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Campbell: U.S. leaders heeded advice on Afghanistan

By By David Vergun, Army News Service

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March 16, 2016 — WASHINGTON (March 16, 2016) — Congress and President Barack Obama listened to and acted on advice from the commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan over the last 18 months, said Army Gen. John F. Campbell, whose posting as commander of NATO’s Resolute Support mission and U.S. forces in Afghanistan ended March 2 when Army Gen. John W. “Mick” Nicholson Jr. succeeded him.

Campbell spoke mostly about Afghanistan during a March 11 media farewell event at the Pentagon. He will retire May 1.

Obama's decision to keep 9,800 American forces in Afghanistan into 2016 has resonated through the region Campbell said.

Near the end of 2014, the United States was headed toward 1,000 troops remaining in Afghanistan by the end of 2016. That meant closing all U.S. bases in Afghanistan except in Kabul, Campbell said.

In October 2015, Obama announced that the United States would maintain 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through 2016. That's an example of the president heeding his own counsel, Campbell said. Congress, similarly, was receptive during his testimonies there, he added, the most notable taking place in closed-door hearings.

Campbell said he'd be remiss if he didn't mention the great support he received from the commander of U.S. Central Command, Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III; the commander of U.S. European Command, Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove; and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. All had direct or tangential roles in shaping activities in Afghanistan, he said.

Current Status

Now, bases in Afghanistan will remain in Kabul, Jalalabad and Kandahar, Campbell said, noting that's still a lot less presence than during the surge when he was there. The main role of the United States now, he said, is to train, advise and assist the Afghan forces.

Campbell said he sees Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as a willing partner who wants to continue to build Afghan capabilities. Things could have gone south in that respect should the rapid drawdown have proceeded, he told reporters.

Obama's decision was a warning to the Taliban that the United States was committed to Afghanistan's future, the general said, and that the group could not simply wait out the Americans.

For Pakistan, the decision informed them that the United States and NATO are in the fight for the long term, he said, mentioning that he met regularly with Pakistan's Gen. Raheel Sharif and that the two had good relations.

There are still problems, Campbell said, but the Afghan government is willing to confront them, learn and move on. He cited the Taliban attack on Kunduz as an example. The temporary Taliban takeover of the provincial capital was an intelligence failure and an information operation win for the enemy and a wake-up call for the Afghan government, he noted.

Afghan officials understand they have to develop good governance at the lowest levels of the districts to stop similar attacks from occurring, he added.

Afghan security forces are getting better and better every day, he said. They're still a relatively young army, with just eight or nine years since forming, so they shouldn't be compared to the U.S. Army. Areas where there's still room for improvement are logistics, leadership and intelligence, he added.

Insurgencies

The Taliban remain the biggest security threat, Campbell said. There used to be a fighting season, which was when the weather got warmer, he said, but now there's fighting year-round in what's called the winter campaign and the summer campaign. Because they can choose to wait around until the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, the general said, giving them a withdrawal timetable would be a bad idea.

Besides the Taliban, there's an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant offshoot group operating out of Nangahar province's Achin and Deh Bala districts, he said. They'd very much like to attack Europe and the United States, he added, noting that the capability isn't yet there yet, but they bear watching.

Other terrorists groups exist as well, often operating on both sides of the border with Pakistan, he noted. The Haqqani network is a prime example, he said, and they're notable for their vehicle-bomb attacks. Pakistan can put some pressure on them, Campbell said, but they think that if they put too much, they'll turn around and attack Pakistan.

Some of these terrorist groups fight each other, Campbell said, and when they do that, the United States doesn't usually intervene. Iran is providing some aid to terrorist groups fighting ISIL, a group it feels threatened by, he added, saying that's not really helpful to overall security.

Retirement Plans

After "36 years, 10 months and 25 days as of May 1," Campbell said, it's time to retire and not to look back and regret the decision. "I'm at peace with it," he said.

Campbell's said his wife, Ann, has accompanied him around the globe or waited at home while he was deployed, often caring for soldiers and their families, especially those who were wounded. The general said he wants to focus on her now.

Their plan, he said, is to stay in the greater Washington, D.C., area for about a year and then hunt for a place to live and work. That will give him more time to focus on retirement, he added, noting that he's been too focused thinking about other things in Afghanistan.

As for future work, Campbell said, serving others would be a factor in the decision. He added that he was honored to have been offered the command of U.S. Africa Command by the secretary of defense, but turned the offer down to retire. Still serving, however, will be Campbell's son, who is with a Stryker brigade out of Fort Hood, Texas.

Campbell concluded that the thing he regrets most about retiring is no longer having an impact on the younger soldiers, as mentors have had on him.

He added, "I left Afghanistan, but Afghanistan will always be in my heart. I'm leaving the Army now, but the Army will always be in my heart."

(Jim Garamone, DoD News, Defense Media Activity, contributed to this article.)