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With Limited U.S. Troops, Afghan Forces Take The Brunt In Fight Against Taliban

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is the first Memorial Day since the U.S. military ended combat missions in Afghanistan. Over 2,200 U.S. servicemen and women were killed during the 14-year war against the Taliban. Now a coalition force of just 12,000 mostly-American troops remain. They are there to train and advise Afghan forces. And for more, we reached Gen. John Campbell in Kabul. He's the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Gen. Campbell, welcome to the program.

GENERAL JOHN CAMPBELL: Thanks, Renee. I appreciate it.

MONTAGNE: Last year, one of your colleagues, Lt. Gen. Joe Anderson, said that the rate of casualties - with nearly 9,000 Afghan forces dying over two years - he said that was unsustainable. This year, the casualty rate for Afghan forces has gone even higher in the first months of this year. What is your take on how vulnerable Afghanistan security forces are?

CAMPBELL: Well, that's a great question, and we are concerned as always, when we take a look at casualty rates. You know, that includes both killed and wounded. The Afghans are in the league totally on their own. We don't have, you know, 50,000, 120,000 coalition forces out there, so they're taking the brunt of this fight. Their operational tempo, that number of operations they're doing is quite more than they did last year, so they're engaged a lot more. Then again, they don't have coalition forces. They don't have the coalition air support they've had.

Casualties, a lot of them as well are, unfortunately, on the Afghan local police, which are police that are designed to guard the villages, but they're really on the outskirts and the far places in Afghanistan. And they don't have the same type of equipment, the same type of training. And the Taliban and the insurgents see them really as soft targets, so they go after them. And so there's things we can do and help the Afghans by working on a medical evacuation, by training their combat medics.

But as far as the term unsustainable, you know, this is an all-volunteer force, and the Afghans continue to have no issues with recruiting men and women that want to serve their country here in Afghanistan for both the police and the army. Of course, you want to continue to work the casualty rates to get it down, but also, in context, the enemy casualties for this year are probably 150 percent higher than they were last year. So, you know, I think you've got to take it into context as you take a look at casualties.

MONTAGNE: What would it take for the U.S. and NATO to offer some support, the kind of support that was there up until recently - air support - and also, medevac support? One of the reasons, as I understand it, Afghan forces are dying is, unlike the Americans, they are not getting the kind of medical care that would keep them alive.

CAMPBELL: Their CASEVAC, their medevac is - actually gets much, much better. They have an air force now that has Mi-17 helicopters. They have a lot of fixed-wing aircraft. They've been doing a lot of their own medevac with that, and they continue to train their battlefield medics out there. So they are getting much, much better. Again, a lot that are out in the outskirts, even if you had CASEVAC or medevac, may not get them to a proper hospital in time because of the distances involved.

Back in 2012, the average time to get an Afghan from the location of where they are wounded to one of their medical facilities was in the neighborhood of 12 to 24 hours. Today, that's only four hours, so it continues to improve. I think a lot of it is leadership and having the right leadership and hold them accountable to enforce discipline within the Afghan security forces. And we'll continue to work that very hard.

MONTAGNE: Do they have the right leadership?

CAMPBELL: Well, I'll tell you, it continues to get better. I think they have a lot of young leaders that they've got to move up into the ranks. President Ghani announced a new minister of defense. And so we've been waiting a long time. That's kind of stagnated many of the decisions by not having the senior leadership of the Ministry of Defense. But, you know, there's a lot of folks that have been around for a long time that corruption has been built in. It's going to take time to weed out. President Ghani has retired 60-plus general officers since he's been the president. President Karzai didn't do any of that. So, you know, we're starting to see some changes. And I do tell President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah, the chief executive, that with the right leadership, hold them accountable, that's going to take care of 70 percent of the issues that they have.

MONTAGNE: On a different aspect of this, we understand that - that ISIS is making some inroads in Afghanistan. What can you tell us about that?

CAMPBELL: Yeah. ISIS - or they call it Daesh over here in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And quite frankly, you know, three months ago, I would've told you it was a nascent capability, had a - maybe a month-and-a-half ago, I changed that to really an emergent capability. It will continue to grow, I think. The recruiting continues to happen. There's some money passing hands, but we haven't seen it at a level that's really formalized into an operational force.

So let's say that you may have a hundred fighters in Kandahar. And today, they raised the white flag of the Taliban. And tomorrow, they've rebranded and are raising the ISIS flag, and they've pledged allegiance to ISIS or Daesh. So it's not more people coming in the country. It's many of the folks here probably rebranding because they're disillusioned with the Taliban. We have not seen it operationalized, but we're going to continue to look at that over the summer here.

MONTAGNE: When ISIS was first being reported as possibly coming into, especially in the South - that's where it first was seen - there were cynics who said it was very convenient to wave the flag of ISIS as a way of keeping NATO and American troops there. That is to say, it was - it might be a political ploy to suggest that ISIS had come into Afghanistan in order to keep the support flowing from the West.

CAMPBELL: Well, I mean, I've heard a lot of the Afghan leadership talk about ISIS. You know, they're not going to support it. They don't believe the Afghan people will support it. The philosophy and what ISIS is trying to do is totally against the Afghan culture, so - but I think there are some senior leaders that talk about ISIS in potentially keeping a focus here in Afghanistan and make sure that the international community doesn't forget.

But I really do think what President Ghani's trying to do is make sure all the countries in this area here understand that, you know, this is a global threat. You know, he's attacking a - we've got to fight this together. I don't see it right now having the ability to gain the foothold like you're seeing in Iraq and Syria. The Afghan security forces will continue to take a hard, hard look at it. And quite frankly, what we're seeing now is the Taliban and ISIS fighting each other in many places. In fact, we're getting reports in Nangarhar that it's been happening here the last week. And so that's a good thing.

MONTAGNE: Gen. John Campbell spoke to us from Kabul. Thank you very much.

CAMPBELL: Thanks very much, Renee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Gen. John Campbell is commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.