Friday, March 07, 2014
By Claudette Roulo
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 7, 2014 – The strength of coalition bonds in Afghanistan can be demonstrated by a recent helicopter recovery effort that involved four of the eight countries deployed to Regional Command Southwest, said Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Walter Lee Miller Jr., former commander of the regional command and the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward).
A mechanical failure caused a British Apache AH-64 helicopter pilot to jettison his fuel pods and make a forced landing near the Nawzad district of Helmand province, Miller said in an interview with the Pentagon Channel.
A U.S. Marine Corps CH-53E Chinook returning from a mission heard the mayday call from the British crew and picked them up, he said. At the same time, an Estonian patrol secured the jettisoned fuel pods and a Georgian patrol secured the downed aircraft until a joint U.S. and British recovery team arrived and transported the helicopter back to friendly lines.
“It doesn’t get more coalition than that,” the general said. “The only decision I had to make was who was in charge of the total mission.”
The eight countries that represent the International Security Assistance Force in Regional Command Southwest -- the United States, the United Kingdom, Georgia, Jordan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Tonga, Estonia and Bahrain -- come from three different continents, Miller said. Operational meetings can require five different interpreters. “And it works,” he added.
Miller assumed command in February 2013 and turned over command of the region, which is bordered by Iran and Pakistan, to 1st Marine Expeditionary Force last month. In that time, he said, the mission evolved from advising combat troops at the kandak, or battalion, level, to institutional advising at the brigade and division level.
Last June, coalition advisors across Afghanistan turned over security responsibility to the Afghan security forces -- the army, as well as the various police organizations. In Helmand and Nimruz provinces, this represents a total force of about 32,000, the general said.
The brigade-level advise and assist mission at three of the four Afghan army brigades in the region will end sometime this summer, he said, noting that the fourth already is operating on its own.
That brigade, the 1st Brigade, is responsible for an area in the southern portion of command’s area of responsibility that includes the districts of Garmsir and Marjah -- an area that U.S. Marines fought hard for, Miller added. Those are now model districts, he said, “perhaps for all of Afghanistan in how they're dealing with their own security.”
Afghanistan’s security forces have been preparing for April’s elections, the general said. In Regional Command Southwest, the Afghans developed a layered security plan, Miller said, noting that the plan will cover 177 polling places.
“What they're doing is preparing so the security is there at the polling sites so that people feel comfortable attending for fair and impartial elections,” the general said. “Around the polling sites, you would find that the national police are providing the internal security, the external security will be provided by the army outside the polling sites and outside the city.”
Miller said he expects the election to be a constructive step for Afghanistan. A generation of Afghans has grown up since the U.S. first arrived, he said.
“And those young people, for the first time, will have an opportunity to vote,” he said, “so I expect to see some really positive changes coming here in the very near future.”
Encouraging changes already are happening, the general said.
“I'll tell you about a patrol I was on,” he said. “I was in the north of Sangin … on a patrol with an old gentleman, grizzly guy, missing an eye, been at war for 30 years. And he and I as two old guys, we walked up on top of a hill and had a little discussion.
“I asked him, 'Why are you still in this fight? Why do you keep coming back each day?'” the general continued. “And he's the leader of the local police in the area, he's got about 200 to 250 fighters that operate under his command, and he said, 'Take a look at that dirt road back there. See the kids playing in the street? They have cell phones. I don't have a cell phone. They talk to Kabul. They talk to the outside. If you take a look over here, you'll see there's a paved road. It's Route 611 that the U.K. and the U.S. built. We've never had a paved road. The Taliban gave us nothing. The local government has given us this road. We can now move from Lashkar Gah all the way up to Kajaki. We can participate. We can see family. We're not going back.'"
Thursday, March 06, 2014
By Nick Simeone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 6, 2014 – Helped by the Arab Spring, terrorist groups in North and West Africa have expanded their operations, increasing threats to the United States and its interests, the commander of U.S. Africa Command told Congress today.
