KABUL – The Pentagon is counting on a remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan to help lead the way out of America’s longest war.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel took a 30-minute helicopter ride from Kabul on Sunday to visit a base that he says will provide the blueprint for an orderly U.S. exit from Afghanistan.
Forward Operating Base Gamberi, not far from Jalalabad in Laghman province, is home to the Train, Advise, Assist Command for the country’s eastern region. Its mission: to make Afghan forces fully capable of providing security as the U.S. withdraws. About 800 U.S. troops work at the base with Polish counterparts in training Afghan forces.
“What you all do in this area has really developed into a model for how we’ll continue to do this,” Hagel told about 100 U.S. troops and a small contingent of Polish soldiers who gathered to hear the departing Pentagon chief who’s on a farewell tour. President Barack Obama has said he will nominate Ashton Carter, a former deputy secretary, to replace Hagel, whose relations with White House aides have been strained.
With the official U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan set to end this month, a dwindling number of American troops will focus on training the Afghans over the next two years and conducting counterterrorism operations.
Hagel said the training will allow for an orderly U.S. exit, which Obama wants to see completed by the end of his term, in January 2017, when only about 1,000 American troops would remain.
Military analysts such as Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington have criticized the plan, questioning whether the Afghan military — plagued by corruption and dependent on U.S. intelligence, aviation and logistical support — will be able to stand on its own in two years. They say it’s ill-advised to share a time line for the American departure with Taliban insurgents.
In the first sign that the plan may need revision, Hagel said in Kabul over the weekend that the U.S. will keep as many as 10,800 troops — 1,000 more than planned — for several months into the new year because of delays in elections and security agreements that left NATO allies unable to provide all their pledged troops on time.
Obama also has authorized a continuation of some offensive air and ground operations to support Afghan forces, which Hagel referred to as “limited combat enabler support.”
NATO has pledged to provide 12,900 troops in 2015, including the 9,800 the U.S. had committed, said Gen.l John Campbell, commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, who briefed reporters in Kabul on Saturday.
The U.S. and allies have five bases to train Afghan forces. In addition to the one Hagel visited, there are training bases in Kandahar, Herat, Mazer-e-Sharif and Kabul.
Under the U.S. drawdown, only the Kabul base will still be operating by the end of next year. The consolidation is required because the U.S. will have only 5,500 troops in Afghanistan by the end of 2015, Campbell said.
Hagel said the consolidation is appropriate because a training mission is temporary.
“We’ll be working ourselves out of a job,” Hagel told reporters Sunday after meeting with troops. “That was the whole point of this.”
Peter Mansoor, a retired Army colonel who served as executive officer to Army Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, said in an earlier interview that Obama’s withdrawal timetable in Afghanistan risks repeating the mistake that Mansour said was made in Iraq, when the U.S. pulled out all its troops in 2011 after failing to reach a new security deal with former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
“Any dispassionate observer would recognize the Afghan government is going to need help beyond 2016,” Mansoor said. “This is one of the lessons we should have learned in Iraq in 2011.”
Hagel on Sunday rejected that comparison as misguided.
“We left Iraq under totally different circumstances than we’re transitioning out of Afghanistan over the next two years,” he told reporters. “I see it as a fundamentally different set of dynamics here.”
While the Iraqi government in 2011 refused to sign a security deal that would have allowed for a longer transition, Hagel said Afghan officials agreed to extend the U.S. military presence until 2016 and are fully supportive of the training plan for its forces.
“They helped write the plan,” Hagel said. “They understand it better than anybody.”