July 31, 2009

Why isn't army-building working?

Further to the Reese memo in the post below: I do hope some historians are somewhere beavering away on an answer to the question, "Why can't the West seem to build up a credible host nation army in the middle of a war?"

One could argue that we haven't been able to historically, either. The Vietnamese ARVN had most of the same characteristics as the Iraq and Afghan armies. So did the Korean Army in 1950 (David Halberstam's recent book, among others, documents how horrible that military was in combat.) Indigenous forces capable of being anything on the whole other than a drag on the overall war effort have been few and far between since the Second World War. I'm not saying there haven't been successes, because there have been, but they are so few and far between that it's proving very hard to draw usable lessons on why they succeeded and all the others failed. (Cue the historians.)

And that's a BIG problem, because the entire underpinning of FM 3-24 and most other Western counterinsurgency doctrine is that you need to raise effective indigenous forces, hand the situation over to them, and get out. But we can't seem to achieve the first thing on that list, at least not dependably and on the kind of time, money and size scales we're talking about, in a conflict environment. So until we can figure out what we're doing wrong and right, and how to generate large host nation armies far more reliably than we have thus far, all of our counterinsurgency doctrine risks being a complete dead letter.

See also Richard Sale and Pat Lang.

Posted by BruceR at 04:47 PM

Looking down the road with the ANA 2 years or so

When I was in Afghanistan, many U.S. officers, good guys all of them, would frequently offer words of consolation when dealing with the Afghan security forces to the effect, "Don't worry, this is just what I was dealing with in Iraq in 2006."

I've been watching the recent post-SOFA drawdown in American support for the Iraqi army with interest, then, because assuming the rule above holds, one would expect something the situation to start looking similar, perhaps as early as 2011 (a year by which I suspect Canada will not be alone in looking for the exits, by the way, so we shouldn't feel so bad.)

Col. Reese's memo on why it's time to leave Iraq, specifically because they've passed the point of diminishing returns in security force improvement, should be instructive in this regard, and is worth reading in full. For this is what we should expect to be written about the ANA once we're done with them (and they with us), as well.

Reese's list of problems with the Iraq Security Forces reads like every honest presentation about the current Afghan army I have read or seen (with the possible exception of blaming the whole thing on Saddam and the Soviets). I was actually saying, "yep, yep, yep," the first time I read it:

The military culture of the Baathist-Soviet model under Saddam Hussein remains entrenched and will not change. The senior leadership of the ISF is incapable of change in the current environment.
a) Corruption among officers is widespread
b) Neglect and mistreatment of enlisted men is the norm
c) The unwillingness to accept a role for the NCO corps continues
d) Cronyism and nepotism are rampant in the assignment and promotion system
e) Laziness is endemic
f) Extreme centralization of C2 is the norm
g) Lack of initiative is legion
h) Unwillingness to change, do anything new blocks progress
i) Near total ineffectiveness of the Iraq Army and National Police institutional organizations and systems prevents the ISF from becoming self-sustaining
j) For every positive story about a good ISF junior officer with initiative, or an ISF commander who conducts a rehearsal or an after action review or some individual MOS training event, there are ten examples of the most basic lack of military understanding despite the massive partnership efforts by our combat forces and advisory efforts by MiTT and NPTT teams...

Aside: Make no mistake. In my experience and those of people I trust, verything on that list can be said accurately about the vast majority of the Afghan National Army now. (The ANP has all those problems and more.) And in Iraq that state has only been achieved after five years (2003-04 being a total write-off) of well-resourced, unified, and determined army-building efforts, in a country better suited to reward that effort than Afghanistan is.

Continuing, Reese outlines what the end game for military mentors in Iraq (and by extension, Afghanistan) risks looking like:

They [the Iraqis] will tolerate us as long as they can suckle at Uncle Sam’s bounteous mammary glands. Meanwhile the level of resistance to US freedom of movement and operations will grow. The potential for Iraqi on US violence is high now and will grow by the day. Resentment on both sides will build and reinforce itself until a violent incident break outs into the open. If that were to happen the violence will remain tactically isolated, but it will wreck our strategic relationships and force our withdrawal under very unfavorable circumstances.

For a long time the preferred US approach has been to “work it at the lowest level of partnership” as a means to stay out of the political fray and with the hope that good work at the tactical level will compensate for and slowly improve the strategic picture. From platoon to brigade, US Soldiers and Marines continue to work incredibly hard and in almost all cases they achieve positive results. This approach has achieved impressive results in the past, but today it is failing. The strategic dysfunctions of the GOI and ISF have now reached down to the tactical level degrading good work there and sundering hitherto strong partnerships. As one astute political observer has stated “We have lost all strategic influence with the GoI and trying to influence events and people from the tactical/operational level is courting disaster, wasting lives, and merely postponing the inevitable.”


1) This may simply be a fact of giving a country sovereignty before you give them a military. Which is what happened in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and for which very few historical examples exist before that. In the military realm, it drastically slows any momentum for institutional change, and then makes the separation process at the end more abrupt, perhaps. Iraq is now past the point of no return on that, which is why Ross Douthat's musings that it's still more important than Afghanistan is really beside the point. The fork, as it were, has been stuck into that one. But even in Afghanistan, any serious efforts to fix the Afghan military or its broken judicial system at this point carry a large risk of making the elected government look weaker, and even further undermining it with its own people people.

2) My ANA colleagues were incredibly nice and hospitable people, who kept no secrets from me, and who were genuinely glad to see us each day. Mentor teams in 2011 and later rotations should be prepared for that to change, and change rapidly, as their Afghans' direction from above starts to shift, because when it comes, the shift will likely be just as sudden as it is now in Iraq.

3) The simple facts are Iraq seemed better placed to support a military mentoring effort all along. Its population was more educated on the whole and more urbanized, but even more importantly there was some reasonable prospect that oil revenues at the end could finance whatever was built. In Afghanistan we're spending far more on the security forces, by at least a factor of 10, than the Afghan government will ever be able to spend left on its own. One suspects that is going to make our departure even more difficult to stick-handle.

4) The American military is looking at getting the ANA up to snuff no earlier than 2014, as mentioned earlier. Whether there is the political will to keep this going that long, in either Afghanistan or the west remains an open question: in the end, even that timeline should not be seen as wholly dependable.

Posted by BruceR at 04:31 PM

July 30, 2009

Cordesman presser on Afghanistan

An absolute must-listen. He nails it. Absolutely nails it.

Listen to Audio

Posted by BruceR at 04:00 PM

July 29, 2009

About that Friedman piece

Old Blue, formerly of Bill and Bob, now of Afghan Quest, takes on Michael Cohen for taking on Thomas Friedman, and his little anecdote of happy schoolgirls in one of the safer Afghanistan provinces. Still tracking? Okay.

