Army Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez took over the job just two months ago. He commands U.S. troops assigned to NATO and troops of 42 other nations for daily operations throughout Afghanistan.
“Now that we know where [U.S. troops] are going and when they are coming in, I think we’ll be able to make them well-prepared for what they need to do,” he said during an interview with reporters traveling with Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The general said the long pole in the tent is situational awareness for the troops coming in. “It’s tougher to do than the actual training itself,” he said.
Over the past eight years, U.S. forces have adapted to stress counterinsurgency operations, as simply clearing an area of insurgents and then moving on proved not to be enough. “We have to synchronize our efforts with civilian and international partners so we can help build the infrastructure and help the national and local governments,” Rodriguez said.
What he called “the complex human terrain” is the biggest challenge facing NATO in Afghanistan, the general said.
“Some of the most important things we do is build relationships,” he explained. Servicemembers preparing for Afghanistan are looking at all the Afghan units they work with, and civilians as well, he said. They also must be aware of tribal, ethnic and cultural differences, he added.
The command is getting ready for the influx of new personnel that already has begun – Marines from Camp Lejeune are arriving for duty in Helmand province this week. The command is building ramp space, roads and cantonments for the additional troops. Most of the 30,000 troops will be in during the first half of next year, the general said, with the rest coming in within 11 months of the president’s Dec. 1 announcement.
Most of the servicemembers will deploy to Regional Command South, he said, and their living conditions will be “austere” to allow local Afghans to build the outposts.
Working with the Afghan security forces is a significant part of the mission. Afghans are in the ISAF operations center, and ISAF liaisons are in Afghan operations centers. NATO trainers working with Afghan forces to train them, and once the Afghan forces are in the field, NATO forces partner with them.
Acknowledging that any new command has growing pains, Rodriguez said ISAF Joint Command is fully operational and capable. “Every day we are getting better; every day we are better able to integrate with the NATO Training Mission Afghanistan,” he said.
The Afghan forces in the field are full partners with NATO. “Each commander has a red card, and they can stop an operation if needed,” he said. “But when we work together, we find that we agree on 90 percent of things, and we have plenty of common ground to work on and we don’t have to worry about the one or two things that people don’t agree on.”
Servicemembers who served in Afghanistan before also must understand that it’s not the same as when they were here last, officials here said. The insurgency flares at different temperatures in different places. In a background briefing, ISAF officials said parts of the country could transition to Afghan control relatively quickly, while other areas will take more time.
The Afghans themselves are the best security for the country, but training them to standard will take time. The Afghan army is the most respected institution in the country, U.S. Army officials in Bagram said on background. The national police, however, have some ground to cover to attain that level of respectability.
“Only 20 percent of the police have the necessary training,” Rodriguez said. The 10th Mountain Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team is coming from Fort Drum, N.Y., to train the Afghan police, picking up the effort started by the 82nd Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team, which has been doing the training mission since summer.
The command is working well with the Pakistani military along the mutual border, Rodriguez said. On a military-to-military basis, the cooperation and coordination is good, he said. Local Pakistani leaders will be traveling to Kabul to meet with NATO and Afghan leaders, he added.
What will success look like in Afghanistan? Rodriguez detailed what it is like in Nawa and Garmshir – two places he recently visited in Regional Command South.
“The Marines have been there for eight to 10 months,” he said. “Those places are fairly secure, the people are out, bazaars are open, and they are starting to get a better sense of confidence in the way ahead.”
But gaps between the towns need attention, the general said. “What we want to do is connect those areas so they can start to get their goods to market,” he explained.
These larger, more secure areas will be what success looks like, he said.
“A lot of it has to do with momentum, and the momentum going forward to continue these improvements,” Rodriguez said. “In an ideal world, we hope to be able to begin a drawdown of forces as we move through the summer of 2011.”