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Gen. Votel interview: 'A bit of a stalemate' in Afghanistan, but a chance to optimize gains there

Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, sat for an interview with the Tampa Bay Times last month in his office at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, sat for an interview with the Tampa Bay Times last month in his office at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Aug. 22, 2017

In developing the plan for the war in Afghanistan that he announced Monday night, President Donald Trump consulted with advisers including his military leaders through their chain of command.

One man providing advice was the regional military leader whose command includes Afghanistan — Army Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

COMPLETE VOTEL INTERVIEW: CentCom commander steels for next chapter in world's most dangerous region

Votel spoke about the outlook for Afghanistan during a wide-ranging interview with the Tampa Bay Times on July 16. Here are excerpts from the discussion.

Let's shift to Afghanistan, where there are still nearly 9,000 U.S. troops with plans to send more. Can the Afghans handle the fight?

What you seen over last couple of years is that the Afghan security forces are in the lead. They have been able to deal with the situations they are dealing with (like) attempts by the Taliban to come in and take over major urban areas. We've seen the Afghans be able to get after that and to take areas back and to prevent some of that. Where they've tried to expand into areas that are of importance to the Afghan government, around the capital — to the north, on the south, out in the east and in some areas they've been able to do some operations to take that — they've had, I think some success against the ISIS elements that exist in Afghanistan so they've done that. The Afghans have taken a lot of casualties. They've paid a very, very heavy price for that and they are engaged every day. And so that toll that takes over time is significant and it's resulted in a situation where there is a bit of a stalemate here and so what we have to look at is how we help them move forward over that.

Can you talk about your recommendation to the president for new troop levels in Afghanistan and what do you want those troops to do?

I won't talk about what my specific military advice was up the chain of command that is still under consideration, so it is really inappropriate for me to talk about my specific (recommendations). I am satisfied that both (Army) Gen. (John) Nicholson (commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan) and I have had our ability to have input into the process and I am confident that the chain of command will take that on board and make some decisions here in terms of that. But that's still underway here right now.

RELATED: Afghanistan reaction mixed on Trump's tough-talking speech

Can you talk about what the additional troops should do?

I think what we have to do is look at how we optimize the successes that the Afghan security forces have achieved, so I think one of the bright spots that you see in the Afghan security forces is their special operations capability. I think we need to look at how do we enable that more in the future. They've been very good. They've been the principle response force They've been a key element here to the fight as we've moved forward. So how do we double down on that aspect? Another aspect of that has been the budding Afghan air force. It's not very big. It's not as capable as it needs to be. But it has demonstrated some capability. On one of my most recent visits was down to the south part of the country, I was able to talk among the corps commander and what he was telling me about was how some of the aircraft that we have been able to get to them, the A-29s, have been very, very successful at doing close air support. Afghan air force supporting Afghan forces. This is good. We need to double down on that. The Afghans are in the process of moving their border control forces from ministry of the interior over to the ministry of defense. That's a good move. That's a very positive move. We need to look at how we can support that. The Afghan police have certainly had challenges and so we have to look at how we help them perform more of their appropriate police functions in holding area.

The Taliban has made significant gains. How confident are you that the Afghans can defend themselves?

I think I am confident, with our sustained assistance, I think they can. I think a very good factor here has been President (Ashraf) Ghani, and he does have a long-term vision. He's laid out a four-year approach here for how he kind of sees things he's done for the coalition and I think the response from the NATO partner and others has been very, very good in terms of that. As I think I've commented to you, I'm a soldier who went to Afghanistan in as early as October of 2001. I was in the first wave. I went there, so I want to be hopeful for Afghanistan. I want to see them succeed. But it's going to take something — we're turning a big ship here and there are challenges. There are challenges of corruption, there are challenges with bad governments, challenges of disenfranchisement, all kinds of things that have to be addressed. And we have to stay focused on all of those things. It isn't just about fire power, and advisors and things like that. It's addressing all of these other things and making this a professional force and doing things we talked about with (non-commissioned officers) here. It really is about a very comprehensive approach. It is going to take time and we have to be able to sustain that over time. We'll be able to mitigate the troop levels and other things based on the situation and stuff like that. I'm confident that we can make decisions on that, but what's important is the sustained support.

Do you see sustained support in the form of continued U.S. troop presence in both Afghanistan and Iraq and for how long?

I think as long as it takes. But again, these enter into policy decisions so I don't want to get out ahead of the policy makers. But from my perspective, as a military man and CentCom commander, I think when we provide assistance we have to be prepared to sustain that. We can't just come in and do something and leave. You know we did that in Afghanistan in the past and we saw what happened as a result of that. We did that in Iraq and we saw what happened as a result of that. So I think we have to be cognizant of paying attention to the lessons of the past here and trying not to repeat those things.

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Anything else you want to add?

I think in the wake of a great success like Mosul here, the thing I want the people of Tampa and the American people to recognize is that we are very, very proud of our partners in Iraq and all the coalition partners. They should continue to be proud of how our country is being represented. They should be very, very proud of the men and women we have out there, doing our nation's bidding. I certainly am.

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com. Follow @haltman.