started our trip out at the operations center for the Afghan police and army in the provincial capital of Paktika. And as you'll hear, Steve, the general likes to ask a lot of questions.
Major General JOHN CAMPBELL (U.S. Army): Is there anything going out in the province today? Anything happening?
MARTIN: A dozen or so Afghan officers stood at attention at their desks. And the Afghan commander in charge here proudly told General Campbell that the other day his troops found an IED, that's an improvised explosive device.
Maj. Gen. CAMPBELL: OK, did they - how did we find it?
MARTIN: He told him that they found it after they got a tip from a local. And Campbell gave a nod of his approval, but he told the Afghan commander that it's really not enough.
Maj. Gen. CAMPBELL: You have to get the police out at nighttime and moving around the community there so to stop the intimidation by the Taliban. And then you've got to treat the people with dignity and respect. That will raise up the credibility and the people will continue to trust the police and that's where we got to get to.
INSKEEP: Rachel, this must be critical, the credibility of the Afghan security forces.
MARTIN: Exactly, Steve. That's a key part of what Campbell and other commanders are trying to judge ahead of this December review - the quality of Afghan security forces. Can they stand on their own and do the people really trust them? And Campbell's forces spend an awful lot of time on this issue - training Afghan police and army and then fighting alongside them. But, that is hard to do if Afghan security forces don't even show up to work. And that's the problem that the general ran into at our next destination.
Captain AL LAMAIRE: So right here, this is our current location here at camp Yaya Khel. You have Yaya Khel proper, which is the main village. This is the bazaar right here, so it's literally 50 meters outside of our north ECP.
INSKEEP: They're looking at a map here, I guess.
MARTIN: Exactly. We were visiting a remote combat outpost called Yaya Khel where Captain Al Lemaire gave us the lay of the land. And again, Campbell asked a lot of questions about Afghan National Security Forces. He wanted to know many are here and what are they doing? And Captain Lemaire said there are supposed to be 60 Afghan troops working with them but the local Afghan commander says he only has 20.
Maj. Gen. CAMPBELL: Where they at? Where are the other 40 at?
Capt. LAMAIRE: We don't know, sir.
Maj. Gen. CAMPBELL: I mean, are they on his books? OK, that's the first thing you got to attack so we can get the guys off the books, because somebody's getting money for those people and that's where they start all their friggin' corruption.
MARTIN: So as you can hear, clearly this is an issue that gets under Campbell's skin: corruption. And it's another part of the war that commanders are trying to get a handle on. But at that desert outpost, Captain Lemaire doesn't have a lot of time to worry about whether an Afghan commander is cooking the books, he's too busy fighting insurgents. And he pointed to that same map laid out on a wooden table and showed General Campbell a ring of villages where insurgents there have free rein.
Capt. LEMAIRE: They use this as not only as a safe haven, but it's very easy for them 'cause they're embedded with the populace and they can engage us and then blend right in.
MARTIN: So now, Steve, we're at the heart of what Campbell is trying to measure: security. And in this case, how many safe havens protect insurgents? How often do they cross the border into Pakistan? And how has the insurgency been affected by the recent troop surge?
In some places, like Yaya Khel, this outpost, the results are mixed. But in other places where Campbell's troops are operating, they seem to have captured the momentum at least for the time being. And that was the case when we traveled by helicopter to our last stop, Combat Outpost Zerok - which, Steve, as the crow flies is less than 10 miles from the border with Pakistan.
This summer, U.S. troops at this outpost were taking incoming fire every single day. But when they got more forces, they were able to take more ground. And Captain Henry Hansen, he took a moment to orient General Campbell from a guard tower.
Captain HENRY HANSEN: Right now we've got guys on objective centers right there that you can see right past the...
Maj. Gen. CAMPBELL: The first hill right there?
Capt. HANSEN: Roger that, sir.
MARTIN: And then inside the operations center, Captain Hansen explained how insurgents in this area are fighting back.
Capt. HANSEN: Now, the biggest threat is to dismounted patrols. They want to gain the strength back, sir, and what they're trying to do is push us off those mountains.
MARTIN: So that's the security situation but Campbell also wanted to know how Afghans are feeling about all of this.
INSKEEP: This has got to be the most critical question of all then.
MARTIN: Exactly, and what Afghans think about the war is crucial to the assessments that these commanders will make. And as Campbell's troops have taken more ground, he wants to know are they building relationships with the Afghan population? And he asked specifically about a new health clinic that was supposed to open in this area.
And Captain Hansen told him the locals were actually too afraid to use this, until U.S. troops started reaching out and providing security on a regular basis. And interestingly enough, Steve, the troops have also figured out other ways to reach out to the population here - including learning the game of cricket.
Maj. Gen. CAMPBELL: You're playing cricket?
Capt. HANSEN: Roger that sir. Our cricket patrols, we've conducted a couple and we just...
Maj. Gen. CAMPBELL: Are you guys any good or do you suck?
Capt. HANSEN: We suck, sir. They're pretty good at it. Yeah, we're learning. We're doing everything we can to learn.
MARTIN: They're trying. They're not that good, as he notes. And the war has really focused U.S. troops on learning to do just that, learning on the fly in a lot of ways, and then readjusting.
And readjusting is actually exactly what General Campbell may end up doing in a place called the Pech River Valley. It's a sparsely populated area and the people who are there, Steve, have waged a bloody battle against American forces. More than a dozen U.S. troops have died there since June. And General Campbell took a moment to talk to me when we were at that base in Zerok. And he told me that the Pech River Valley may not fit in with the current strategy -which is really about protecting the population.
Maj. Gen. CAMPBELL: We've adjusted our strategy and we're really looking at a population counterinsurgency and there's not a lot of people up there. As I look at resources I've got to take a look and rearrange them.
MARTIN: So he's thinking of pulling U.S. forces out of the Pech Valley by next summer. But, Steve, he knows that that idea, that idea of ceding ground, doesn't sit well with some in this war.
Maj. Gen. CAMPBELL: I mean if people have been up there and they've lost soldiers, you know, you have this mentality you've got to hold that ground. And I'm not up about giving ground up, but I'm about making the biggest impact with the resources I have. So we're taking a hard look at where we can come out of, where we can turn over control, because eventually, you know, we're going to turn over control in many of these areas to just the ANSF, and so I'm looking at areas where I can do that now.
INSKEEP: Turning over ground to the ANSF, the Afghan National Security Forces. In the long term, Rachel Martin, that's supposed to be the goal here. What's General Campbell's verdict about whether they're moving in that direction?
MARTIN: General Campbell is adamant. He says that they are making progress every day. He sees examples of this progress, but it's really a mixed bag. The situation is different in different areas, Steve. Some districts have functioning governments and the Afghan security forces are doing well and the insurgency is under control, but in other places they are far off from being able to hand off these areas to the Afghans.
INSKEEP: Some of the factors that will be considered when General David Petraeus and other top officials make a review of the Afghan war. NPR's Rachel Martin, thanks very much.
MARTIN: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.
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