In an early sign that the Pentagon plans to keep a U.S. military presence in southern Afghanistan after this year, the Army is sending the 7th Infantry Division headquarters from Joint Base Lewis-McChord on a yearlong deployment to Kandahar province this spring.
The deployment will follow Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s visit to Kandahar last week, during which he acknowledged in a meeting with soldiers that the Obama administration was reconsidering the pace of its planned withdrawal of the remaining 10,000 U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan.
The deployment will be small in numbers; JBLM is sending fewer than 100 soldiers from the division. But it’s significant because it shows that the U.S. military wants to retain a presence in Afghanistan’s Pashtun heartland while continuing to reduce its footprint in the 14-year-old war.
The division’s overseas assignment has been an open secret for months at JBLM. The Pentagon in December announced it was adding staff to the headquarters to help it reach a deployable strength.
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This month, the Army sent the division command team to the Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana. The Army has published photos from the exercise to its own social media accounts.
And, this week, the Army set up an interview with The News Tribune to discuss the deployment. Late Tuesday, just before the interview, the Army rescinded the offer to speak with a division deputy commander when Army officials in Washington, D.C., determined they had not given proper notification about the mission to Congress.
Several senior-ranking officers in the division and its higher headquarters, I Corps, have discussed the deployment informally with The News Tribune in recent weeks. It is still going forward, officials said Tuesday.
The tour will be the 7th Infantry Division’s first to Iraq or Afghanistan. The Army activated the headquarters at JBLM in 2012 and designated it as a nondeployable unit, tasking it with staying home to supervise the leadership and training of combat units that swelled at JBLM during the past two wars.
The division has standardized training and operating procedures for the six brigades and 15,000 soldiers who fall under its command. The headquarters was assigned 250 positions, about one-third the size of a traditional deployable command.
It gained about 80 soldiers to prepare for the upcoming deployment, the Army said in December without announcing a destination.
The Army’s decision to make this change reflects a strain on its headquarters as it carries out a fast post-Iraq War drawdown. In the past year, it has deployed division commands to Afghanistan, Iraq and Liberia. It also has a division stationed in South Korea and has been preparing for more operations in Europe.
The JBLM division is expected to be based at Kandahar Air Field, the sprawling base outside of Afghanistan’s second-largest city that was once home to more than 26,000 U.S. and NATO military personnel. Today, about 2,000 U.S. military service members are stationed there, according to press reports from Carter’s visit last week.
A headquarters plans missions and works with coalition partners behind the scenes; its work is typically not as dangerous as the infantry patrols, special operations missions, and other duties that JBLM troops have carried out in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Kandahar was one of the main battlegrounds of the Afghanistan War when President Barack Obama escalated the U.S. military presence in the country six years ago.
JBLM’s 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division was among the first Army units to participate in the Afghanistan surge. On its Kandahar tour in 2009, it suffered some of the highest casualties of the war as it hit Taliban strongholds.
Four years later, another JBLM Stryker brigade had a much different experience. By 2013, some of the most hostile districts in the province had turned on the Taliban, creating momentum that allowed JBLM soldiers from the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division to come home early.
“We’ve given so much to create the conditions here that you now see in front of you where the Afghan security forces stand a real shot at making success stick. But it’s still not done, and it won’t be done without what you are accomplishing here in Kandahar,” Carter told soldiers Sunday during his visit.
The U.S. and Afghan governments in September signed a bilateral security agreement that allows U.S. forces to operate out of several forward bases, including Kandahar Air Field.
Since then, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has openly asked the Obama administration to reconsider its plan to withdraw all U.S. forces by 2016.
Gen. John Campbell, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee this month that he supported changes to the withdrawal timeline.