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Outgoing Afghanistan general: U.S. military needs to do more to beat back Taliban

U.S. Forces-Afghanistan Commander and Resolute Support Commander Gen. John Campbell testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016, before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing about the situation in Afghanistan. Campbell said the ability to train and advise the still green Afghan security forces will be constrained if the U.S. troop level is cut to 5,500 as President Barack Obama has proposed. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan has presented military leaders with recommendations that, if approved, would further expand the U.S. military role in helping local forces confront the Taliban and other militants.

Senior Pentagon officials are now examining a range of steps designed to enhance support to the Afghan military in what is expected to be a bloody 2016, including potentially allowing U.S. forces to accompany a wider range of Afghan units close to the front lines and expanding the use of U.S. air power, Gen. John F. Campbell said in an interview with The Washington Post.

“I’m not going to leave without making sure my leadership understands that there are things we need to do,” the general said during a visit to Washington. The proposals could also broaden the U.S. military’s ability to target different militants in Afghanistan, officials familiar with the matter said. 

The recommended changes to authorities in Afghanistan would once more expand the scope of U.S. military activities in Afghanistan, where foreign forces were supposed to be limited to a chiefly advisory role since Washington declared an end to combat operations in 2014.

Since then, the Taliban has proved it remains a potent adversary, battling local forces for control of areas that symbolized the gains of President Obama’s troop surge, and even briefly capturing a provincial capital last fall.

To help Afghanistan’s unsteady military respond, Obama has already abandoned plans to end the military presence entirely by the time he leaves office, and several times has approved changes to the rules governing U.S. operations there to give military officials greater flexibility on the battlefield.

Afghan forces are taking high casualties and struggling to retain soldiers as they grapple with not only repeated Taliban assaults but also al-Qaeda militants and, now, an Islamic State affiliate vying for power in eastern Afghanistan. Just last month, the White House approved a new measure allowing the U.S. military to attack the Islamic State there.

Increasingly, U.S. military leaders are talking about a years- or even decades-long presence in Afghanistan.

The U.S. was supposed to leave Afghanistan by 2017. Now it might take decades.

David Sedney, a former senior Pentagon official for Afghanistan and Pakistan, described Obama’s withdrawal plans as “flawed” from the start and said they had made local forces vulnerable because they phased out foreign support too quickly.

“What happened in the last few months of 2015 is that it became so obvious that we had to make a decision to go back to what we should have done in the first place,” he said. He said the Obama administration had been wrong to assume that hoped-for peace talks might preclude a longer military presence. “They banked on hope instead of reality, and now they’re paying the piper.”

Campbell, who will retire when he steps down from the Afghanistan command, was in Washington this week to discuss Afghanistan’s security outlook with lawmakers, who on Thursday expressed concerns that hard-won progress in Afghanistan could be slipping away. Campbell also met Thursday afternoon with Obama.

In testimony this week, Campbell painted a mixed picture of security across Afghanistan, where just 2 percent of district centers are under insurgent control. He said Afghanistan’s unity government was making a real attempt to rein in corruption and turn around chronic problems within their security forces.

But local forces are struggling in Helmand, where the Taliban are making a play to reclaim their traditional stronghold. Last month, a U.S. soldier was killed during a joint U.S.-Afghan Special Operations mission there.

American Special Operations forces are already taking a hands-on role in advising elite Afghan forces there. Foreign advisors are also scrambling to help rebuild the Afghan Army’s 215th Corps, which has responsibility for Helmand.

Campbell said the recommendations could provide the U.S. commander flexibility, in certain instances where it was judged to have a strategic impact, to put American advisors with conventional forces below the Corp level, like now occurs with elite Afghan forces. Currently American forces don’t advise conventional troops below the Corp level. But the general cautioned he was not advocating a large-scale deployment of American advisors with conventional forces.

Likewise, he said, putting American air controllers with select local conventional units could make a difference for Afghan forces. “One of the things they [Afghan forces] ask for every day is close air support,” Campbell said.

Afghanistan is slowing acquiring aircraft such as the A-29 Super Tucano. But the government’s lack of a robust air force has proven to be a real constraint for Afghanistan over the last year, as the U.S. air fleet there shrinks.

“Close air support is just a capability gap that we knew was going to take years and years to build,” he said.

Campbell said he had tried to help compensate for the slow task of building up an air force by installing machine guns and rocket pods on Russian Mi-17 helicopters used by Afghan forces. The aircraft was originally intended for evacuating battlefield casualties.

It’s not clear whether Campbell’s suggestions will be addressed before he hands over to Lt. Gen. John W. “Mick” Nicholson in March. Nicholson is expected to make his own assessment of the situation in Afghanistan and the American course there several months after he arrives.

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said that Obama “remained open” to military recommendations for how to achieve U.S. goals in Afghanistan. “Any potential consideration would balance the need to close any gaps in how we currently execute our mission with our efforts to continue to develop the capabilities of the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces,” the official said.

Once military officials review Campbell’s proposal, they are expected to submit them to the White House for consideration.

Campbell is also pressing for additional action not just from leaders in Washington but also in European capitals. He said he had also asked European nations to provide additional military advisors, support troops, drones and intelligence assets. In an implicit criticism of the United States, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said the West’s withdrawal from Afghanistan had been too hasty and sent the wrong message to the Taliban.

During exchanges on Capitol Hill this week, Campbell was pressed repeatedly on whether he supported sticking to Obama’s current plan to halve the U.S. force of 9,800 by early next year. White House officials have suggested however they might again change course and keep 9,800 troops until the next president takes over.

Campbell declined to address whether Obama’s plan should be changed but suggested that Afghanistan will need substantial help for the indefinite future.

“I do believe we’re going to have to have a continued modest forward presence … for years to come,” he said. “We shouldn’t sugar-coat it.”

Campbell spoke near the end of a long military career that has included repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The general said that Defense Sec. Ashton B. Carter had offered him the opportunity to become the next head of U.S. Africa Command, whose current commander Gen. David M. Rodriguez is expected to step down this year. But Campbell said he had declined, hoping to spend more time with his family.