Last week, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey visited the Puget Sound and described the “enduring presence” he sees for American forces in Afghanistan after the planned 2014 drawdown of most Western troops.
Does that mean Joint Base Lewis-McChord should expect major deployments to Afghanistan for years to come?
It does not seem likely based on what we’ve been hearing recently from commanders at the base.
I Corps Commander Lt. Gen. Robert Brown and 7th Infantry Division Commander Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza each stressed the likelihood for missions in the Pacific in the next few years in recent remarks to troops.
Yesterday, Lanza said he’s preparing for the homecomings of two Lewis-McChord Stryker brigades between December and March. Another Stryker brigade expects to leave soon.
Aside from those deployments, Lanza does not foresee major missions in Afghanistan – the kinds that draw on thousands of troops at once – after the return of Lewis-McChord’s last Stryker brigade from the war some time next summer.
“Beyond that, it’s uncertain,” he said.
So what does an “enduring presence” in Afghanistan mean for Lewis-McChord?
U.S. leaders envision that presence as 10,000 to 15,000 troops, mostly special operators and support units. Their mission would center on preventing Afghanistan from again becoming a safe haven for international terrorists and keeping their eyes on threats that keep U.S. leaders up at night – loose nuclear weapons in Pakistan or other challenges in the neighborhood (Iran).
At Lewis-McChord, that sounds like the kind of work most often carried out by the units under Army Special Operations Command: the 1st Special Forces Group, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, and 4th Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
It also likely entails support missions from the crews in the 62nd Airlift Wing at McChord Air Field. They’ve been keeping troops supplied with trips to Afghanistan’s major air bases and through cargo drops throughout the war.
Other special support services that could be tapped include crews from Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Explosive Ordnance Battalion, 555th Engineer Brigade, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade and the logistics experts in the 593rd Sustainment Brigade.
I’m drawing these inferences from published reports predicting what the Pentagon and White House might want of Afghanistan in years ahead, such as David Sanger’s Confront and Conceal and Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America.
An enduring presence has another important role in Afghanistan, according to Lewis-McChord leaders, and that’s assuring the country’s government that we will not abandon it. Former I Corps commander Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti and current I Corps Command Sgt. Maj. John Troxell stressed the value of that commitment during our interviews with them earlier this year in Kabul and at Lewis-McChord.
“We still have important things to get done,” Scaparrotti said in June when he returned from his assignment in Afghanistan as the war’s No. 2 commander.
Of course, you have to look far and wide to find an elected official making that case to voters. And that’s why all of these predictions are subject to change.
Coming up: Yesterday I interviewed the commander of the next Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade deploying to Afghanistan. Look for that discussion with Col. Mike Getchell of the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division over the next couple days. He says the 4th Brigade will have an “advise and assist” mission that focuses on supporting Afghan forces as they execute their own priorities against insurgents.
Also, Hal Bernton of The Seattle Times recently returned from an embed with Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division in Kandahar Province. His stories should be from the field should be coming out soon, too.