Look, I grok what Michael Cohen is saying, that having impoverished girl-children is not a necessary condition for military intervention. Because there's lots of them. Check. Got it.

Small problem, though: we're not in Friedman's construct debating a new intervention. We're not debating intervening militarily in another hypothetical country. He's debating (at least within his own mind) the moral choice of leaving the Afghans to their own devices, giving up. And he's finding that after seeing some Afghans, now he can't easily advocate abandoning them. That's a little different. Because by that act of discontinuing, we are making a new moral choice, one that will be affecting the lives of lots of little Afghan girls and boys. The moral onus on us is different, simply because we're already there in situ.

Yes, there's a sunk-cost fallacy lurking in that line of argument. I know it. (Also an aphorism about birds and hands.) But, when it comes to evaluating the moral choice of leaving Afghanistan, it is not valid to discount any death and suffering that this would cause Afghans by saying that, hey, there's lots of death and suffering in other places, too.

Analogy: you're in a lifeboat, rescuing drowning swimmers. The first person you rescue is injured/tired/whatever and needs your full attention, so now you can't keep going and save other people, too. Under what conditions would you kick that person out of the boat to drown and try to rescue someone else instead? And is that not at least a somewhat different kind of choice than choosing which of two equidistant swimmers to rescue would be?

There are virtues to walking away now. There are also costs, costs which can be mitigated through different choices on our part. Friedman is not wrong to be keeping those costs front of mind, and to encourage us to keep doing so, as well.

Posted by BruceR at 05:40 PM

Exum on Kandahar

WPR asked Triage author and recent McChrystal consultant Andrew "Abu Muqawama" Exum what left him pessimistic from his recent Afghanistan trip:

One word: Kandahar. Keep in mind that I was in one of the first waves of soldiers to go into Afghanistan, in early 2002. And what was shocking for me was the degree to which we still do not understand this country that we've been in for the past eight years. What frustrated me more than anything else is that I don't think we have a good understanding of what is going on in the city of Kandahar, which is quite possibly the most strategically important city in Afghanistan. Our intelligence and the way that we gather intelligence continues to be focused on the enemy. What we need to know to be successful in Afghanistan is not just the size, disposition and composition of the Quetta Shura Taliban, or the Haqqani network, but we need to understand local dynamics. We need to make good social network maps, we need to understand power brokers at every level, we need to understand how regional power brokers interact with the insurgency, with the government, what their business ties are. And we really don't have much visibility on that.

It's hard to see that as anything other than a disparagement by a highly placed American authority of Canadian military intelligence efforts. Offered without comment. (I do agree with his comments in the same interview with regard to the consequences of overfocussing on force protection and the need to accelerate ANSF training efforts, though.)

Posted by BruceR at 04:01 PM

July 27, 2009

Kilcullen vs Canadians

David Kilcullen, earlier this month:

We are looking at ten years at least in Afghanistan, and that is the best case scenario and at least half of that will be pretty major combat. This is the commitment needed, and this is what people in America and Britain should be told, and they should be told that there will be a cost involved.

Canadians may not have been told, per se, but they've already made their choice, it seems.

Posted by BruceR at 03:33 PM

ANP: the issue

Josh Foust asks, what's wrong with the ANP?

Tim from FRI answers, so now I don't have to:

The Afghan police are not just ineffective – they are despised by rural people who will take the hard tyranny of the Taliban over being preyed upon by the police. This article puts the blame for Afghanistan’s dysfunctional police force on the Germans but that is BS. The Department of State has spent over 10 BILLION on their cookie cutter law enforcement training program which I have written about before. There is only one way to get the police to perform and that is to live with them, mentor them daily, and make them perform. Mentor teams who live on FOB’s and commute to the job become targets because their routine is fixed and predictable. The civilian contractors who work out of the gigantic regional training centers are essential worthless [sic] inflicting death by PowerPoint on their students. What can they teach an Afghan cop about being an Afghan cop? Afghanistan cops are functioning as a paramilitary organization and are trained, armed and deployed as such. But some, perhaps a great many have retained the thuggish ways of warlord sponsored foot soldiers and that is obviously not too good.

Emphasis is emphatically mine. See also "K" from the Embedded in Afghanistan blog. (His latest assessment of the ANA he's currently mentoring is also worth reading, and entirely consistent with personal experience.)

Posted by BruceR at 12:42 PM

Monday squibs

**I still think it's possible to legitimately object to the arrest of H.L. Gates, irrespective of the fellow's race. People who do anything other than condemn the arresting of someone purely for speech criticizing security officials inside his own home are neither libertarian nor conservative, no matter what they might think they are. Obama had centuries of American and Western tradition behind him when he said the cops acted "stupidly." The lining up of people like Althouse, Steyn, Reynolds, Hanson, etc., to criticize him, rather than the cops in this case, is dismaying, if unsurprising. They really have no idea which way is up, any more. Sullivan has it right.

**I actually think Toronto and its mayor handled the hopefully soon-to-be-ended garbage strike quite well, all in all. I confess I am not particularly opposed to privatized garbage collection any more, though, should that opportunity ever arise.

**Andrew Exum is back and blogging up a storm. This is a worthwhile post. I'm frankly not sure how we can get to his necessary success-condition, that being an Afghan government that is not "weak or illegitimate," so long as we are paying 90% of the government's bills. Anything we do to try to make them more accountable for our funding (for instance, detention-sector reform) will necessarily risk making them look weak. But if we stay hands-off, there is no pressure to improve. And if we pull the funds, they collapse.

If Afghanistan were a country with a potential economic base even remotely commensurate with our ambitions for it, in terms of army size and so on, there might still be an easy way out of this, but I'm not seeing one, yet.

Posted by BruceR at 09:39 AM

July 17, 2009

Iraq-Afghanistan fatalities

Just a quick look again at the combined Iraq-Afghanistan fatalities (figures from icasualties.org):

Total fatal casualties, both theatres (change in the 33 months since I did this the last time):

1. United States: 5066 (+1922)
2. United Kingdom: 364 (+204)
3. Canada: 125 (+83)
4. Italy: 48 (+6)
5. Spain: 36 (+6)
6. Germany: 33 (+15)
7. Poland: 32 (+15)
8. Denmark: 31 (+22)
9. France: 28 (+19)
10. Netherlands: 21 (+16)

Interesting how in 33 months all we've seen is Ukraine drop off the list and Netherlands come up.

Fatalities per 1,000 active-duty military personnel:

1. US: 3.44
2. UK: 1.94
3. Canada: 1.90
4. Denmark: 1.35
5. Latvia: 1.09

Fatalities per million population:

1. US: 16.5
2. UK: 5.91
3. Denmark: 5.64
4. Estonia: 4.48
5. Canada: 3.71

Again, not much change from 3 years ago, with Bulgaria and El Salvador (both of which are not deployed in numbers in Afghanistan) dropping off the list and being replaced in the rankings by the 2 Baltic republics (with 6 fatalities each, but in much smaller militaries (about 5,500 regulars each) and populations).

