There is a lot of talk about the need for a residual force of U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan after this year ends, and an Alabama National Guard veteran now finishing his second tour in the country says that force is a necessity.
In a recent telephone interview from Camp Phoenix, near the Afghan capital of Kabul, Command Sgt. Maj. Kevin Griffin said Afghans have told him, “We’re worried that if you leave, everything’s going to fall apart.”
Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai has balked on signing a security agreement to allow some U.S. and allied troops to remain in the country. He seemed to double down over the weekend, saying the U.S. should, among other things, restart peace talks with Taliban insurgents. Griffin was interviewed before Karzai’s comments, but he noted that an assembly of elders had voted in November in favor of a security agreement.
“They’re very, very astute and smart people,” Griffin added. “They know the situation in Iraq and they know how dangerous this could [be] if we just leave. The Afghan people don’t want us to leave, just pull up and leave. I feel we have to have a residual presence to train and assist…to go after al Qaeda and serious terrorist threats.”
An Irondale resident, Griffin is the senior noncommissioned officer with the Alabama Guard’s 226th Military Enhancement Brigade, which has been in Afghanistan since mid-May to administer five military base camps, in the Kabul area, including Phoenix. The Mobile-based unit gave itself the nickname “Task Force Tarpon” for the current tour, and its more than 200 soldiers, many of them senior officers and noncoms, will be heading home shortly.
“We fell in in a period of flux, political and military,” Griffin said. “There’s a lot of transitioning going on. Our main mission was to support these base camps and to close them. Unfortunately, because of the constant political changes, we have only been able to actually close one base. We did very successfully with other missions such as the police advisory team that went throughout the capital, training Afghan police officers.”
Griffin’s first tour in Afghanistan came in 2005-06, when he helped train Afghan soldiers in the eastern part of the country. He saw enough combat to sustain a ruptured disc, shrapnel wounds to his hand and face, and some broken bones in his right foot. He did not see any combat this time, but has become aware of how Afghanistan has changed and how the capability of its security forces has changed, since he was last in the country.
“The Afghan army that I saw and trained and fought with in ‘05 and ‘06, that Afghan army is literally a million times better than it was in ‘05 and ’06,” the 53-year-old Griffin said. “We’ve reached a level here with these soldiers…that they can defeat the Taliban in a military conflict.”
The problem is that set piece battles are something Taliban and its allies can avoid while still doing serious damage. The day following Griffin’s telephone interview, a suicide bomber and some shooters attacked a popular Kabul restaurant, killing more than 20 people, and the Taliban claimed responsibility.
“It’s an everyday threat and you always have to be on guard for it here,” Griffin said. “And it’s going to be something that I believe this culture will continue to have for decades. It’s just something that they’ll do, you know.”
On the Council on Foreign Relations website, senior fellow Max Boot said the U.S. and its allies have “made considerable progress” in “their decade-plus attempt to build up Afghanistan’s security forces.” The Alabama Guard has been part of that effort, having sent teams of trainers for a number of years after 9/11.
Boot said Afghan security forces “now number 350,000, and their professionalism has vastly improved. But the Taliban, secure in their Pakistan sanctuaries, remain a substantial threat, and the Afghans still need considerable help from the United States and other international partners to carry on the fight.”
In the 226th’s final newsletter, Col. Sylvester Cannon of Opelika, the unit commander, voiced a similar perspective. “During our time here, Afghan Forces have made significant and demonstrable progress,” Cannon wrote, “but their gains are not yet sustainable.”
Police are an important part of the security forces, and Griffin said soldiers from a military police company from the Michigan National Guard, led by five 226th officers, worked as a police advisory team with 9,000 uniformed police officers throughout the Kabul area. The training included sessions on countering improvised explosive devices (IEDs), providing first aid, maintaining weapons, operating entry control points at installations and functioning as a quick reaction force.
