JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCORD, Wa. -- At a pivotal time in the country's nine-year, post-9/11 experience, Lt. Gen. Mike Scaparrotti will lead the I Corps headquarters to Afghanistan.

This summer, America's Corps will arrive to man, equip and guide the operational arm of Gen. David H. Petraeus and the Kabul-based NATO International Security Assistance Force.

I Corps headquarters personnel will form approximately 70 percent of ISAF Joint Command, with NATO member nations and U.S. joint partners filling the rest of the 1,000 positions.

The mission will be to protect the Afghan people, while helping build the competency and capacity of the Afghan Security Forces, promote security and establish governance.

"This is an honor for I Corps to be chosen for this mission," Scaparrotti said. "It's a critical mission. It's an important time in Afghanistan. And it's one when we can immediately make a difference by providing oversight and a linkage between strategic and tactical."

Another way to look at it, Scaparrotti said, is that the International ISAF Joint Command is the NATO headquarters that provides day-to-day operational support so that Petraeus and his staff can focus on the strategic challenges of the war-ravaged country and link with tactical elements of the regional commands.

Many in the I Corps headquarters returned in the spring of 2010 from performing the same function for Gen. Raymond Odierno in Baghdad, in its capacity first as Multi-National Corps-Iraq, which subsequently became part of Multi-National Forces-Iraq.

"I'm excited about it," Scaparrotti said. "The corps itself is a battle-tested, trained corps headquarters that has done this in Iraq. We will bring in new people because we're in a turnover period, having just come back from Iraq. We'll have a corps that's trained and ready to do the same thing in Afghanistan."

The commanding general is even more recently battle-tested. Scaparrotti redeployed from Afghanistan only eight months ago as leader of the 82nd Airborne Division. As Combined Joint Task Force 82, the All-American Division was responsible for 14 eastern provinces adjacent to the Pakistani border, with a mission to enhance development, governance and security and to deny terrorists safe haven to launch attacks against the United States and its allies. Scaparrotti worked directly with ISAF, U.S. Forces Afghanistan and the Afghan government to secure the region.

With recent experience comes an understanding of the balance among a mix of nations and agencies, including NATO, the State Department with its Provincial Reconstruction Teams, other foreign missions with civil servants, among the key players.

One of the most important functions of the corps will be to provide a framework conducive to all allies and regional partners performing as a team, Scaparrotti said.

"This will be successful to the extent that the State Department, NATO, the Afghan government and security forces work together toward common ends," he said.

Scaparrotti said he has immersed himself for years in the challenges of the region and stayed current on developments in Afghanistan. He feels confident he can use his time served there to the nation's advantage.

"Afghanistan is a complex problem," Scaparrotti said. "The years of experience that I've got are going to be a great help, because I better understand the complexities. I have a relationship with many of the Afghan leaders. They're all still in (the same) positions or moved up to more demanding positions."

"In that culture, that relationship, the trust that we've built is critical, too. I understand their army, their police, and I have a good understanding of the issues with governance and what we have to do there to help assist in building their ability to govern themselves," he continued.

Recent trends identified by Scaparrotti's continued networking and his careful reading of the president's review published last month make him optimistic about future progress in the region and clear about the direction forward. He said he is anxious to return on his first pre-deployment site survey to see the improvements during the eight months since he left.

"The areas that I think are important are ... we've got to build capacity, both (in) the Afghan Security Forces and we've got to build their ability to govern themselves - secure themselves and govern themselves," he said. "That's how we leave a stable Afghanistan and Pakistan region that will not be a sanctuary for terrorists in the future. It's making progress in the key areas that we've focused on."

"So I think it is going in the right direction. It is fragile, as the report said. And we've got to maintain constant focus on it to keep moving forward," he said.

Scaparrotti included the much maligned Afghan security forces in his assessment of improving conditions. NATO and allied training is showing progress, and the basic nature of the Afghans themselves helps, contrary to popular wisdom.

"They're a tough people," he said. "They're used to adversity. So their soldiers are tough. What we have to build is teamwork and higher-level command and control. That's coming along."

The Army has grown at a faster rate than initial projections, and despite setbacks, the police and border police are also making strides. Developing leadership in those institutions is key to building upon initial successes. He stressed the importance of the border police as interdicting the "crossover" by Taliban and al-Qaida fighters from sanctuary in Pakistan, an area he focused on during his recent deployment there.

The boss's recent experience in the region helped the corps staff draft objectives to use in writing the training plan, an effort that began before the holidays. With only half of the normal year's notice period, there is a lot of work to do. Individual training has already begun, with collective-level tasks scheduled for March-April.

"It will be a challenge. We have sufficient time to be right, but we don't have any excess time," Scaparrotti said. "It's sufficient time to do it, but we're going to have to be very judicious. Between right now and the summer when we deploy, we'll lay out a robust training plan that will include at least two trips of select personnel to (conduct) on-the-ground surveys and help prepare us for the mission itself."

That I Corps headquarters will be deployed should not imply that Scaparrotti and his staff will neglect their traditional commitments, he said. Non-deploying subordinate units will carry on business almost as usual with Asian and Pacific Rim partners. About 100 servicemembers will deploy to Japan this month for the annual Yama Sakura command post exercise, a reduction from normal numbers but still strong participation. Other training exercises will continue in the same way, slightly reduced in scope.

"I've been in contact with the leaders in the Pacific to explain our mission and the change that will make when the corps is deployed, but I intend to call them just to maintain the corps' relationship with the leaders in the Pacific," Scaparrotti said. "They understand the mission that we've got and how important it is as well."

Scaparrotti said he was proud to take part and extend the proud traditions of I Corps, recently augmented in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"This is a great corps in history and legacy," he said, "most recently in Iraq, in serving our country at an operational level. It's going to be very difficult, (but) we can succeed. The material is there and the capability is there."