I think Denmark's contribution to Afghanistan (24 fatalities) and Iraq (7), where they have taken casualties at a greater rate per population, on a population one-sixth the size of Canada's, have generally been under-recognized.

Here's some more stuff, on NATO under- and over-contributions by country:

Positive value is number of soldiers currently being contributed to ISAF above the NATO mean contribution (currently 11.85 soldiers in Afghanistan per 1000 full-time troops). Negative is soldiers below that mean national contribution:


UK: +6072
Canada: +2049
Netherlands: +1141
Germany: +441
Denmark: +429
Norway: +158
Latvia: +100
Estonia: +84
Poland: +68
Croatia: +53
Lithuania: +40
Macedonia: +18
Belgium: +17


Turkey: -5373
Greece: -1952
Spain: -1329
Portugal: -432
Italy: -376
France: -289
Czech Rep: -247
Romania: -234
Bulgaria: -134
Albania: -97
Slovakia: -80
Hungary: -76
Slovenia: -37
Luxemburg: -2

Lastly, a measure relating to combat intensity for the non-US ISAF countries in the different regions of Afghanistan, judged by total fatalities due to hostile action, factoring in the size of the current contingent (only countries with more than 400 personnel on average over the last 2 years are listed).

1. Canada (South): 38.5 combat fatalities per 1000 troops currently deployed
2. Denmark (South): 32.2
3. UK (South): 20.9
4. Romania (South): 15.9
5. France (East): 11.3
6. Australia (South): 10.9
7. Norway (North): 8.7
8. Spain (West): 8.5
9. Netherlands (South): 8.1
10. Poland (East): 6.8
11. Germany (North): 5.9
12. Italy (West): 3.3
13. Turkey (East): 0.0

Note a high number on this index could indicate consistent hard fighting. It could also indicate a measure of bad luck. What it does manage to confirm, though, is that the risk is being unevenly spread.

To nutshell it, NATO's ISAF contribution is significantly hurt at present by both countries that are underrepresented in terms of numbers, and underrepresented in terms of casualties they're willing to risk. Spain and France are examples of the first condition, Germany and Poland the second, and countries like Turkey, Greece, Portugal and Italy are managing to fail the alliance both ways.

It's a great pity, when one thinks how much of a positive effect those missing 5,000-odd Turkish trrops would have had, particularly in an area like army mentoring.

Posted by BruceR at 02:24 PM

Reasons for positive thinking

I and others may cavil about long-term sustainability of our plans, or note disappointment over wastes of time or money, or wonder aloud whether our priorities as Afghanistan's allies need to be re-ordered a little. But there can be no question that Afghanistan is still on the whole a nicer, safer place than it was in 2001, or 1991 for that matter. Kabul is booming. And Peter Bergen is right that the majority of Afghans' war for a better future for themselves is far from lost, for reasons he aptly outlines here. The cause that we committed to, and in which Canadians continue to die, is still a just one. If I didn't continue to believe that, I frankly wouldn't care about the problems that have been identified as much as I do.

Posted by BruceR at 10:28 AM

July 14, 2009

In defense of an ANA general

Just a little more on 3/205 Brigade and its commander, the ANA formation in Helmand referred to in the post below.

I've had the opportunity to hear BGen Ghori, the ANA commander in Helmand, speak on two occasions, one in KAF, the other at Camp Hero, the ANA base, and Canadian OMLT-advised troops served under his command on two occasions during my tour. My impression was that he was certainly the most dynamic, aggressive ANA general of the five or so I've had any dealings at all with. I'm sure he still gives his British mentors fits at times, and I have no idea how much that dynamism translates into military skill but I wouldn't doubt his determination to push his troops hard and to fight. He's certainly not one to let them just sit around. So if he's having trouble coming up with 30 more troops for the American Marines, I'd have to assess he really feels those troops are needed more somewhere else.

Posted by BruceR at 11:48 AM

July 13, 2009

Generals negotiate over a platoon

This rings a few bells. WashPost:

But plans to partner with the Afghan army have been scaled back because the Marines have been allotted only about 400 Afghan soldiers instead of the several thousand Nicholson had sought.

He has been promised more troops, but they will not start rolling in until next year...

In the interim, he has asked his superiors for permission to arm young men and train them to serve as a local protection force. It is similar to the Sons of Iraq initiative the Marines created in Anbar that resulted in locals turning against foreign fighters in the group al-Qaeda in Iraq.

But senior commanders have shown no sign of approving the request. They feel Helmand has too many overlapping tribal rivalries. Arming groups of young men could exacerbate tensions and lead some factions to turn to the Taliban for protection.

With that option closing, Nicholson has turned to wringing out as many soldiers from the Afghan army as possible. When he heard that a new battalion would be deployed to the south -- but not to his part of Helmand -- he flew to the NATO base near Kandahar five days before the operation began to ask a senior Afghan general for 30 of the soldiers. Nicholson promised to train them to be commandos.

The general refused to commit and told Nicholson to talk to a lower-ranking general whose base adjoins Camp Leatherneck. So the next day, Nicholson dispatched three colonels to see the general for a lunch of goat stew and rice.

"General Nicholson wants to make sure we have an ANA [Afghan National Army] face wherever we go," Col. Barry Neulen said.

"I wish the same thing, but I cannot promise them to you right now," said Brig. Gen. Muhayadin Ghori, commander of the Afghan army's 3rd Brigade, 205th Corps.

The men then began to negotiate. Ghori wanted to send two of his officers to the United States for training. "They have to see the U.S.A., what it's all about," he said.

And the 30 troops? Ghori promised an answer.

That was a week ago. The Marines still had not received any men.

To be clear, the force we're talking about is one of the new security force kandaks, 8 of which are the only new Afghan units being rolled out this year. They're only at 40% vehicle strength, as discussed below. Apparently 3/205, Brig. Ghori's brigade, is getting one of them. 3/205 presumably already gave up one of its 3 infantry kandaks to Nicholson, which this arrival is now presumably backfilling in security tasks in the secured area. Given that one of the other 2 kandaks will be in a training cycle (all those new NATO weapons and HMMVWs), and another will be tied to the British brigade operating to Nicholson's north, mathematically speaking that means giving Nicholson the new arrival, the fourth one, would likely endanger the hold on whatever part of Helmand Gen. Ghori thinks he can keep clear of the enemy now. And until there's parts of Helmand you could give outright to reliable police, or next year when kandak #5, #6, etc. could show up, that math is not going to change.

Posted by BruceR at 01:16 PM

U.S. PRTs going all-green?