“These revolutions, coupled with the fragility of neighboring states, continue to destabilize the region,” Army Gen. David M. Rodriguez told the Senate Armed Services Committee in prepared testimony.
“The spillover effects of revolutions include the return of fighters and flow of weapons from Libya to neighboring countries following the fall of the Gadhafi regime and the export of foreign fighters from North Africa to the Syrian conflict,” the general said.
Rodriguez described the security situation in Libya -- where a NATO-backed air campaign in 2011 aimed at protecting civilians from pro-Gadhafi forces eventually led to the leader’s overthrow -- as volatile and tenuous, especially in the east and southwest. “Militia groups control significant areas of territory and continue to exert pressure on the Libyan government,” he said.
Africom, he said, is working to help build Libyan security forces, but in the meantime, terrorist groups including those affiliated with al-Qaida have taken root in vast, lawless areas of the country and are using the region as a base to extend their reach across northwest Africa.
Farther west, though, Rodriguez pointed to success the United States and its French and African allies have had in stabilizing Mali, where Islamic extremists took control of a large swath of the desert country’s north following a coup two years ago. “U.S. support has enabled [United Nations forces] and French operations to secure key cities and disrupt terrorist organizations,” he added.
Rodriguez described challenges facing the United States and Europe across the continent, from the Sahael region in West Africa to Somalia in the east.
“The collective aftermath of revolutions in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, including uncertain political transitions, spillover effects, and exploitation by violent extremist organizations of under-governed spaces and porous borders are key sources of instability that require us to remain vigilant in the near term,” he said. While multi-national efforts are disrupting terrorists, he added, “the growth and activity of the violent extremist network across the African continent continues to outpace these efforts.”
Rodriguez ticked off a list of security challenges facing the continent and his command.
Despite programs and exercises with Nigeria, the terrorist group Boko Haram continues to attack civilian and government facilities and has extended its reach into neighboring Niger, Chad and Cameroon. In Somalia, after having no presence in the country for years, the U.S. military now has three people on the ground, he said, to coordinate with U.N. and other partnered forces to disrupt and contain al-Shabaab forces and expand areas under the control of the nominal government in Mogadishu.
He described the efforts as playing “limited, but important roles” in weakening the militant group, which controls portions of the country and claimed responsibility for a massacre at a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in September that killed more than 60 people.
Rodriguez reported significant progress in reducing piracy.
“In 2013, zero ships were hijacked in nine attempted attacks in the region,” he said. Just two years earlier, there had been more than 150 attempted hijackings.
While Rodriguez said Africom is using military-to-military engagements, programs, exercises and other operations to respond to crises and deter threats, he emphasized that these efforts are geared toward enabling African partners to handle these problems.
“We believe efforts to meet security challenges in Africa are best led and conducted by African partners,” he said, efforts that ultimately will depend on African nations developing effective partner-nation security institutions that respect civilian authority.
By Claudette Roulo
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 6, 2014 – The period since February 2013 can best be characterized as a year of transition for Afghanistan’s Regional Command Southwest, Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Walter Lee Miller Jr. said today at a Pentagon news briefing.
Miller, former commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force said that when he arrived in Helmand province early last year as commander of Regional Command Southwest, combat was still part of the equation for the International Security Force there.
“At the beginning, our mission placed emphasis on the transfer of lead security,” the general said. This meant slowly transitioning the involvement of ISAF troops from operations at the battalion and district level to advising at the provincial and regional level, he added.
The handover to Afghan-led security occurred nationally June 19. Miller said the second half of the deployment was focused on preparing for the April 2014 Afghan elections, furthering the transfer of lead security responsibility and continuing to develop Afghan governance -- particularly in the provinces of Helmand and Nimruz.
In addition, he said, retrograde and redeployment operations continued throughout the year, as ISAF shut down bases and infrastructure.
