WASHINGTON _ The annual summer fighting season is now well underway in Afghanistan, with nearly daily suicide bombings, assassinations, and other high-profile attacks by the Taliban and other militant groups.
But one thing appears decidedly different this time around to Army Lieutenant General Mark A. Milley, a native of Winchester who is now on his third tour and is serving as the second-ranking officer: the Afghans are fighting back, mostly on their own.
Milley, who commands the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command, is responsible for preparing Afghan army and police forces to take over for US and coalition forces by the end of 2014. He spoke to the War & Peace blog from his headquarters in Kabul.
W&P: Talk about the progress and the challenges in carrying carry out the US strategy to withdraw most American troops by the end of 2014.
General Milley: This is my third tour over here so I’ve got almost three years on the ground now. I was here at the very beginning and came back in the early ‘09 time frame and I’m back now. I figure I have a little bit of perspective on the situation in Afghanistan. I think right now the campaign plan is on track. In the main I would say it is going pretty well. The focus of our efforts are several-fold. Primarily the military task is to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces, both the police and the army. There have been huge improvements. When I came here 10-11 years ago there was no Afghan National Army or Afghan National Police and Kabul was rubble and looked like something you might see in the photographs of a World War II city that had been shattered and shelled and bombed. And the people were clearly in a state of societal shock. There were no schools, no electricity, no hospitals. So flash forward to today, a decade later, you have a security force of 350,000-strong. There is a lot of work that is left to be done—the institutional work like logistics, command and control, in aviation—[but] at the tactical level the Afghan security forces do pretty well.
W&P: How are the Afghan forces performing in battle?
General Milley: “We’re 30 plus days into this year’s fighting season. There are several different groups out there that mount terrorist attacks against the people of Afghanistan. And the security forces are doing a pretty good job protecting the people, across the board. The brunt of the fighting is clearly being borne by the Afghans. They are taking casualties of about 30 to 1 relative to the coalition. That is a grim statistic but that gives you a feel of the weight of the fighting the Afghan security forces are doing. There are some tactical defeats but the vast majority [of] the Afghan security forces are conducting themselves very well. The are stepping up to the fight. This is a big year. This is the summer when US and NATO forces transition security operations. This is the year in which they officially take the lead. And right now they are leading 85 to 95 percent of all daily operations, everything from patrols to offensive operations to defensive operations. Those are being planned and coordinated and then executed with Afghanistan security forces in the lead. This is the summer of testing...to ensure they are cable of sustaining combat operations in the future. We have [US] forces here today that we won’t have next year or the year after and this is a good time to put them in the lead and see how they do. It is still early in the fighting season. The enemy is definitely trying to test them, there is no question about that.
W&P: What is your assessment of the strength and capability of enemy forces?
General Milley: The enemy is trying to press an offensive. It is multiple enemies. You’ve got the Taliban, the Hekmatyr group, the Haqqani Network. You have foreign fighters mixed in there, [like] Al Qaeda and others. What are they doing? They are using suicide bombers, they are trying to assassinate officials, they are trying to do what we call high-profile attacks that get a lot of media attention. The Taliban does have some areas in which they are pretty resilient but it is relatively small. In terms of geography you are talking about 10 or 15, maybe 20 districts—out of 400 districts in this country—that are pretty good Taliban strongholds. But none of them are densely populated urban areas, none of them are where most of the people live. They are rural areas that are an hour or two away from any of the population centers. It doesn’t mean they can’t do terrorism. They can and they do and they have been and they do it pretty much every day. But it is not to the level, in my estimation, where they are capable of re-seizing power. At least that is what I am seeing right now.”
W&P: To what extent are Afghan forces still heavily reliant on US military support to conduct their operations, including in the areas of intelligence and logistics?
General Milley: I don’t know that would put the word significant in front of it. Look at intelligence, for example. We have a variety of technological intelligence systems that are pretty sophisticated. And they clearly contribute to certain things, like special operations. But the best intelligence out there is human intelligence and that is not being gathered by guys who speak English. That is being gathered by Afghan security forces. The technological intelligence we provide is not unimportant but I wouldn’t say it is fundamental to success or failure. A lot of the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets is frankly dedicated to our own force protection as opposed to assisting Afghans to conduct offensive operations against the enemy. We do support the Afghans but it is not like it used to be. It is by exception rather than the rule. We drop bombs on occasion but it is significantly different than it was a year or two ago. If you talk logistics, they have a decent logistics system, where they are capable of distributing the basics of supplies—food, water, ammunition. As for things like maintenance and spare parts, that logistics system is not where we would like it we are working hard to get that more robust here in the next year or so. In terms of command and control, their staffs are literally planning their own operations. Many of their operations we don’t find out about until after they’ve occurred. We are not driving their planning. We help them but we are not driving it. There may be a perception, not without reason I suppose, that allied forces are out there doing this all for them. That is not really the case. In terms of planning I’d day they are doing 60 to 70 percent of all the planning. They are definitely leading operations, there is no question about that.”