McChrystal, who has spent most of his career in special operations units, is backing a proposal by Adm. Eric T. Olson, head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, to replace the current Navy and Air Force commanders of at least half of the 12 U.S. provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) in Afghanistan with Special Operations officers who served previous tours in Afghanistan and have training in at least one of its two languages, Dari and Pashto.

Olson and McChrystal believe that the Navy and Air Force officers, who typically have backgrounds as pilots, navigators or ship commanders, lack the necessary experience. "We want to have the smartest and most culturally aware officers in charge of the reconstruction teams," said the senior military official in Kabul.

Posted by BruceR at 01:04 PM

More on the new guy

Time magazine on Gen. McChrystal:

In Afghanistan, they say, he gets up at 4 a.m. to run and e-mail before his workday really begins with an 8:30 video briefing with his regional commanders across the country. His iPod and Kindle (the newest model) are stocked by his wife with serious tomes on Pakistan, Lincoln and Vietnam. Right now, he is reading William Maley's 2002 book The Afghanistan Wars, a catalog of the long list of British failures in Afghanistan...

Good he's reading Maley, it's an excellent book; but that synopsis is just completely wrong, given that fully half the book describes the post 1979 era.

McChrystal famously eats little during the day, recently only picking at an Afghan spread featuring four kinds of meat. To the chagrin of Afghans, who see drinking tea as an inalienable human right, he scrapped a morning tea break at a recent security briefing in Kandahar...

Maybe not so smart, if getting the ANSF to do more is part of your brief.

Posted by BruceR at 10:07 AM

Today's essential Afghan reading

Afghan army size remains the elephant in the middle of the room. Rory Stewart:

Yet the current state-building project, at the heart of our policy, is justified in the most instrumental terms – not as an end in itself but as a means towards counter-terrorism. In pursuit of this objective, Obama has committed to building "an Afghan army of 134,000 and a police force of 82,000", and adds that "increases in Afghan forces may very well be needed." US generals have spoken openly about wanting a combined Afghan army-police-security apparatus of 450,000 soldiers (in a country with a population half the size of Britain's).

Such a force would cost $2 or $3 billion a year to maintain; the annual revenue of the Afghan government is just $600 million. We criticise developing countries for spending 30 per cent of their budget on defence; we are encouraging Afghanistan to spend 500 per cent of its budget.

As Colin Powell would say, there is no real "exit strategy" here. We are building an indigenous army that will only be sustainable in anything like its current form so long as it remains wholly subsidized by the west. On the other hand, although everything is paid for by someone else, the Afghan government still retains full operational and administrative control. All the best intentions in the world have been falling into that basic gap in accountability.

Posted by BruceR at 09:24 AM

July 10, 2009

On ANA driver training and the 1230 report

Just one more thing on those new "security force kandaks" referred to in the June DOD 1230 report.

One thing the DOD report doesn't explain is why there was no rationalization between the equipping of the current front-line kandaks with 4,100 new HMMWVs (p. 32), and the equipping of the 8 new security force kandaks, which will only get 40% of their lift due to vehicle shortages (p. 28).

The front-line troops have whatever Ford Rangers they have now, and shifting partly to HMMWVs (it's not a total replacement: over 80-odd Kandaks, that works out to 50 HMMWVs per, enough lift for maybe 250 people out of 400 or more effectives in an infantry kandak) is going to significantly change how they operate: HMMWVs take 5 people, period, including commander and driver, while Ford Rangers take... well, let's just say I've never seen a generally observed limit among the ANA, although after the first 8 it starts to get a little crowded. So instead of one vehicle per "section" it's two. (If the ANA had sections, but that's another story.)

Taking units off the line long enough to train them in the new procedures is also going to continually prove difficult in any part of the country where the ANA is, you know, actually fighting. This is true both for the drivers, who've likely never had any driver education before their HMMWV course, and the commanders, who are being trained to be, you know, real vehicle commanders, which means real junior NCOs, which, again, they've probably never done before in most cases. So this is a big, big deal for them.

Never mind that HMMWVs can't get to a lot of the places Rangers can get to, whether you're talking narrow lanes in Zhari or mountain passes in RC-East, either. Take that and the fact you can actually fight from a HMMWV with some chance of survival, and you can see that Ranger ANA and HMMWV ANA have the potential to operate and fight very differently from each other. The guys in Hummers are not quite mech inf, but they're not the dragoons/motorized infantry the ANA used to be exclusively, who used their Rangers primarily for their operational (out-of-battle) mobility, and fought on foot.

One can't help feeling that the better solution might have been to work this sort of stuff into the stand-up training for the new 8 kandaks, and deploy them as 100% HMMWV kandaks, wherever they were sent. They'd be better for road security, and we wouldn't have spent these crucial months before the August election with fewer ANA soldiers on the front line than we could have had due to the HMMWV training delta.

One might also wonder why the Rangers that are now surplus because their crews are in HMMWVs now couldn't have been given by the army to the new kandaks. The real reason this wasn't done, likely, is the recognition that once something (like a Ford Ranger, or a weapon, or a laptop computer) goes into the ANA supply chain and down to a unit, it doesn't often come out again. It's doubtful any Ford Ranger will come back to the centre to be reassigned, out of this. Those identified surplus will turn out to be "not roadworthy," or "missing," or "lost in combat," etc. (The HMMWVs likely will too, in turn, someday.) Where are they actually? You'd have to ask the local kandak commander that one. He might even know, if he's good at his job. As I've said before, TIA.

The risk here is that in addition to tying up badly needed frontline troops in training right now, once that's done you're still going to end up with a mash. Kandaks will end up with a mix of Rangers and HMMWVs, giving any given group of them the significant deployment limitations of both vehicles. And getting one of the new security kandaks in your brigade this year, because they're basically foot-borne for the moment, won't make things any easier.

Posted by BruceR at 02:57 PM

July 09, 2009

Palin continued: Washington, Schmashington

Now she's George Washington. What is this fixation with comparing Sarah Palin to military leaders?

Anyway, as is well documented, in 1754 Washington had just been released from French detention after surrendering Fort Necessity to them in the first clash of the French and Indian War. When he returned home, he was told he would be demoted 2 ranks to captain due to the governor's militia restructuring, and so did resign briefly. As the war in the central colonies wound down he would resign again in 1758, semi-permanently, after it was clear the British were not going to give him a commission in their regular army despite his distinguished service through 4 more years of continuous frontier fighting.

Sarah Palin, on the other hand, heard a nasty joke about her daughter.

(Previous posts on Palin as Jackson, and as MacArthur.)

Posted by BruceR at 06:24 PM

DOD June report, part 3


CSTC-A has requested $589 million in supplemental funds in order to build the first eight kandaks of the new force structure in FY 2009. Because of the limited amount of equipment immediately available for accelerated fielding, these kandaks will initially receive only 40 percent of the standard infantry kandak transport capabilities. The new kandaks will be used to provide security along the Ring Road.

