By Lt. Col. Rob Manning, Under SecArmy Public AffairsJune 4, 2013
WASHINGTON (June 4, 2013) -- As two of the Army's most senior leaders address fiscal challenges and the complexities of combat operations in Afghanistan, they remain firmly committed to the Army's number one fiscal priority, supporting the Warfighter.
With the "spring fighting season" in Afghanistan ongoing, Under Secretary of the Army Joseph Westphal, Ph.D., and Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. John Campbell traveled from Washington, May 27, 2013, to observe firsthand the status of ongoing retrograde operations in Afghanistan, gain insight into the readiness of the Afghan National Security Forces, and discuss current issues that impact the health of the force with leaders, Soldiers and the civilian workforce.
"It was important to General Campbell and I that we review the process of retrograde operations and ensure that we have visibility so that we can fully support these commanders [and Soldiers] on the ground here in Afghanistan," said Westphal.
Upon arriving in Kabul, Afghanistan, the two senior leaders met with several key leaders, including the commander of the International Security and Assistance Force, Gen. Joseph Dunford, to gain greater situational awareness on the status of current operations and begin to determine how they can best support this critical mission.
"The number one [fiscal] priority for our Army is to support the mission here in Afghanistan and ensure our Soldiers have what they need to perform this mission," Campbell said as he addressed a group of leaders and Soldiers.
THE MISSION REMAINS ON TRACK
While Westphal and Campbell received mission briefs and intelligence updates by high ranking commanders, one major point was very clear to them, Afghan National Security Forces, or ANSF, are now in the lead for the majority of combat operations throughout the country and U.S. forces are on track for the 2014 withdrawal of troops.
"The Afghan forces are ready, and our best measure of that comes from our Soldiers. The majority of Afghans are now in the lead and they are doing an outstanding job. As we reduce our force here we are seeing significant, and rapid, progress in many areas in Afghanistan," Westphal commented.
President Barack Obama announced during his State of the Union speech earlier this year that the majority of U.S. troops would withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The stated goal is to prepare Afghanistan's army and police to handle the Taliban insurgency independently, with an undetermined NATO "residual force" to provide assistance in specific areas.
The size and scope of the post-2014 military force in Afghanistan is being discussed during a NATO defense ministerial meeting in Brussels, Belgium, this week.
A DAUNTING TASK
In addition to training the Afghan forces, a major component of the withdrawal of U.S. forces is the retrograde, the consolidation or withdrawal, of combat equipment. As the pace of the drawdown from Afghanistan accelerates, the U.S. Army is faced with the daunting task of accounting for and consolidating tons of equipment and vehicles from outlying forward operating bases, while simultaneously assisting the Afghan forces with combat operations and maintaining security.
"Retrograde operations are very much on schedule. We are consolidating all of our equipment and materiel from all forward operating bases. This is a huge undertaking and our Soldiers are doing a phenomenal job," Westphal remarked.
As the two senior leaders conducted battlefield circulation in the eastern and southern portions of Afghanistan, they observed firsthand the complexities and challenges of retrograde operations.
Maj. Gen. James M. Richardson, deputy commanding general-Joint Operational Corps Headquarters-Afghanistan, accompanied the Army's under secretary and vice chief as they toured various equipment retrograde yards, and bases marked for closure or transition to the ANSF, in southern Afghanistan.
Richardson is one of the original architects of the retrograde mission and underscored his command's commitment to streamlining the requirements for subordinate units turning-in the myriad of combat equipment. He said that one of his primary missions is to ensure that Soldiers remain focused on transitioning with the Afghan forces and support combat operations.
"The most important thing in war is how it ends and Afghanistan is now on the cusp of transition," said Richardson, regarding the importance of his considerable responsibilities.
Despite all of the challenges they witnessed, Westphal and Campbell are confident the Army can achieve all transition requirements.
"One of the things our Army has effectively done over our nearly 238 year history is effectively adapt to change. We'll continue to do that as we transition out of combat operations [here] in Afghanistan," according to Westphal.
"I'm confident in the Army's role in support of equipment retrograde while concurrently conducting security force assistance and combat operations," Campbell stated during recent congressional testimony.
At each location, the leaders maximized their opportunity to engage with Soldiers and civilians to reiterate the Army's commitment to their well-being and stress adherence to the Army's core values.
Both Westphal and Campbell made a point to conduct closed door sensing sessions with male and female Soldiers. Discussions during the sessions centered on health of the forces issues, specifically addressing the Army's steadfast efforts to eliminate suicide, sexual assault, and sexual harassment within the ranks.
"Leadership makes a difference. We treat sexual assaults as an Army family issue and we are committed to changing our culture," said Campbell.
Each session provided the Soldiers with a forum to share their experiences regarding these intolerable issues, which enabled the two senior leaders to receive the candid feedback they were seeking from the field.
"We will combat this horrific set of events. This is completely unacceptable and there is zero tolerance for this in our Army. We are fully committed to the eradication of this problem and those individuals that don't abide by the ethics and the integrity of our Army, and nation, will be held accountable," Westphal said following one of the sensing sessions.
LEADERSHIP IN ACTION
In what will likely be one of the last fighting seasons for American troops in the over decade-long conflict in Afghanistan, Westphal and Campbell repeatedly told leaders, Soldiers and civilians that their current contributions will have a profound and lasting impact on Afghanistan's ability to develop and sustain itself well beyond 2014.
"I continue to be impressed with the tremendous sophistication of our Soldiers and their great commitment and dedication," said Westphal. "We're going to make sure we support these Soldiers and give them the appropriate resources they need to complete to the mission."
As the Army's top leadership concluded their visit to Afghanistan they acknowledged the extraordinary resiliency of our force and vowed to ensure that the mission in Afghanistan continues to be the Army's number one priority, despite fiscal challenges.
"Thanks for what you do every day for our Army and our nation. Take care of each of other and stay connected with your families. What you are doing is making a difference for the Afghan people and Afghan forces," Campbell said as he addressed a group of Soldiers in southern Afghanistan.
In addition to meeting with deployed Soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan, Westphal and Campbell visited U.S. Army commands in Italy and Germany. The pair said that they'll take the lessons they learned from each visit back to Washington to share with Army senior leaders, better prioritize resources, and support mission requirements.