FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (AP) — The commander of one of Fort Campbell's most heavily deployed brigades said Friday he has seen progress in the capability of Afghan security forces as the brigade starts its sixth deployment.
Col. R.J. Lillibridge, the commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, briefed reporters by telephone from the brigade's area of operations in southeastern Afghanistan, an area that the brigade knows well after four deployments to Afghanistan since 2001. The brigade was the first Army combat brigade to deploy to Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and also deployed twice to Iraq.
The brigade is working in three key provinces — Khost, Paktia and Paktika — located south of Kabul and along the Pakistan border. They are partners with the Afghan National Army's 1st Brigade, 203rd Corps, as well as Afghan National Police and Afghan Border Police.
About 45 days into their 9-month deployment, Lillibridge said the coming transition to significantly reduce the size of the American forces in Afghanistan is going better than he anticipated.
"Even though we have been here operating with the Afghans for a decade now, they know that very shortly their responsibility for their country is going to be solely on their own," he said.
He said about a quarter to a third of the security operations are being conducted by Afghans alone, and the rest are with assistance from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team.
"Something different than what we had back in 2010 is that we don't conduct any unilateral operations," Lillibridge said. "Everything that we do is partnered with the Afghan Army or the police or the border police."
During their last deployment, the brigade was leading most of the security operations, so the U.S. forces were developing their own plans based on intelligence they gathered and then told the Afghan security forces what they were going to do. But now he sees the Afghan soldiers and police taking over the leadership role.
"They know who the bad people are or where they live and operate," Lillibridge said. "The Afghans are driving those operations and we are providing support for them."
He said the Afghan people aren't expressing fears or concerns with him about what could happen to the country after US forces draw down.
"A lot of them are ready to assume the responsibility for their country, for their province and their district," he said.
Generally insurgent attacks slow down in the winter months in remote parts of Afghanistan in the mountainous regions, but Lillibridge said that the snow and cold weather won't prevent enemy activity in Khost province, which borders Pakistan's tribal regions.
"The temperature is much milder in Khost than it is in the other two provinces, so generally the enemy will try to fight us in Khost through the winter, so we are prepared for that," he said.
He noted that the Afghanistan draw-down is similar to what US forces did in Iraq after the surge there, so the brigade has experience with offering a support role to another Army, rather than leading operations. They have small assistance teams made up of officers and noncommissioned officers who are embedded inside Afghan units.
"Integrating the SFATs (security force assistance teams) has had a significant impact on making our partnership even better, even better than what I saw in Iraq in 2007," he said.