One could be excused for wondering whether forces who only have trucks for 40% of their personnel are going to be very successful when assigned a primary task of road patrol. But, TIA.

The previous 1230 Report, from January, is here, in case you're curious, and says many of the same things about security, current ANSF weakness, and shortages of Western mentor teams.

UPDATE, July 10: The new 1230 Report (the biannual report by the U.S. Department of Defense to Congress on Afghanistan) linked in this and the two posts below was briefly pulled from the DOD site yesterday, after initially being put up on July 8, and has been now replaced with a new PDF version. No significant changes, at least to the sections I was excerpting, so after briefly pulling these posts overnight until it was clear what was going on here, they're now going back up with the correct link.

Posted by BruceR at 12:18 PM

DOD June report, part 2

More from the June 8 DOD report to Congress on Afghanistan:

If provided the necessary resources, the Afghan National Army (ANA) will reach its currently-authorized end-strength of 134,000 personnel by December 2011. As part of this acceleration plan, eight infantry kandaks (battalions) are being fielded in 2009 as security force kandaks. Shortages of training personnel
for the ANA persist. The United States has fielded 1,665 of the 3,313 personnel required for Embedded Training Teams for ANA. Fifty-two ISAF Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams provide the equivalent of another 799 personnel.

Canada provides something over 100 of those 799. Note that the current mentoring shortfall (849 personnel) is larger than the entire NATO/ISAF contribution. Put another way:

NATO has committed to providing 103 OMLTs by the time the ANA reaches 134,000 personnel in 2011. As of April 2009, there were a total of 53 OMLTs out of the current requirement of 65 OMLTs.

Canada currently provides ~6 of those 53 teams, which under current policy will be leaving with the rest of Canada's forces in 2011, at the same time NATO is trying to find 50 more on top of that. More on the security force kandaks in the next post.

Posted by BruceR at 12:03 PM

New DOD report to Congress on Afstan

Link to the June "1230" report here. Of note:

Military deaths, including international and Afghan security forces personnel, increased by 68 percent [over last winter]. The increased level of violence outside of the usual “fighting season” was due in part to an ISAF decision to deny insurgents respite and to aggressively pursue them in their winter enclaves.
Unseasonably warm conditions also facilitated higher levels of insurgent activity during the late winter and early spring.

Interesting how the increased tempo is attributed to intent on the West's part, and exogenous factors (weather) on the insurgents' part. I'd respectfully suggest we may not be the only ones here who have intentions, plans, etc.

Agreed, there was no "winter lull" that I saw. The milder weather was a factor, but intentions on both sides were the real driver, I would suggest. All the indications so far are this summer is going to be more kinetic than last, as well. Both sides are able and aiming to consistently generate significantly greater kinetic effects than they could even a year ago. Because this is primarily IED-based on the insurgents' part, most of it is will continue to be causally related to the steady increase in the "attack surface", to use a virus-fighter's term, both because of our decision to push into places they've been unmolested in before -- like South Helmand --and the insurgents' parallel intent to also broaden their front geographically out of the south, as well, to places like Kunduz, rather than any new tactical approach on their part in more established areas (in other words, they're probably not going to reinforce Zhari District, they're going to leave Zhari perking along the way it is and put any extra resources somewhere else, same as we are doing). As with us, the steady increase in capability is primarily being used to expand their target set in this regard.

The good news there is that we're getting much better at neutralizing IEDs and killing the IED-layers, so while it's true one might reasonably expect to see increased attacks this summer, a reasonable forecast would be that we'll see only comparable levels of Western and ANA casualties to the year before, at least when looked at on a country-wide basis. That means the insurgents are having to work harder to achieve the same direct military effect in some ways. That's not the only metric either side cares about, of course, but it's not nothing if you're deployed there, either. More in the next post.

Posted by BruceR at 11:58 AM

July 08, 2009

Tomorrow's essential Afghan reading, early

Didn't want to wait until tomorrow. This is spot-on analysis, by Australian MGen (retd.) Jim Molan. I think it goes a long way toward explaining the odd remarks on the lack of ANSF in the NYT (post below):

There is unlikely to be anything like a decisive result out of this operation, even in the local area in the short term. Marine commanders will talk up the operation because that is what you do, and the media, Congress and commentators will project their own hopes and desires onto the operation, and then castigate the Marines for not meeting them.

Molan, Chief of Operations (ChOps) for Multinational Force-Iraq in 2004-05, has some more good stuff below the fold.

With 4000 deployed troops from this 11,000-strong Marine force, relatively few small outposts can be established because each outpost must be big enough to protect itself against initial attack, and must be backed up by quick reaction forces held in reserve. So even if this operation goes perfectly it will merely establish small groups of Marines in a number of local areas. This is the right first step. It then requires the re-establishment of local governance, which will take years, and the replacement of the Marines with Afghan troops and police...

The other side of locating Marines in many local villages to help establish governance, control and protection is that this Marine force is now tied down in that area for (probably) some years to come. If there were adequate coalition troops in Afghanistan this would not be a problem. Given there is only one-third to one-half the number of capable troops needed in Afghanistan, this is a big problem indeed. And the area in which they are tied down is relatively close to the Pakistan border and (it is assumed) to larger numbers of Taliban forces. An even greater reliance on air power may be the result.

Once again, non-military agencies have failed to support the US military’s actions. Talk in the Obama strategy about diplomacy, aid, governance, policing, agriculture and local infrastructure has come to nought because none of the people have been made available by their agencies. The US military might be at war, but the rest of the US and the US government certainly is not. The troops will have to do it all, probably until at least the end of this year. The two constants of modern military operations (Australia included) are the failure of our societies to ever provide enough troops initially, and the failure of our governments to provide non-military (interagency) personnel.

The pitiful lack of Afghan troops involved in KHANJAR (4000 Marines deployed but only about 650 Afghan troops) indicates that the hope of producing an Afghan force numerous and capable enough to take over counterinsurgency from the coalition is five to ten years away. Most of the Marines won't have nearby Afghan troops to provide them with local knowledge.

The nature of this operation indicates that regardless of what Obama’s strategy might say, the US is still in a holding strategy. Petraeus knows this better than anyone and as much said so at recent House Armed Services Committee hearings...

Posted by BruceR at 09:23 PM

ANSF deployment limits: people starting to notice?


One week after several battalions of Marines swept through the Helmand River valley, military commanders appear increasingly concerned about a lack of Afghan forces in the field.

Oh, there's plenty of Afghans. They just can't be moved to Helmand, some of the reasons for which I tried to explain here. And for reasons explained by Dorronsoro in the post below, one could argue they probably shouldn't be, either.

