The commander of a Fort Knox combat unit that is going to Afghanistan says U.S. forces face an uphill struggle there but can succeed in stabilizing the war-ravaged nation.
"I'm not going to paint a pretty picture; it's a very difficult environment," Army Col. Christopher Toner said Thursday in Lexington. "In my heart of hearts, I know this can be done. But the clock is ticking."
Toner addressed Rotary Club members as a part of Armed Forces Week activities. He commands the Army's 3rd Brigade Combat Team, which is based at Fort Knox and is a part of the famed First Infantry Division.
The unit is preparing to go to Afghanistan at the end of the year as a part of President Barack Obama's plan to beef up U.S. troop strength there by about 30,000 soldiers. It's part of an overall plan intended to halt Taliban expansion, let Afghan units take over the defense of the country, and start bringing American troops home around the middle of next year.
Kentucky-based soldiers will be a big part of the buildup. It addition to about 3,500 soldiers from Toner's unit at Fort Knox, roughly 20,000 troops from the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell will be going to Afghanistan. Up to about 2,000 Kentucky Army and Air National Guard members also will be taking part in the operation.
Toner's combat team is a lean, fast-moving force that can move into hostile areas, support itself with little outside help and do a variety of things from fighting battles to training native troops. According to Toner, it could be doing a bit of all that when it arrives in Afghanistan, where it will support operations of the 101st Airborne Division in the eastern part of the country.
Toner was a battalion commander in Afghanistan in 2006-07. Back then, he noted, there was only one Army brigade operating in the eastern section of Afghanistan. Toner said there will be five brigades next year, counting his own outfit.
"We will be well set up for success over there," he said.
Afghanistan poses special problems, Toner said, because of its mountainous terrain, agrarian economy, tribal culture, and lack of central government control. That means U.S. troops must move carefully and patiently, he said.
Toner also took time to thank civilians at home for their support of soldiers in combat areas overseas.
"You are part of our team," he said. "That helps gives us the strength to do what we have to do."