Top U.S. Commander of Afghanistan drawdown: 'Nothing has been in vain here'

FORT BRAGG, N.C. (WTVD) -- Army Lieutenant General Joseph Anderson watched the NATO flags start to come down Sunday in Afghanistan's Helmand Province.

The Marines are gone. There are 39 days in counting for the Corps' troops to return to Fort Bragg. Anderson, one of the top U.S. commanders overseeing the drawdown, calls it "surreal."

"Nothing has been in vain here," he said. "(And) Certainly not the loss of any of our soldiers."

In a teleconference from Kabul to Fort Bragg, Anderson hosted a local media roundtable Thursday. Anderson, commander of the 18th Airborne Corps and International Security Assistance Force, is reflective of the continuous drawdown.

It was 8 p.m. his time, and he sets a light mood in talking about the return home after more than a decade of war.

"Yep, we're getting anxious. I think we're about 39 days (from coming home), but who's counting?"

"We can't wait. We can't wait."

The remaining troops, who are not a part of the coalition forces left behind, are closing and securing bases. The forces to remain in Afghanistan after 2015 include 9800 U.S. troops and nearly 3,000 NATO troops who will serve in administrative roles to cement Afghanistan as a democracy, ensuring a smooth transition. Some Special Forces will conduct counter-terrorism missions.

Their presence will be a part of the long awaited, newly signed Bilateral Security Agreement that Anderson hopes will "encourage international investment" in the region.

This exit has a very different feel from Iraq, said Anderson.

"Every time we closed bases in Iraq, those bases got rocketed," he said. "The enemy said that we were retreating. That's not been the case here in Afghanistan."

Anderson said he doesn't believe the Taliban will pose a threat that would result in U.S. troops returning for combat beyond 2015. He said the Taliban failed in attempts to "effect change" during the high-profile election and fighting seasons. He described their presence in small province pockets a non-effective.

"Every time they try to control or take something outside of that little area, they just cannot do it," Anderson said. "So they will continue to disrupt. They will try to harass and intimidate."

"Their ability to effect change-I don't see anything different next year."

The past six months presented unique challenges for international forces. After an uncertain, drawn-out Presidential election challenging the winner, Ashraf Ghani, and awaiting the BSA signing, the U.S. lost both time and money. He said Ghani is making up for 8 months of uncertainty, and has quite a challenge ahead that will largely be economic.

"I mean you've still got a lot of kids graduating college from around the country that don't get a job, so that's how the economy is," said Anderson, who noted strides Ghani was making with potential economic partners in places like Saudi Arabia and China.

Anderson said there's no doubt there's optimism in the air.

"The overall environment in this country is radically changed from what it was when the Taliban ruled to a democratic government now," he said. "Hugely different and these people are enjoying freedoms, internet....all those types of things they never had before."

When the Corps troops return home at the end of the year, Anderson said they'll focus on many other missions around the world, including the ongoing fight against the spread of Ebola in West Africa. Anderson has helped other Corps commanders connect with international support as U.S. troops head there for Operation United Assistance.

"A new role, a new focus... and it will be very interesting not worrying about Operation Enduring Freedom anymore."

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