What I don't understand is why this would come as such a surprise, in the way the reporter tells it. The deployment and laydown limitations and other related ANSF problems have been totally self-evident to anyone who has worked with them regularly in theatre recently. I could have told the Americans they weren't going to get another brigade's worth in Helmand by June, as could any number of other people I worked with or for. If the linked report is to be believed, that would imply that in our effort to certify their success, someone has been glossing over deep weaknesses in their capability in their reports to higher. Of course, to misquote Feynman, "reality can't be fooled," so in the end, the only risk there is that we'd end up fooling ourselves. Which, again if the linked report is to be believed, would be implied by what is happening now.

No, I don't buy that the Americans are "increasingly concerned" now, because I honestly don't know who could have dissembled here so badly, and told Gen. Nicholson or his superiors confidently that he'd be getting the numbers of Afghan soldiers he felt he needed for his plan to work, or that having that information he would not identify it as a critical flaw before, you know, the operation actually was launched. But I'll tell you right now it wouldn't have been mentors working at my level... or the ANA, for that matter. They know the score better than we do in that respect. I also recall reading or hearing at least two senior-level officers in theatre making statements roughly congruous to what I'm saying in this post in semi-privileged forums there, too, and that was months before Nicholson would have arrived. So if there was any wishful thinking about the Afghan security forces in evidence before the operation, where exactly would it have been coming from?

UPDATE: For that matter, I can recall a couple Helmand ANA operations that were cancelled or called off in the last year precisely because it was clear the ANSF were not going to be able to materialize in the numbers required for success. Surely the initial read-in into their area of operations would have brought that to staff planners' attention. No, having this complaint come to the fore just now makes no sense at all from a planning perspective.

No, the Marines knew the problem going in, all right. Perhaps the only person "increasingly concerned" here is the reporter himself. Hey, TIA, man. ("This Is Afghanistan", to misquote Blood Diamond).

UPDATE: For that matter, the DOD's report to Congress back in January said (page 34) only 8 new kandaks could be added any time soon to the ANA orbat. A brigade would be at least 4 of those, so for this to work the South Helmand Marine brigade would have had to expect getting fully half the current ANA troop increase.

Posted by BruceR at 02:37 PM

Today's essential Afghan reading

Gilles Dorronsoro again, one of the more clear-eyed Afghan commentators:

The ANA’s command and control is still weak and does not enable it to operate on its own, independent of [international] leadership. Observers in direct contact with the ANA report that operations involving more than 100 troops cannot be effectively conducted autonomously.

True dat. Also of interest:

[Helmand] is not the main base of the Taliban—even though the opposition is extremely strong there, the organization of the insurgency is not classically Taliban. Overall, the core territory for the movement is Kandahar, Zabul, and from Ghazni to the south of Wardak. In this area, the Taliban have the support of a significant part of the population and its elites (mostly mullahs, but also landlords and tribal leaders).

Note this is exactly counter to all the planning assumptions that have gone into Western strategy in the south the last two years: that insurgents were primarily crossing into Helmand from Pakistan and then moving west to east toward Kandahar City. Dorronsoro's thesis is that the inflow we need to worry about is actually primarily the other way, with Zabul province "totally under Taliban control."

Now these things do change, and change back, over time. Dorronsoro says Zabul has been the route of choice for guerrilla infiltration historically, but what's not clear is whether he sees this as something that's been the case throughout, or might have recently changed back to something more like the historical norm after the large Western deployments in Helmand started in mid-2008. I can't believe we were so entirely misguided in our earlier assessments there, but certainly it's fair to say that the increased effort in Helmand in the last 12 months has not had the positive effects on the rest of the south we might have hoped for.

Posted by BruceR at 01:53 PM

July 06, 2009

Palin reaction: Jackson, Schmackson

The implied respect of the American conservative for his country's history, especially the military kind, continues to amuse, er, amaze. Ross Douthat:

With her missteps, scandals, dreadful interviews and self-pitying monologues, [Palin's] botched an essential democratic role — the ordinary citizen who takes on the elites, the up-by-your-bootstraps role embodied by politicians from Andrew Jackson down to Harry Truman.

Okay, look, Old Hickory had a lot of characteristics, some of them even admirable, but "the ordinary citizen who takes on the elites" was not one of them, unless by that "elites" means 11,000 British redcoats, and "takes on" means "decimates them with grapeshot."

I mean, all Jackson did was win the greatest American military victory since Saratoga, people. How is that remotely comparable to being mayor of Wasilla, Alaska?

Harry Truman, for that matter, was a distinguished WW1 artillery officer himself, kicking off 27 years of public service, including being elected -- twice -- as U.S Senator (as did Jackson, for that matter) and culminating in the Truman Commission, which got him on the cover of Time magazine as an enemy of wartime waste and corruption. That's all it took to justify his getting the VP nod in 1944.

Yeah, I get what Douthat's trying to say, that you shouldn't have to be Ivy to be President, that and people returning to the workplace after choosing to raise 4 (later to be 5) kids shouldn't be overly discriminated against for that choice (agree on both counts), but surely American voters would be justified in insisting that there be at least some kind of a substantive track record of service to the nation first, before someone gets put into the hardest and most important race of them all.

Truman is a good example to compare Palin with, actually, also turning to public service later in life (enlisting as an army officer at the age of 33, five years after Palin was first elected to her town council), but after that he still had time to put in those 27 years before his own VP bid. Jackson, likewise, had been a figure in Tennessee politics for over 30 years when he first ran for president. Even if you count her 10 years in the town hall, Palin's still at least a decade shy of either of them, and often in far less significant positions. Any American in the lower 48, let alone us non-voting foreigners whose own lives are often so profoundly affected by Americans' choice of leader, can be forgiven by being shocked and disturbed by her rapid, and apparently unjustified ascent to putative back-up for a 70 year-old presidential wannabe.

Posted by BruceR at 03:14 PM

July 03, 2009

Palin speech: MacArthur, Schmacarthur

Best sentence of the week honours go to the NYT, in an early draft of the Palin resignation story:

Ms. Palin announced the decision in an often rambling press conference, in which she invoked the words of General Douglas MacArthur and the rules of basketball, but offered few clues about her intentions.

The NYT's text at the link was later changed, unfortunately. Part of the reason was undoubtedly that the "MacArthur" quote is actually a quote attributed to Oliver P. Smith, reacting when he found out he'd been trapped at the Chosin by MacArthur's own incompetence...

When asked if the Marines were retreating, Smith explained that their fighting withdrawal through Chinese lines did not constitute a retreat. His explanation was abbreviated into the famous misquote, "Retreat? Hell, we're attacking in a different direction!" (recalling the famous quote from Captain Lloyd W. Williams in the Battle of Belleau Wood during World War I, "Retreat? Hell, we just got here!").

Geez, old Douglas never gets a bad break, does he? I'm sure the families of the 2,500 American fatalities in that fight, and those of the surviving marines who were saved by Smith's quick determination and loathed MacArthur, wouldn't really care about those kinds of fine points in Palin's speeches, though, so I'm sure it's okay.

