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Afghanistan's Way Forward: A Talk With Gen. John Campbell, Decoded

Gen. John F. Campbell, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, speaks during a ceremony in Kabul on Aug. 26. Campbell is overseeing the U.S. drawdown in the country after 13 years of war.
Massoud Hossaini

As the U.S. military winds down its role in Afghanistan, the U.S. commander there, Gen. John Campbell, says Afghan forces have improved enough to handle the Taliban forces that are still waging war.

The Afghan military is "the strongest institution in Afghanistan," Campbell told NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep in an interview broadcast on Veterans Day.

The strength of the Afghan military is crucial in light of what has played out in Iraq. There, the U.S. military pulled out entirely at the end of 2011. By this year, the Iraqi army had crumbled in the face of the advancing Islamic State.

The U.S. is concluding its formal combat role in Afghanistan at the end of this year, but will keep a small force in the country for the next two years.

Here are some key questions, Campbell's answers and context:

Are Afghan forces ready to fight on their own?

Campbell: "I think they've done very well here over the last summer, as they've really taken on the fight themselves. They have the equipment, they've had the training. They need to do a little bit more work with their leadership. They've got to change out some leaders, they've got to hold some folks accountable. But whenever the [Afghan security forces] get involved with the Taliban, the Taliban cannot hold ground, they can't hold terrain. The Taliban can continue to strike fear and go after small outposts way out on the frontier, and that's what they do — they attack those soft targets. ...

"But I'm telling you what I've seen — the change from a couple of years ago to today. They do have the capability to protect themselves. They are the strongest institution in Afghanistan."

The context: Taliban attacks tend to peak in the spring and summer, and there was intense fighting in the south and the east of the country that was widely considered to be heavier than last year. The Taliban are massing in larger groups because they don't have to worry about U.S. airstrikes as they did in the past, according to analysts. The Afghan forces have taken the lead in the fighting and generally held their ground, but they have suffered heavy casualties.

Afghan special forces train for a hostage rescue operation in this 2012 photo. Campbell, the top U.S. commander, says the Afghan army has "the capability to protect itself and is the strongest institution in the country."
Musadeq Sadeq / AP
Afghan special forces train for a hostage rescue operation in this 2012 photo. Campbell, the top U.S. commander, says the Afghan army has "the capability to protect itself and is the strongest institution in the country."

How bad are conditions in Afghanistan?

Campbell: "If you take a look at where we were in 2001 — and look where we are today — there are many areas outside the security realm that we try to talk about that really show changes and the goodness in Afghanistan that sometimes don't make the media.

"You know, airlines, airports, TV, radio stations that are out there, the number of Internet users, the number of schools, the number of teachers, the number of young kids going to school now, the number of females in school, the literacy rate — I mean, on and on.

"Life expectancy has changed by about, over 18 years, and that's pretty incredible, as the infant mortality rate goes down. I think a lot of the things we never talk about are a result of really what's happened for the last 13 years with the coalition forces and the Afghan security forces really stepping up their game, and it starts with security. It starts with having confidence in the security forces, and, again, with this new government, I'm excited about the future here."

The context: Afghanistan has improved on many fronts. The country had its first peaceful, democratic transition of power this fall as Ashraf Ghani became the new president, replacing Hamid Karzai. However, the withdrawal of Western military forces has also been accompanied by the departure of many aid organizations that have propped up the economy over the past 13 years. And Afghanistan is still plagued by problems such as opium production. Despite U.S.-led eradication efforts and more than $7 billion in spending, poppy production was at its highest level ever last year.

An Afghan army soldier adjusts his helmet as he lines up with others at a training facility in the outskirts of Kabul in 2013.
Anja Niedringhaus / AP
An Afghan army soldier adjusts his helmet as he lines up with others at a training facility in the outskirts of Kabul in 2013.

Could Campbell propose slowing the U.S. withdrawal?

Campbell: "I've been on the ground about 2.5 months. I constantly, every day do assessments on 'risk to force' and 'risk to mission.' So I owe that to my chain of command, and I think it's too early in my tenure here to make any adjustments to the ... plan, but I do look at that that every single day.

"And if I feel that as we continue to transition and retrograde some of our resources out of here, if we're making some of those purely based on time, and the conditions on the ground are not set for that, then I owe that to the chain of command to raise that."

The context: The U.S. now has fewer than 20,000 troops in Afghanistan from a force that topped 100,000 at its peak. The U.S. forces are set to end their combat mission at the end of this year. There will be 9,800 U.S. troops at the beginning of next year, and their role over the next two years will be to train and assist the Afghan forces and to carry out counterterrorism raids. But analysts have questioned whether the U.S. force will be large enough should the Afghan forces run into trouble against the Taliban.

So is the withdrawal plan only an aspiration?

Campbell: "Many of these decisions were made back in the springtime. We started setting some of those assumptions way back in the fall of '13. Things change on the ground, things change in the world. As the commander on the ground, that's what my senior leadership expects me to do. ... To make those assessments and provide my best military advice to my leadership, and that's what I'll do."

The context: Ghani signed the security agreement with the U.S. on Sept. 30, immediately after he assumed office. But there are indications that the Afghans would like the Americans to stay longer and in larger numbers to give the Afghan military more time to solidify

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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