BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan — The U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division formally concluded its operations in Afghanistan on Tuesday, another sign that the war is drawing to a close even as American commanders are evaluating whether they will have enough resources to support the fledgling Afghan military.
By Tim Craig
After five tours in Afghanistan since 2001, four of which included operations in the country’s volatile and dangerous eastern provinces, most of the soldiers from the division will be en route to Fort Drum in New York by Wednesday afternoon. A few dozen soldiers will stay behind for another week or two, but division commanders said their work in Afghanistan was complete, at least for now.
In the fall of 2001, the 10th Mountain Division was the first major army unit to arrive in Afghanistan in support of American Special Forces who helped topple the Taliban government. Since then, about 177 soldiers from the division have been killed while serving in the country.
“We were the first division here, and I think it’s fitting we’d be the last,” in a combat role, said Maj. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the division’s commander, after a ceremony marking the division’s departure from rugged eastern Afghanistan.
The withdrawal of the 10th Mountain Division, an infantry force specially trained to fight in harsh weather, comes as coalition commanders race to meet President Obama’s orders for their post-2014 mission.
Though about 20,000 American troops remain in Afghanistan, Obama has said that number will be reduced to 9,800 by Jan. 1. Obama plans to cut that force in half by the end of 2015 and has pledged that all American troops will be gone from Afghanistan one year later.
Last week, after years of bloody fighting in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand Province, the U.S. Marines withdrew from the country. But many Afghan military and political leaders, including newly-elected President Ashraf Ghani, worry Afghan forces will need support from the American military for years to come.
In an interview published Monday in Foreign Policy magazine, Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, appeared to suggest he was prepared to ask Obama to extend the U.S. military’s withdrawal time-frame.
But Campbell told The Washington Post on Tuesday that it was premature to speculate on what, if any, recommendation he may make to the Joint Chiefs of Staff about the future Afghan mission.
“My orders are pretty clear, and I understand the path we are on,” said Campbell, who succeeded Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. as the coalition commander in August. “But as conditions change on the ground, as the enemy changes, as the government adjusts, I have to be able to take those, and make an assessment, and provide back to my leadership where we are in terms of risks.”
Campbell said he will take a particularly hard look at plans to reduce the number American troops from 9,800 to about 5,500 over the course of next year.
With the coalition now largely relying upon four sprawling bases, some military officials are privately concerned that a rapid drawdown might not leave enough troops to secure those facilities. Campbell said he is committed to making sure coalition forces can follow through on their promises to help the Afghan military with training, air support, intelligence, logistics and best-practices for becoming a more transparent and accountable fighting force.
For now, however, Campbell’s immediate concern is whether the U.S.’s allies will leave enough forces behind.
As part of the security agreement with the Afghan government, other members of the NATO coalition are also expected to commit to keeping about 3,500 troops in Afghanistan next year. But Campbell said he’s still trying to finalize those commitments.
“I’ve got to go back and make sure my leadership understands if I am short, where I am going to be short and how I will mitigate,” Campbell said.
Sgt. Christopher Lane, 27, of the 10th Mountain Division, said the end of the division’s duties in Afghanistan — after 13 years of near-continual deployment — marks “a good chance to reset.”
But Townsend said the soldiers shouldn’t get too comfortable at Fort Drum.
“I expect our division is not done with this place,” Townsend said. “I don’t know that for sure, but I would be surprised if we are not back here in some shape, form or fashion.”