On a completely unrelated point, I'm told there are these people, I think they're called researchifyers, who are paid to know stuff like how to look up quotations and stuff. Apparently they're used by people who have no real grasp of the key moments of American military history but can't help using stuff they read on the internet as cheery powerpointy anecdotes anyway. Just saying.

Posted by BruceR at 11:27 PM

On Col. Hope's new paper

I do think Col. Hope's new paper on the unity of command problem in Afghanistan is worth a read, and his recommendations part of any solution. I do wish he had something more to say about those other unity of command issues, those that arise from the Afghan and Western militaries fighting the same battlespace, though. As I hinted in the essay two posts below, the issue here may be the lack of useful historical models for operational mentoring. Hope can talk with authority about the OEF/ISAF split because we can look back at the Eisenhower or Foch coalitions and see how it could be done better.

Posted by BruceR at 12:35 PM

On ANA officers and hope

Good post from yet another good ETT blog here:

The bright spot is that the younger [ANA] officers I’ve worked with are much better than the older guys. Afghan Army officers basically come in three varieties: the older officers who were Russian-trained or influenced; the former mujahideen fighters/commanders; and the new, younger, American-trained generation. The former mujahideen fighters make pretty good officers and are revered by their men but don’t have the education or formal schooling and don’t listen to advice. The older officers, in the words of my best interpreter, a former ANA 1stSgt, “don’t ever want to leave the base” and have an excuse why they can’t do anything about their problems or act on our suggestions. The new generation of officers is much more willing to do operations, listen to our advice, and make some changes on the fly if need be, although they’re still somewhat afraid to make mistakes. Unfortunately, for now the power lies with that older group of officers. Hopefully, once the younger, American-trained generation comes of age, things will start changing rapidly for the better.

This is obviously every military mentor's hope, too. I'm skeptical. Something I read somewhere about hope and its relation to a plan.

Yes, no question, in the ANA you've got some very promising senior NCOs and lieutenants, some half decent captains and majors, and some truly awful colonels and generals. And that's before the new Western-trained officers from the new Afghan military college started rejoining the army this spring. Old people have to retire some time, so are things not looking up? Maybe this is just a matter of time?


The trouble is that the ANA has systemic issues that are at least somewhat countervailing. To excel in the ANA today you have to have the attributes your superiors respect. At present in the ANA those include familial connections, a tolerance for senior-level graft, and risk aversion. Things useful to us -- like aggressiveness on the battlefield -- are not on their list. So those who rise rapidly in the ranks in the next couple years are going to have to, to some degree, incorporate those attributes, as well. Which doesn't mean they won't gradually get better as the years go by, but we shouldn't expect they'll get better at the same rate their senior officers get replaced, either, because those same senior officers are the ones picking their replacements.

Note also the use of an ex-ANA senior NCO as a terp. That, too, is unfortunately common. The literate and brainy soldiers, by picking up a little English, can go from $100 a month to $600, and still hang with their buds. Which is still helpful, sure: better for us they work with the army than an NGO. System-wide, it does tend to drain talent from the pool, though, and one suspects is acting to limit the number of actual ANA officers and senior NCOs we can converse with directly.

Posted by BruceR at 12:07 PM

July 02, 2009

On mentoring and the ANA

(Long draft essay here, as I try to put some thoughts together. Synopsis: the current approach to operational mentoring has some inherent flaws, and poses limitations on all our other military operations, that we're having difficulty recognizing for what they are. Partly this may be due to a lack of well-defined historical models. Feedback welcome.)

A certain Afghan general I know, on his line tours in Kandahar Province, is not immune to the creature comforts. One of the things he likes to carry in one of his chase vehicles is a large blue vase full of artificial flowers. His staff are quite proud of it and were happy to pose for my pictures by their truck one day. I was amused however, to overhear two soldiers watching us: "What's that?" said the straight man. "Oh, that's the Afghan vase. Apparently we're supposed to put it on everything," was the wry reply.

"Putting the Afghan face", not vase, on military operations, is pretty much a cliche in Afghan security force mentoring efforts at this point. The chronic lack of Afghan security personnel, for reasons which I will get to downrange, compared to the numbers of Western troops means what is on the books a go/no-go requirement of all kinetic operations has too often reduced in practice to grabbing a couple of Afghan soldiers or police at the last possible minute and throwing them on the helicopter so that it could be said in the press release that Afghan forces were involved in the operation. In 2008-09 in Kandahar Province, as soon as we on the ANA mentoring side heard someone talking about "Afghan faces", we knew we could safely assume ANSF capacity-building, meaning the effort to bring them closer to the day when they won't need us anymore, had long ceased to be a deliverable of the operation in question.

Sometimes operational security was cited as a reason, but one suspects the real reason all too often was that Afghan soldiers above the platoon level really didn't add much to our own forces in the way of added capability. And to tell the truth, they really don't, if all we're talking about is the kinetic fight. And once you get ANA majors and lieutenant colonels in the mix, or their ANP equivalent, any given operation has introduced into it a level of... uncertainty, to be polite about it, that most Western-trained military planners are going to have issues with. This is why, in Afghanistan right now, there are almost no districts anywhere that are recognized as having an Afghan lead in security.

We've all seen those tidy military diagrams with boundaries between battalions, regiments and the like, from World War 2, or Vietnam. One of the most crucial things any officer wants to understand is where the boundary line is between his unit and the ones on his flanks. But one complication of the operating environment in Afghanistan right now, there are at least two such diagrams for any area of operations, with 100% overlap, two separate "overlays" or "traces", back in the days of physical maps: the Western military laydown, and the Afghan one on top of it. An Afghan battalion does not take up a position to the flank of a Western counterpart. Any given provincial district or group of districts will have a Western company-sized element responsible for it, and an Afghan battalion (kandak) responsible for it as well.

Drawing a line down the middle, and saying, "you be responsible for this half" is simply not possible. First, very few if any ANA battalions have the organizational ability to take on that kind of independent responsibility, even with Western mentors, artillery support, etc. tacked on. Two, the Western half would be completely non-functional as well, because there would be no "Afghan face:" no compound searches, no vehicle searches, no realistic prospect of tactical intelligence. But it's chicken-and-egg: the lack of opportunity to develop any real independent security responsibility means that those Afghan leaders can never really improve, either.

I was thinking of this in the context of reading about the Marines' opening up operations in Helmand Province. According to the articles, they have about 500-650 Afghan soldiers and police, superimposed on the area of operations of a 4,000-Marine brigade. Which sounds about right. About 400 of those, give or take, will be ANA, if they're lucky from a single kandak of the 3rd Brigade, ANA 205 Corps, the ANA Brigade for Helmand Province. (The rest will likely be local ANP.)

