October 31, 2011
Bagram Air Force Base, Afghanistan- Today General Robert W. Smith held his first press conference since being tapped as the chief American commander (C-TRAGICOM) in Afghanistan three days ago, after the abrupt departure of General David Petraeus. The behind-the-scenes luminary – the two-star commander of Fort Distant, Wyoming – showed the charisma that made him a natural pick for the top job when he answered tough, even carping questions from the reporters flown from Kabul to the press conference. The affable general – an impressive 7’ 2” tall –won most of his audience over by the conclusion of the q&a.
While it is now nearly six months since I have taken one of my helicopter tours of the Afghan battlespace with a top general – readers may recall my blog entry from June, when my trip was cancelled due to our handing over Kandahar Air Force Base to the Taliban –I have heard from acquaintances who have traveled around Afghanistan without our military that there are still areas – notably the city centers in Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat – which remain safe from Taliban incursions. I have never actually been to any location in Afghanistan by myself, but my military sources corroborate these accounts.
Having known Bob since I wrote an 18000-word profile of the then-colonel in 2003, I believe no reasonable person could doubt his qualifications for the mission. I flew with Bob from Fort Distant as he prepared to take up his new job and can report that he only ate once, and used the bathroom facilities not at all, during the 36 hours we spent in the air.
Here are some nuggets from Bob’s press conference that I think readers will particularly enjoy.
Question: “There are now 276,000 American troops in Afghanistan yet almost none of the country remains secure. Can you please explain how you will use your vastly expanded manpower to achieve the results that your predecessor, General Petraeus, was unable to?
Answer: “We’ve just now got the inputs right in Afghanistan. Our new strategy, which we are unveiling today, is called, “A soldier in every home” – that’s “Askar dar har khana” in Dari – and we envision being able to place one American serviceman or woman in every Afghan home – that is approximately 2.5 million homes, because as you know Afghans live in large extended families – on a rotating basis over the coming year.
This will place security where it is needed. And as an additional benefit, our servicemen and women will get invaluable local language training at no cost whatsoever to American taxpayers. They will be fed by their Afghan hosts, again lowering our costs, and providing a gradual acclimatization to the wholesome Afghan diet and its numerous microorganisms.
Question: “Can you comment on the recent allegations in the American press that some family members of President Karzai recently bought the entire city of Geneva, Switzerland, with money stolen from the American people?”
Answer: “President Karzai – who I met with for the first time today, at his Presidential bunker at Bagram Air Force Base – understands very well that if he is to be an effective president for life – as the recent amendment he was able to get past the Afghan Parliament mandates – he has to show progress on corruption very soon. President Karzai shows every sign of understanding this and I am confident that we can work together effectively, especially since the unfortunate disappearance of Ambassador Eikenberry.”
Question: “There are rumors that Ambassador Eikenberry is actually in captivity in the hands of some members of President Karzai’s family –
Answer: “I think you said it yourself, sir: rumors. What we know for a fact is that the Ambassador, who was extremely frank in his evaluations of our Afghan partner family, the Karzais, wrote a cable, a very frank cable, on the 1st of July, shortly after the KAF handover. He has not been seen since then. But you can infer from the fact that he has not been replaced that we still hold out hopes for his safe return.”
Question: “As you know, the Army flew us reporters up to Bagram for this conference. As recently as fall of 2010 it was safe to travel in a civilian car to Bagram, but since the fall of Kandahar –
Answer: “If I may make a correction there, reporter – acting in concert with our Afghan partner family, we decided to take an opportunity presented to us by the Taliban to take over the very costly operations at Kandahar Air Force base or KAF as it was known. This was one of the more controversial moves undertaken by my predecessor, even though as you are aware, contrary to the initial reports, no aircraft were included in this transition. “
Question: “Would you care to comment on the attrition figures for the Afghan National Police?”
Answer: “Well, General Halting, who is in charge of the training command–– General Halting has told me that his team has developed a new model for force generation for the Afghan National Police. The newest estimate is, that if we run 1,743,000 Afghan males between the ages of 18 and 36 through our six-week training program, we will end up with about 1250 men who are still with the police six months later due to the attrition.
Now we can do better than that. So, we have decided to implement a new program, increasing the salary of the Afghan police to around $70,000 a year, starting this December 1. Given the effects on the economy at home of the various bailouts of the Afghan financial system, and the increase of troops to 276,000, this will provide an excellent employment opportunity to those servicemen and women who desire to continue serving in Afghanistan even after their deployment is finished.”
Question: “General, when the Central Bank of Afghanistan collapsed due to currency trading losses in January of this year, the U.S. Treasury stepped in to cover the $1. 5 billion loss. Shortly afterwards, a consortium controlled by President Karzai’s family purchased Citibank. Some have suggested, that–
Answer: “I think that the American people realize that you cannot have an effective counterinsurgency strategy without keeping your partner family happy. Thank you very much for your questions, ladies and gentlemen.”
Cy Kofant blogs for Blinkers Magazine. A long-time analyst of the American military and its counterinsurgency doctrine, he has made numerous trips to Afghanistan with successive American commanders. He is the author of the forthcoming three-volume biography, “General Bob Smith: a leader for all times”.