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Former commander: the U.S. military needs to do more in Afghanistan

U.S. Army General John F. Campbell, who recently stepped down as commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, at a news conference at in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Omar Sobhani/Pool Photo via AP)
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The outgoing commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan pressed civilian leaders in the months before he left Kabul to expand the American role there, shedding light on what he called a slow and inefficient decision-making process as he prepares to retire.

Gen. John F. Campbell declined to detail the recommendations he had made to senior leaders before he stepped down earlier this month, but suggested that the United States may need to expand advisory missions with Afghan ground troops and take additional actions against the Taliban, which is seeking to expand attacks against local forces.

“If you want to have pressure, if you want to drive [the Taliban] toward reconciliation … I would believe they need to have more pressure put on them,” Campbell said. “One way to do it would be potentially striking” them.

“Now, I’m not advocating for ‘Let’s go back and be committed to a total war against the Taliban’ … but that is one way to go after them,” he said. Currently, the United States can conduct air strikes to protect U.S. and allied forces; to protect Afghan troops in imminent danger; and to go after the al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The general declined to provide additional details about the nature of his proposed actions against the group.

[In Afghanistan, a series of attacks on Americans during ‘non-combat’ operations]

Campbell, who spoke to reporters at the Pentagon about his nearly 37 years in the U.S. Army and his tenure as the top American general in Afghanistan, hangs up his uniform as the U.S. military grapples with a sharp deterioration in security across Afghanistan, where Taliban and other militants are seeking to expand gains against local forces.

The modest U.S. force of 9,800 troops is now assigned to a dual mission, advising local forces and conducting limited counter-terrorism operations. Under a plan announced by President Obama in 2014, that force is due to be reduced to just 5,500 servicemembers by early next year.

Campbell expressed satisfaction at a series of White House decisions over the past year and a half that allowed him to adjust the U.S. mission to reflect both the ongoing weaknesses of Afghanistan’s military, and the continued strength of the Taliban. He cited a series of steps approved by Obama since fall 2014, including authorization of certain combat activities; permission to strike the Islamic State’s Afghanistan cell; and several moves to retain a larger U.S. force for more time.

But the general also voiced frustration at what he characterized as a painfully slow process chaired by the White House, which he said would often repeatedly review potential actions in high-level meetings. Campbell said he sat in on so-called deputy-level, or sub-Cabinet, meetings, Cabinet-level meetings and full National Security Council meetings, often late into the night as he tuned in from Afghanistan.

“There were many times I would say ‘Why are we going over this again – I’ve already laid it out.'” But, Campbell said, “every time I got to President Obama I got the decision I was really looking for.”

“The frustration was just the process we have but … it was kind of good and bad at the same time,” he said.

Campbell suggested that his successor, Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson, might take up the case for his pending military recommendations.

“I think sort of the same things I asked for  … again I don’t want to speak for him, but I think he’d probably reemphasize those,” he said. “But I want to make sure we can get them done in a timely manner. Otherwise it’s not going to impact [2016]” he said.

Campbell said Afghan forces continue to lack basic military functions – intelligence, logistics, and air power – but had proved themselves a capable fighting force.

Campbell said the Obama administration had offered him a chance following his Afghanistan position to become the next head of U.S. Africa Command; its commander Gen. David M. Rodriguez is stepping down later this year. But Campbell said he declined for personal reasons.