“I'm extremely proud of the coalition as a whole in the support of these efforts,” the general said. “But there still remains a significant challenge, and that is how, within force limitations, do we ensure long-term sustainment with irreversible [Afghan governmental] gains and prevent degradation in [Afghan security force] capabilities after ISAF's eventual departure?”
There’s no doubt that the Taliban senior leaders are seeking ways to disrupt the April elections, said Miller’s former deputy, British Army Brigadier Paul A.E. Nanson.
“Helmand's slightly different, because we believe the Taliban will still be focused at that time of the year on the poppy – because, of course the poppy harvest time is April -- at the same time as they're going to try and do whatever they can to disrupt the elections. So I think they're going to be torn in two ways,” Nanson said. The poppy harvest yields opium for the illicit drug trade, which the Taliban uses as a revenue source.
There will still be disruptions, Nanson said, but the Afghan security forces are up to the challenge.
The Taliban are looking to target the physical security of the election sites and the ability of people to move freely, Nanson said, and also to target key political and government officials. However, the security preparations by Afghan forces, particularly at the region’s more than 200 polling stations, have been very thorough, he noted.
“[The Afghan forces] are very confident that they're going to pull off the election,” Miller added. “And not only that, the local populace is showing signs that they're confident that the security is going to be there and they're going to vote.”
The true challenge remaining in Afghanistan is not whether Afghan security forces can fight, he said, but whether they can sustain themselves over the long haul.
“They still need a lot of work. … Not so much in training mechanics -- it's a lot about getting parts from Point A to Point B, and then being able to [install] those parts,” he said.
ISAF recognized the need to shift from combat mentoring to sustainability and logistics mentoring, Nanson said, but the effort was started “quite late,” and it will take more time to guarantee an enduring institutional framework is in place.
Developing sustainability within the Afghan security forces is a focus at all levels, said British Army Col. Baz Bennett, former director of Afghan security force assistance in Regional Command Southwest.
For the Afghan military as a whole, that means “understanding how to manage a vehicle fleet, manage … billions of dollars of infrastructure that's been given to them, managing the electricity, [and] managing the plumbing that's going to go with all of that,” Bennett said.
At the next level down, he said, that might include providing driver training to ensure that vehicles aren’t breaking so often or instructing drivers on how to perform daily maintenance. And, Bennett said, fostering an “equipment care culture,” which instills troops with the awareness that they can’t defeat the enemy without well-cared-for equipment.
“These are the areas that we've got to keep working on. When you add in the things such as very low literacy rate, that's very difficult,” he said.
The Afghan security forces are also working to develop an operation and deployment cycle, Nanson said. “At the moment … a young soldier will come out of training. He'll get posted to Helmand province. … He'll go into combat. And he'll stay in combat.”
If he’s lucky, the brigadier said, that soldier will get leave at some point in his enlistment, but for many, there is no break. And, he said, the grueling pace means that the Afghan army loses a significant number of soldiers to “wastage,” meaning they don’t return from leave.
“What we're trying to do is get them into a cycle, where … obviously, they have to go into combat, but then they get an opportunity to go on R&R,” Nanson said. “… And then, when they come back, they get some reset training. So they get a bit of refresher training, develop their skills a bit more, get more kit. And then they go back into the fight.”
Establishing that cycle is fundamental to addressing the problem of wastage, he said.
The Afghan security forces are going to come out on top, Miller said.
“And they're going to buy the space for the government to become popular with the locals. That's going to happen. They just need the time. It's not a McDonald's society, it's the East. Don't forget it. It's not the West. It will take time, but they'll get there.”
“Where it really lies now is with the Afghan people,” the general said. “We gave them the tools. We taught them how to use them. It's up to them. If they want to come out of this on top, they will.”
By Nick Simeone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 6, 2014 – If U.S. and NATO forces are required to leave Afghanistan at the end of the year in the absence of a security agreement, the Afghan government’s long-term viability “is likely to be at high risk,” the commander of U.S. Central Command told Congress yesterday.
