CentCom commander's videoconference reveals how new drones help turn tide in Afghanistan

Army Gen. Joseph Votel, head of Tampa-based U.S. Central Command, listens as Army Gen. John Nicholson, new commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, discusses progress in efforts to stabilize the country during a roundtable at Nicholson's headquarters in Kabul. [Howard Altman   |   Times]
Army Gen. Joseph Votel, head of Tampa-based U.S. Central Command, listens as Army Gen. John Nicholson, new commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, discusses progress in efforts to stabilize the country during a roundtable at Nicholson's headquarters in Kabul. [Howard Altman | Times]
Published July 11, 2016

KABUL, Afghanistan — News last week that the United States will keep more troops in Afghanistan longer than planned reiterates the challenge of stabilizing the war-torn country 15 years after America's first involvement here.

But a tour under way by the Tampa-based general whose command guides U.S. efforts in Afghanistan reveals that technology is helping to turn the tide in one corner of the battle: Drone airplanes promise to give Afghan forces and their allies the upper hand in the desert province of Helmand.

It's an effort launched with the help of an Air Force officer from Tampa, a former teacher at St. Mary's Episcopal Day School, who trained the Afghan National Army in using the nonlethal Scan Eagle drones to find the enemy both day and night.

The success of the program emerged as a highlight of a video teleconference held Saturday in Kabul for Army Gen. Joseph Votel, who heads U.S. Central Command, based at MacDill Air Force Base. Votel is touring parts of the 20-nation CentCom region.

The 40-pound Scan Eagle, with a 10-foot wingspan and a relatively quiet engine, can fly as long as 20 hours, giving Afghans a clear view of the battlefield before they send in troops to fight the Taliban and other insurgents. It's a key advantage for an army of 190,000 that last year saw 5,000 killed and 14,000 wounded.

Before the drones were deployed three months ago in Helmand, the largest of Afghanistan's 34 provinces and one of world's top opium producers, the local Afghan army commander relied on cellphone communications to direct his troops.

"Glad to hear they are putting it to good use in Helmand," Maj. Erin Tedesco of Tampa said in e-mail this weekend to the Tampa Bay Times. Tedesco, who has since moved on to another job in the Air Force, helped deploy the $70 million Department of Defense program.

• • •

The Scan Eagle also has helped keep Afghanistan's own military forces honest, Votel learned during the videoconference on Saturday.

One Afghan commander in Helmand told superiors his troops were advancing against the enemy. Images from a Scan Eagle showed he was lying.

"He was surprised that his commanders saw," said Maj. Gen. Mohammed Moeen Faqir, commander of the Afghan army's 215th Corps. Faqir was speaking through an interpreter from Helmand with Votel and other military leaders, who took part in the videoconference from Kabul, headquarters of the allied effort in Afghanistan.

The consequences for the prevaricating commander: "He was yelled at," according to a senior American commander also attending the videoconference.

The incident reflects the challenge the United States and its NATO allies face in shoring up Afghan military leadership. It's the latest phase — now dubbed Operation Resolute Support — in a campaign launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

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In the short run, through the end of President Barack Obama's term in January, the United States will reduce troop levels from 10,000 today to 8,400 — more than the 5,500 troops Obama had announced earlier. What happens after that depends on who is elected president in November.

• • •

At its peak in 2011, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan numbered 100,000 troops. In 2014, the bulk of them pulled out of Helmand as part of the overall drawdown of troops.

Then the Taliban came roaring back, inflicting heavy casualties and taking over territory and roads. Last month, Afghan forces re-established themselves in Helmand, breaking the Taliban's hold on the city of Marjah and reopening key roadways.

Faqir, the Afghan commander, said Saturday that the battlefield view provided by the Scan Eagle is one of several factors in his army's success.

In the view of many observers, Faqir's assignment to the province is another.

Faqir was brought in after the sacking of a former Army commander — along with other military leaders, the police chief and the governor — over allegations of corruption and ineffective leadership.

He has been credited with more effective training of military leaders, with help from U.S. and NATO forces. The mission of these Afghan allies now is to train, advise and assist, and to help conduct continuing commando raids against insurgents.

The Scan Eagle is one technology boosting the efforts of the Afghan forces in Helmand. Others include the addition of eight A-29 Super Tucano propeller aircraft and a modified civilian helicopter called the MD-580, essentially a small flying gun platform.

Last year, the Afghans suffered roughly double the casualties the United States recorded during all of its 15 years in Afghanistan, said Army Gen. John Nicholson, the new commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Nicholson spoke to reporters during a press roundtable in Kabul on Saturday.

"That's significant on a couple of levels," Nicholson said. "It shows their commitment to fight. The Afghans are willing to fight hard to take casualties and gain ground lost last year.

"For many young armies, suffering that high a rate would have broken them. This army did not break."

Contact Howard Altman at or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.