30 April 2015, NYT: Taliban Gains Pull U.S. Units Back Into Fight in Afghanistan
13 February 2015, NYT: U.S. Is Escalating a Secretive War in Afghanistan
SEPT. 10, 2015
Afghans See American General as Crucial to Country's Defense
By ROD NORDLAND and MUJIB MASHAL
KABUL, Afghanistan -- Gen. John F. Campbell holds several titles: top NATO commander in Afghanistan, commander of the Resolute Support Mission coalition, commander of United States Forces-Afghanistan.
Lately, Afghans are inclined to describe the American commander by yet another: minister of defense of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
It is a recognition not only that there is no confirmed nominee for the post, but also of what Afghan officials say is General Campbell's strong influence within the highest levels of the Afghan government.
No other American commander in recent years has had as much power within the Afghan military establishment and top government echelons, according to interviews with senior Afghan and Western officials, and it is a role that President Ashraf Ghani has welcomed and encouraged.
But at a time when Afghan forces and officials are supposed to be running the war, and eight months after the official end of the NATO combat mission in Afghanistan, General Campbell's prominent role is also being widely taken as a sign that the fight against the Taliban is not going well.
"Everyone knows who the minister of defense is in Afghanistan now, and it is not Masoom Stanekzai," said one Western diplomat, naming the Afghan official whose nomination as defense minister was rejected by the Parliament but who was kept on as the acting minister. "The American combat role may be over, but you still have an American general running the war."
Afghan officials who have worked closely with General Campbell, and who generally approve of his authority, say it has resulted from a mixture of the general's take-charge personality and the dire situation that Afghanistan's military leaders have found themselves in.
Casualties among Afghan troops  have increased by 50 percent in the first six months of this year, compared with the same period in 2014 -- and 2014 was already a huge increase  over 2013. Taliban insurgents have opened new fronts  in northern Afghanistan, and at times have been on the verge of overrunning the northern city of Kunduz. And the Afghan military has struggled to meet its recruitment goals, facing the prospect that its security forces may actually shrink in size this year.
Worst has been the recent situation in the southern province of Helmand, where on Aug. 26 the strategic district of Musa Qala fell to Taliban insurgents, who are on the verge of carving out a major territorial bastion in the area.
Afghan officials said that General Campbell's direction had taken on further importance as the Americans greatly increased airstrikes to help support Afghan forces in crisis spots.
"He is bossy and he doesn't even try to hide it," said one Afghan security official of General Campbell.
Still, like a half-dozen other such officials interviewed, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal relations, the security official was generally in favor of General Campbell's expanded role in the war.
That role, some of the officials say, has extended to taking part in day-to-day Afghan military decisions. And they say it has at times even included reprimanding senior Afghan military officers and recommending transfers or dismissals to Mr. Ghani and to his partner in the unity government, Abdullah Abdullah.
A request for an interview with General Campbell was rejected. But his aides took issue with the characterization of General Campbell as effectively the minister of defense, and running the war.
"To suggest that a coalition leader is de facto minister is disrespectful to both the Afghan government and the Afghan people," said Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, the spokesman for the American military in Kabul. "Minister Stanekzai has proven himself capable of leading the Ministry of Defense."
Both Afghan and American officials agree, however, that Mr. Ghani's support for General Campbell has been a profound change.
Under former President Hamid Karzai's government, relations with the Americans reached such a low point that American generals were often not even invited to the country's weekly National Security Council meetings, even at the peak point with 140,000 NATO troops in the country. There are just 17,000 now.
"The relationship with the Americans was just awful," said one senior Afghan official, who like others would speak about internal relations only on the condition of anonymity. "They still came to meetings once or twice a week, but only to complain. There was little presence of the Americans in the presidential palace."
Mr. Ghani was quick to encourage the expanded American role at the top, at least in part because he has advocated a long-term American presence, and even an expanded one.
"It is not about Campbell's personality, it is about the ground we have given him," the senior Afghan official said. "President Ghani sees this war as a joint effort with the Americans. To keep them interested in Afghanistan, despite the other priorities, he thinks he needs to make Campbell feel welcomed."
From the beginning of the post-combat mission, Mr. Ghani made sure that General Campbell and his top officers were welcomed at all National Security Council meetings and became regular features in the palace's coordination center, where top officials convene to run their war effort daily.
At first, television broadcasts of the coordination center showed nearly as many Americans present as Afghans. General Campbell can be seen in one official meeting sitting one seat away from Mr. Ghani, while senior security officials are much farther away -- a point not lost on protocol-conscious Afghans.
After some grumbling from Afghans about the way that looked, General Campbell took to video conferencing more than personally visiting such televised events. "In the beginning of 2015, half of the table at the palace coordination center would be foreigners," another senior Afghan official said. "We thought, 'What perception does that give the people?' Now Campbell is still involved in all the meetings, but usually VTCs from his office." A VTC is a video teleconference.
In recent weeks, General Campbell has presided over one of the biggest American military interventions in a year full of them: the heavy aerial bombardment of Musa Qala after the Taliban took it from Afghan forces.
Officials and witnesses in Musa Qala said that some of the bombs dropped there were so large they obliterated entire buildings. "It was a big building with 30 rooms, which is completely vanished from the earth, and buried everyone in it," said Abdul Hai Akhundzada, a member of Parliament from Helmand Province, describing a former government building that the Taliban had been using as lodging. He described that unusually heavy bombing as having taken place on Aug. 29.
Col. Brian Tribus, a spokesman for the American military, said Tuesday that since Aug. 22, 24 American airstrikes had been carried out against Musa Qala. Despite the heavy bombing campaign, though, most of the district center remains under Taliban control.
Western and Afghan officials have described an aggressive pattern of American strikes  under General Campbell that has at times seemed to outstrip the terms set in the security agreement between the United States and Afghanistan. The heavy airstrikes at Musa Qala, though clearly taking place in an urgent environment, are raising those kinds of questions again.
By agreement, there are two main exceptions to the no-combat rule for American troops: counterterrorism operations,  meant to stop international terrorists like Al Qaeda, and force protection, meant to quell threats to American forces.
There are only Taliban insurgents in Musa Qala, however, and the only American troops in the vicinity  are American Air Force Special Tactics Squadron soldiers, who are directing the airstrikes from ground positions nearby, according to the United States military.
The agreement between the American military and the Afghan government also allows for American forces "to respond to threats to Afghanistan's security" in urgent situations. But the United States military has not invoked that clause, at least not publicly, concerning Musa Qala.
Still, Afghan commanders are saying that the help is warranted and appreciated.
"He has had a more open hand, yes, and he has also had good intentions for providing support to the Afghan forces where they need it," said Gen. Mirza Mohammad Yarmand, the former deputy minister of interior. He insisted that Afghans are the ones making the decisions, but they are informed by the technical abilities the Americans can bring to bear. But so far, much of that support has been reactive, he said.
"Right now it is reactional, ad hoc: a district comes under attack, the Afghan forces call and say, 'Send me a plane and bombard the place,'" General Yarmand said. "Our struggle against terrorism will only be effective if we have good operational coordination with the Americans -- not for them to make decisions, but to be aware of our problems."
Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan, and Joseph Goldstein from Kabul.