Of all the conflicts and security issues on his watch, Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III told the House Armed Services Committee, operations in Afghanistan remain his top priority -- in particular, ensuring that the progress achieved during America’s longest war is not lost.
But despite repeated urgings by U.S. officials, Afghan President Hamid Karzai refuses to sign a bilateral security agreement negotiated with the United States that would allow for a continued post-2014 U.S. military presence to train and advise Afghan forces and to conduct counterterror operations, a presence Austin described as being vitally important to Afghanistan’s future.
“We have invested lives and other precious resources to improve security and stability in that country,” he said. “Going forward, we want to do all that we can to preserve those hard earned gains,” among them, an Afghan security force numbering nearly 344,000 and leading nearly all security operations in the country.
“If the United States and Afghanistan are unable to achieve a BSA, we will move rapidly to consider alternatives for continuing a security cooperation relationship with Afghanistan,” Austin told the committee in prepared testimony.
Ultimately, he added, Afghanistan’s future will be in the hands of the Afghans themselves, with an important milestone being national elections set for next month.
“If the Afghan leadership does not make the right decisions going forward, the opportunities they have been afforded could easily be squandered,” the general said.
Austin’s testimony covered the range of issues and threats facing the United States across the Middle East and South Asia, including the civil war in Syria, which he called the most difficult challenge he has faced in his nearly 40-year military career. The conflict, which has claimed several hundred thousand lives, has reached a “dynamic stalemate,” Austin told the House panel, with neither President Bashar Assad’s government nor rebels fighting to topple him able to achieve their objectives.
In addition to creating regional instability, the flow of foreign fighters into the country, which Austin put at upwards of 7,000, remains a concern, given that many of them will eventually return home. And while Assad pledged last year to turn over his stockpile of chemical weapons, Austin said, the Syrian government has missed milestones for their removal and destruction.
In neighboring Iraq, Austin described a security situation that has deteriorated significantly, with levels of violence reaching those seen at the height of sectarian conflict in 2006 to 2008.
“The principal cause of the growing instability has been the Shiia-led government’s lack of meaningful reform and inclusiveness of minority Sunni and Kurds,” the general said, adding that the situation is exacerbated by the active presence of al-Qaida and a steady influx of jihadists from the war in Syria.
The United States has expanded security cooperation with Baghdad by supplying the government with small arms, rockets and Hellfire missiles, Austin said, but it is going to take “major internal political reform and the sincere inclusion of the Sunnis and Kurds into the political process” to make a significant difference in levels of violence.
In Iran, Austin cited progress in negotiations over halting the country’s nuclear program, but said significant concerns remain about the behavior of the Iranian government. “We are seeing a significant increase in Iranian proxy activity in Syria, principally through Iran’s support of Lebanese Hezbollah and the regime,” he said.
In Egypt, Austin said, the interim government, despite making some strides toward more democratic and inclusive rule, has yet to take up the dire economic problems affecting the country. Still, he said, the United States will continue to work with the Egyptian military to advance mutual security interests.
Overall, while the United States has made progress in countering terrorism in the region, Austin said, al-Qaida and its affiliates continue to pose the most significant threat to the United States and its allies. The region’s explosion of unemployed young people demanding political change and increased opportunity, combined with increasing ethnic and sectarian violence, continue to drive instability and recruitment by terrorists, he said, creating what he called “underlying currents” that may not be possible to halt or reverse.
Monday, March 03, 2014
The Department of Defense announced today the death of a Marine who was supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.
Lance Cpl. Caleb L. Erickson, 20, of Waseca, Minn., died Feb. 28, while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
He was assigned to 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, N.C.
For more information, media may contact the 2nd Marine Division Public Affairs Office during duty hours at 910-450-6575 or after duty hours at 910-372-2736.