Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson said his immediate focus is on supporting Afghan elections. (Rahmat Gul / The Associated Press)
U.S. troop operations may be dialing down in Afghanistan, but the No. 2 American commander there says there is much work to be done — chiefly, bracing for a potential Taliban offensive on the country’s upcoming election day.
Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, commanding general of the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command and the XVIII Airborne Corps, took over earlier this year and is responsible for day-to-day operations in theater.
Anderson, in a March 20 phone interview with Army Times, discussed the impending election, his assessment of the enemy and the future outlook for American service members. Excerpts from the discussion, edited for space and clarity:
Q. You had the transfer of authority ceremony Feb. 8. What are your first impressions?
A. We’re seeing great progress. What’s encouraging is the capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces.
Obviously they’ve grown, but more important is their development. They have been conducting very effective operations in essentially the entire country.
Q. How are you preparing for the Afghan presidential election April 5?
A. ISAF is going to support with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, intel sharing, logistics as needed, support if something comes up short, casualty evacuation, close-air support, and quick-reaction forces to cover contingencies out there based on what the [Afghan] army or police feel they need.
This year, they’ve upped their female searchers to 13,500 female police, and there are about 500 female trainers right now training them with the intent of expanding the vote in terms of females, the elderly and the handicapped.
Q. Afghan forces have been leading operations, but where do they still need help?
A. They’ve got to get their systems in place, from depot levels to strategic levels. How do you sustain? How do you push logistical packages down to regional centers? All those processes have to be improved, but so do the fundamental problems at the tactical level of how do you perform maintenance.
The real issue is getting a supply system in place where they generate requirements based on what happens to their vehicles, their weapons, their radios.
That system doesn’t exist. Right now things are bought on a bulk predictive model. Filters, belts, those kinds of things are bought betting on what you’d expect to replace over time but not based on what’s happening.
Tactically they do very well, but they have to grow in combined arms integration. How do you employ fire support?
A third big one would be training. How do you raise the ante here in terms of training, not so much from an individual perspective but more on a higher level of collective training?
Q. What types of casualties are the Afghan forces seeing?
A. Toward the end of the last fighting season, they had about 600 casualties a month here. January and February of this year, we averaged 150 killed in action.
It’s much lower than the last fighting season so far, and that’s been one of our themes of professionalization, teaching them to use their protective equipment and follow procedures.
Q. What is the outlook for U.S. troops in Afghanistan?
A. The base plan, assuming we have agreements and all that political stuff transpires, is a Kabul-based headquarters and support in the capital, and the Germans staying up north and the Italians still staying out west.
But also a Mazar e Sharif, a Herat, a Kandahar, which will be a U.S. headquarters. There will no longer be a Regional Command-Southwest, there’s no longer a regional command in Helmand, so it is Kandahar, and then east, which is right now heavy Bagram-based.
Regional Commands will migrate to train, advise, assist commands, or TAACs, and there’ll be TAACs in each of those locations.
Q. What’s your assessment of the enemy?
A. Obviously, the Taliban remains a threat here. The million dollar question is what shape they’re in.
Down south, the fighting season began a little earlier because the weather allowed it, and everybody is anticipating what they’re going to try to do to try to affect the election.
The ANSF has done about 350 of all subsets of named operations across the country over the last couple months. The Taliban has not been effective.
We’ve been watching. We’re trying to figure out when this will really manifest itself.
We’re trying to figure out how well they’re led. We think they’ve been very disrupted.
We’re trying to figure out how well they’re supplied, what’s their capability to fight, how well they’re resourced.
There were reports early in the winter that they were going to be able to amass 20- to 30-man operations. That has not manifested itself anywhere.
Could you sum up the way ahead in the coming months?
A. We’re looking right now to the election. Of course, anybody you talk to here feels the likelihood of a runoff is a virtual reality.
The fighting season is going to go into full stride. Winter here is pretty much over. Passes are open.
Then it’s the seating of a government after the runoff through the summer and how that coalesces with our transition and getting the retrograde process going.
We still need to get about 21,000 pieces of kit out of here, and how that all works through the fall and whatever the final mission set is going to be by the end of the year.
So, it’s decisive in terms of the election, but it’s also a very rapid adjustment shift based on the elections, runoff, fighting season ... and then as we retrograde, redeploy people and make all the consolidations we talked about. There are lots of moving parts.