Soldiers from another MP Company, a reserve unit from Arizona, provided a quick reaction force at the 226th-administered base camps, and they were led by a 226th officer and first sergeant. Also under the 226th were about 300 paratroopers from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, whose assignment has been to provide security around Kabul.
But Afghans are running much of the show now. As an example, Griffin cited the 15,000 soldiers with 111th Capital Division. “There are no U.S. advisers at any of their bases,” he said. “None. It’s completely run by the Afghans. We get out on the road in our armored NTVs [non-tactical vehicles, or armored SUVs] and I’m driving around and all these checkpoints, these military checkpoints, police checkpoints, it’s all Afghan. You never see an American soldier anywhere.”
That may be an overstatement, but there is no question that U.S. troops are less visible now, their numbers having dropped to nearly a third of the peak number of 100,000-plus who were in Afghanistan in 2011. As their numbers have dropped, U.S. forces have taken on a reduced role in security operations. The combat mission of the U.S. and its allies is supposed to end this year, but press reports indicate that military officials want to have a residual force of about 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan for some time afterward. Achieving that goal appears to depend largely on the existence of a security agreement not yet in place between the U.S. and Afghanistan.
As of Jan. 24, according to Pentagon figures, 2,170 U.S. service members have died in Afghanistan or in areas considered part of the same campaign, dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom, in a decade or so of war. Nearly 19,600 have been wounded in action. Figures compiled by the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs list 38 service members with Alabama ties among the dead, the youngest 18, the oldest 58. A website, iCasualties.org, lists 181 Alabamians among the wounded. CIA agent Mike Spann, who grew up in Winfield in northwest Alabama, was killed in Afghanistan on Nov. 25, 2011.
Griffin said training that U.S. and its allies are providing the Afghan military is no longer at the small unit level, which was the kind that he was doing in 2005-06, but at higher levels, with a focus on logistics and what he calls “heavy level” maintenance.
U.S. troops take it for granted that when their equipment breaks, someone will fix it, Griffin said. “We have soldiers that can pull an engine,” he said. “We have good spare parts and pipelines and training and accountability of inventories and they [Afghans] are still trying to figure that out. You know, an army that can’t get spare parts, that can’t repair their equipment in a timely manner…that army’s going to lose. The helicopters will go down, their trucks can’t get ammo and can’t get food.
“Right now that’s our big focus here: to train these guys, these soldiers, on how to maintain and repair all the equipment that we’ve given them.”
Griffin, who did a tour in northern Iraq in 2003-04 with the Alabama Guard’s 877th Engineer Battalion, said one of the strongest impressions that he will bring home is how Kabul itself has changed. In his 2005-06 tour, he saw a lot of rubble and sites that reminded him of moonscapes. Now high rises, stylish buildings and parks – and traffic jams — have replaced much of that.
“The amount of work that these people have done to rebuild their nation is truly phenomenal,” Griffin said. “We always judge things by what we see in the United States and it’s tainted because most countries will never be how we are, but these people are trying and we’ve got to them credit. If they can get their own issues under control, they’ll be fine.”
Much of the reconstruction has been financed by money from the U.S. and other nations, and Griffin said a residual force of U.S. and other allied troops for years to come will ensure that those dollars keep flowing.
“You can’t have one without the other…and this country cannot survive without this influx of billions of dollars,” Griffin said.
Update (2/11/14, 3:42 p.m.): Weld sought the opinions of some well-informed scholars with regard to Griffin’s feelings on U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. The following commentary is from the distinguished British military historian Max Hastings:
“I am afraid I see little gain from keeping troops in Afghanistan (which I have often visited with our chiefs of staff) after next year. We have lost, and that is that, because in the words of your excellent general H.R. McMaster (though he applied them to Iraq) ‘there is nothing to join up to.’ I favor a policy of using cash as a substitute for soldiers, to bribe whatever government is in power in Kabul to keep Al Qaeda out. That is the best we can hope to achieve, and the British used bribery of the Afghans very successfully for a century during our rule of India. We learned the hard way that there is no military solution there!”