In the first official sign that the Pentagon plans to keep a U.S. military presence in southern Afghanistan after this year, the Army is sending the 7th Infantry Division headquarters from Joint Base Lewis-McChord on a year-long deployment to Kandahar Province this spring.
The deployment follows Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s weekend visit to Kandahar, where he acknowledged in a meeting with soldiers that the Obama administration was reconsidering the pace of its planned withdrawal of the 10,000 U.S. troops who remain in Afghanistan.
The deployment is small, fewer than 100 soldiers. But it’s significant because it shows that the U.S. military wants to maintain a presence in Afghanistan’s Pashtun heartland while continuing to reduce its footprint in the 14-year-old war.
The division’s deployment has been an open secret at the base for months. The Pentagon in December announced that it was adding staff to the headquarters to help it reach a deployable strength.
This month, the Army sent the division command team to the Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana, where it is carrying out an exercise to prepare for the mission. The Army has published photos from the exercise to its own social media accounts.
And, this week, the Army set up an interview with McClatchy’s News-Tribune newspaper to discuss the deployment. Late Tuesday, just before the interview, however, the Army canceled after officials in Washington, D.C. determined they had not given proper notification about the mission to Congress. The deployment is still going forward, officials said.
The deployment will be 7th Infantry Division’s first to Afghanistan. The Army activated the headquarters at Lewis-McChord in 2012 and designated it as a non-deployable unit, charging it with getting a better handle on the oversight and training of the increasing number of combat units stationed at Lewis-McChord the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Over the past two years, the division has standardized training and operating procedures for the six brigades and 15,000 soldiers that fall under its command. The headquarters has been assigned 250 positions, about a third of a traditional division command.
It gained about 80 additional soldiers to prepare for the upcoming deployment, the Army said in December.
The division is expected to be based at Kandahar Air Field, the sprawling forward base outside of Afghanistan’s second largest city that was once home to more than 26,000 U.S. and NATO military personnel.
Now, about 2,000 U.S. military service members are stationed at the air field, according to news accounts of Carter’s visit.
Kandahar became one of the main battlegrounds in Afghanistan after President Obama boosted the U.S. military presence in the country six years ago.
Lewis-McChord’s 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division was among the first Army units to participate in the Afghanistan surge when it deployed to Kandahar in 2009. It suffered some of the highest casualties of the war as it hit Taliban strongholds that had been neglected by NATO forces.
Four years later, however, the province had been largely pacified, allowing soldiers from the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division to come home early.
“We've given so much to create the conditions here that you now see in front of you where the Afghan security forces stand a real shot at making success stick. But it's still not done and it won't be done without what you are accomplishing here in Kandahar,” Carter told soldiers Sunday during his visit to Kandahar.
The U.S. and Afghan governments in September signed a bilateral security agreement that allows U.S. forces to operate out of several forward bases, including Kandahar Air Field.
Since then, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has openly asked the Obama administration to reconsider its plan to withdraw all U.S. forces by 2016.
Gen. John Campbell, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee this month that he supported changes to the withdrawal time line.