FORWARD OPERATING BASE SALERNO, Afghanistan, April 19, 2011 — Army Maj. Gen. John F. Campbell makes no bones of the fact that his job as the commander Regional Command East is the most challenging problem he ever has confronted.
“This is the most complex thing I’ve ever dealt with,” Campbell said here today. “Every day you can be frustrated. But as a leader you’re not very effective if you stay frustrated. It is, many days, two steps forward [and] one step back, but it is progress.”
Campbell, who also commands the 101st Airborne Division, spoke to reporters traveling with Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “RC-East is probably the most complex problem set I’ve seen,” he said. “I spent 19 months in Baghdad during the surge, and this is exponentially harder because of the tribal dynamics, the political dynamics, the terrain, the weather, the distance –- it’s just a huge problem set.” Campbell spoke about the complexities of his command that encompasses 14 provinces, 8 million people and 450 miles of border with Pakistan.
“You can’t talk about Afghanistan without talking about Pakistan,” he said. “I don’t think we should make any bones about the sanctuaries in Pakistan. There are guys who have sanctuary in Pakistan, and they are coming across the border and killing Americans –- that is the Haqqani network.”
The Haqqani network is a tough foe that operates in Afghanistan’s Paktia, Paktika and Nurestan provinces. The Haqqani family runs it, and it is much like a Mafia family, Campbell said. Plus, the network operates openly in Pakistan and has some level of support from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. “I don’t know at what level they are tied in to the ISI,” the general said.
The network has taken a pounding from coalition and Afghan forces in the past year, Campbell said.
“I think over the 11 months inside Afghanistan, … the number of killed, detained and captured Haqqani has just doubled,” the general said. Still, the network has been successful, and Campbell carries cards with photos and names of the 207 coalition servicemembers that have been killed in his region -– many of them by Haqqani members.
Pakistan is taking the insurgents’ sanctuaries seriously. Eighteen months ago, 30,000 Pakistani troops were posted along the border. Today, there are 140,000, and they have suffered a lot of losses as well.
“You can’t kill your way out of this thing,” Campbell said. “We have to build systems here the Afghans can sustain. There’s got to be something at some point in time -– a political solution with Pakistan –- to work this thing out.”
Campbell said his relationship with his Pakistani counterpart, the commander of the 11th Corps, has become much better over the 11 months Campbell has been in command.
“We do complementary operations on both sides of the border,” he said. “Now we do these border flag meetings -– at battalion level, brigade level. Seven or eight months ago, we would schedule these and they would get cancelled. They didn’t show up, or they needed permission from Islamabad to attend.”
Campbell appealed directly for regular, scheduled meetings between U.S. and Pakistani military leaders, and those meetings eventually became a routine occurrence.
“Once the commanders get together at the tactical level, they talk,” Campbell said.
One fruit of this communication was Strong Eagle 1 last year. It was a cooperative operation in which the Pakistani military set up blocking positions and U.S. and Afghan forces killed about 150 extremists. Strong Eagle 2 a few weeks ago saw almost the same results.
“I think they are really starting to figure out that this is a common enemy, and we have to work this out,” Campbell said.
All levels of command are involved. Mullen will meet with Pakistani leaders in Islamabad later this week to discuss areas of mutual concern. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the coalition and U.S. commander in Afghanistan, works with his Pakistani counterparts, and Regional Command East inches the process forward as well.
“We now have three tactical border coordination centers with the Pakistanis,” Campbell said. “Up until October 2010, there were no Pakistani officers in them. After the unfortunate Sept. 30 border incident where we killed some Pakistani soldiers, they finally moved some people in there, and it’s increased our cooperation and communications.”
The Pakistanis are in the midst of a border operation now, and American forces are setting blocking forces for them, the general noted.
Building the capacity of the Afghan security forces is key for success here as well. Campbell praised NATO for agreeing to stay the course through the end of 2014, and added that the commitment has made a difference to the Afghans he deals with.
“Before that, the Afghans said we were leaving in 2011. Now they know it is 2014,” Campbell said. “It’s not just the military side. We’re getting more tips from the people, more recruits. That has changed the dynamic of the battlefield.”
And the battlefield has changed.
“In conjunction with our special ops brothers, we have done huge damage to these [extremist] groups,” he said. “But you’ve got to build the governance, you have to build the development piece, you have to build the systems.”
The security effort has been successful, and the Taliban and their allies have been punished. “Wherever they have massed, they die,” Campbell said. “They massed here at Salerno, they died. They massed at Jalalabad, they died. There has been a 276-percent increase in the number of caches discovered –- the equivalent of 400 suicide vests, the equivalent of 30 car bombs, and so on.
“Before the surge, the enemy had momentum, but because of the surge the enemy lost the momentum, and through the fall and winter we took the momentum,” he continued. “It’s certainly reversible. We’ve set them back on their heels, and we feel very good about where we are this spring. It’s going to be harder [for the insurgents] to come back in and take the battle space, but mark my words, they will try to do that.”
Those the coalition and Afghans have captured tell a bleak story, Campbell said. The extremists’ morale is low, he said, their pay is bad, and they are not getting the right kinds of supplies.
“We know we are making a difference, and we have to stay on that,” Campbell said. “We can’t let that regenerate.”
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