Two Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker brigades are fighting in the main battleground of southern Afghanistan this summer, the war’s outgoing deputy commander said in an interview Tuesday.
About 7,500 Lewis-McChord soldiers are centered on hostile territory between Kandahar and Helmand provinces. It’s considered the birthplace of the Taliban, and insurgents are throwing all they can at that territory to tip the balance against Afghan government and NATO forces.
“We don’t have a hold yet” on the Kandahar districts of Maiwand and Panjwai where the Lewis-McChord brigades are mostly stationed, Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti said.
He spoke to reporters before a ceremony marking the end of his deployment to Afghanistan with Lewis-McChord’s I Corps. He led the war’s day-to-day operations as the No. 2 NATO commander in Afghanistan.
Over the past year, Scaparrotti said, Afghan security forces matured and took on more responsibility as NATO prepared to scale down its footprint in the war. He said trends are moving in the right direction for the U.S. to complete its planned withdrawal of combat forces by 2014.
Those gains are creating opportunities for economic development and stability in a country that has seen three decades of violence, Scaparrotti said.
“We have the momentum and the resources. We have the resolve to succeed,” he said at his I Corps ceremony. But challenges remain, particularly in the east along the Pakistan border and in the Taliban home of Kandahar.
The danger of those battlegrounds resonated later Tuesday when Lewis-McChord held a memorial for three local soldiers who were killed over the past month in Maiwand and a neighboring district in Kandahar called Khakrez. Fifteen Lewis-McChord soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan this year, up from nine in 2011.
The Lewis-McChord Stryker soldiers are in for a tough fight this year because they’re stationed in the last significant strongholds for the Taliban in Kandahar.
Three years ago, the last time Lewis-McChord sent a Stryker brigade to Afghanistan, the Army focused on Kandahar’s Arghandab Valley. Scaparrotti said that region now is under NATO and Afghan control.
I Corps Command Sgt. Maj. John Troxell said the remaining Taliban refuges of Maiwand and Panjwai are of particular importance to insurgents because they include the hometown of ousted Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.
“If they lose that area, they fear the entire Taliban movement will fail, so they’re sending a lot of fighters in there,” Troxell said.
Scaparrotti described himself as “cautiously optimistic” about Afghanistan’s future. In years ahead, Afghanistan will have to develop a better system to supply its armed forces in remote and rugged terrain. He said Afghanistan also will have to be able to manage its border with Pakistan, which provides safe havens for insurgents.
He said President Barack Obama sent an important message to Afghanistan this spring when he signed a long-term strategic partnership that will provide U.S. resources and advisers for years to come. That support will provide room for a stable government to grow that would prevent the country from becoming a sanctuary for terrorists, the general said.
“The (Afghan) people, they are survivors of 30 years of warfare. They needed that visible support,” Scaparrotti said.
His remarks represented one of his last public appearances as the senior Army officer at Lewis-McChord. Maj. Gen. Robert Brown is expected to take command of the I Corps next week and Scaparrotti is due to report to Washington, D.C., for his new post as the director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Troxell will stay at Lewis-McChord as the base’s senior Army noncommissioned firstname.lastname@example.org