The problem there is a simple matter of division. Without looking up the order of battle of a Marine Brigade, it's safe to say they'll have at least a dozen company-sized maneuver elements. The kandak will have about a dozen bluks (platoons) of about 30 men each. (The other thing worth knowing here is the American ETTs, NATO OMLTs, etc., aren't staffed to provide mentoring teams below the ANA tolai (company) level. So any mentoring that Afghan platoon commanders and NCOs get will be either ad hoc, and/or provided out of a partnering Western battalion's ranks by soldiers without much prior preparation. The chance of long-term relationship building between the Afghan officer and potential Western role models under these conditions is going to be somewhat remote.)

Also, by now most Western units have Afghan civilian interpreters down to the company level, but it would be hard given the number of available Afghan anglophones to go below that: so the relationship for all the soldiers on both sides of this relationship will facilitated through only one or two key Afghan staff, who can never in any case be very far from the company commander's side. One can see how the most likely partnering scenario will be an Afghan platoon, commanded by a junior lieutenant, going along for the ride with a Marine company commander, giving him his Afghan face, sure, but not much else.

Now I've still seen that work, it's true. Forget the impact on ANA capacity-building for a minute, and simple professionalism on both sides will allow useful work to get done and done well. The real problem comes at a higher level, when you want to move on, reallocate resources as part of the "clear-hold-build" dynamic to another part of the country, as you build your inkspot. Because there simply aren't enough ANSF in the south of the country to support those kinds of plans.

3rd Brigade, in Helmand Province, was predominantly British-mentored during my time. It had been in harder and longer fighting than any other Afghan formation. As one of the first brigades to stand up, it was also the brigade in 2008-09 that would have been losing its personnel the fastest as their enlistment contracts came due. For the ANA soldier in 3rd Brigade, it had been several years of constant action, with no real rotation out of the line for training or refit -- with death, AWOL, or declining to re-up as their only real options for ever leaving the Helmand Valley.

Understandably, while I was there they were having difficulty keeping even 1,500 effectives on the line: although they had far more real fighting experience than almost any other Afghan force, an argument could have been made that the brigade, as a whole, risked becoming combat-ineffective through attrition. I do hope it's changed for the better, but you can see that the arrival of a Marine brigade to join the British brigade already in Helmand means they're certainly now going to be stretched further yet again.

I'd estimate based on those news reports that the Marines have a quarter or better of the province's ANA effectives with them. Well where would those soldiers have come from, exactly? Only from elsewhere in Helmand, for reasons I'll explain below. And because all the urban areas that have been cleared before now need the framework "hold" ops perpetuated, because the strongpoints that were built need garrisons, because the highways need IED sweeps, not to mention because Western mentors are keen to get them off the line to get them on the rifle range or trained in the new machine guns and HMMVs we're trying to give them, 1,500 wasn't enough to support new operations even when it was just the British. Twice during my tour the ANA brigade in Kandahar Province had to send all their available personnel for an extended period just to give the Helmand forces some kind of maneuver element so they could do something other than the framework hold-the-line stuff.

Now obviously the number of Afghan police and soldiers worthy of the name continues to grow slowly, and that is eventually going to offset the kind of pressure the army's under right now. But we should also understand that a lot of the pressure the army is under, in places like Helmand and Kandahar, is an artificiality we've imposed on them. Because we don't allow them to move their forces around.

I mean, really, there are a lot of Afghan soldiers, or at least a lot more than there used to be: 95 out of a planned 160 kandaks, all kinds, at last report. So why is Helmand Province, where the fighting is the worst, limited to less than half a dozen, and always the same ones? Well, that'd be our influence. For reasons alluded to above, Western military planners are extremely uncomfortable with unmentored Afghan soldiers using heavy weapons within their own battlespace. The mentors, shadowing their charges, if nothing else at least give the other Western soldiers some positional awareness on what the Afghans are up to, significantly reducing the potential for fratricide and confusion. The better ones by their example elevate the Afghans to a higher operational tempo than they otherwise might attempt on their own, and the really good ones provide an occasional lesson that maybe Afghans can learn from. But the liaison element is key. You always need someone on the inside of an Afghan kandak or higher headquarters to work together.

The teams that do this are drawn from all over NATO. For obvious reasons, the NATO country that's providing the ground force element in a specific province or region tends to also provide the ANA mentors. It's hard enough to bridge the cultural divides between Afghans and the West without also bringing in any potential element of friction between a battalion commander from one NATO country and a senior mentor from another. All well and good, but now you've tied that Afghan kandak and all its personnel to the province that country is operating in.

Suppose the Afghan Army high command wanted to reinforce a province like Helmand with another few Kandaks right now. Well, you've got two alternatives there. You can either deploy the Afghans unmentored, at which point it now becomes a new burden on the Western forces in that area to take a couple hundred soldiers away from their other duties, because they're sure as heck not going to be able to have ANA in the battlespace, intermixed with their own units, without that liaison. (Plus another couple hundred Western mentors in the originating region would be out of a job, which the donating country might not appreciate.)

Or you bring the other country's mentors along with you. Which could create all kinds of impossible-to-solve problems for NATO chains of authority and logistics. The mentoring nations may have caveats that prevent them from deploying to a combat zone, to start with. So in the end, the path of least resistance prevails, and the mentors -- and their Afghans -- stay right where they are.

This doesn't just affect the reinforcement of problem areas. In the south of the country, mentor teams are desperate to find training time to help their Afghan charges with their new vehicles and weapons, or to, god forbid, conduct a training exercise of some kind. Well the best way to do that would be to focus those kinds of efforts on the Afghans in the relatively quiet north and west of the country, in 207 or 209 Corps (where the majority of mentors are drawn from Italy and Germany respectively, with a supporting role played by a mix of other NATO countries), and rotate the battalions in and out of the operating theatre (you know, the way we do). They may be very well getting good training in 207 and 209; I have no visibility. But those now highly-trained soldiers they've produced are not likely to ever come south to spell off the soldiers already in the south in order to get any kind of fighting-training rotation thing happen. Because they can't come without mentors, and their mentors can't move.

Even a one-for-one swap of just a kandak or a brigade between mentor teams on opposite sides of the country would be extremely difficult (I've never heard of it actually being done): neither mentoring country involved would likely trust the outcome, if only because Afghan logistical administration is so appallingly poor, with most of the equipment of both kandaks likely "disappearing" during the handover in mentoring. So left unchanged, depending on which corps they were assigned to, some Afghan soldiers in some areas will fight until they die or quit, and some will see very little action for years.

(The one clear exception I have ever heard of -- of a mentored ANA kandak operating outside its home area for an extended period -- is, of course, the Canadian-mentored ANA's repeated trips into Helmand to help 3rd Brigade out. As in so many things, we're the exception to the NATO standard on this one. The fact that the British mess food in FOB Price is reportedly the best in the country certainly has nothing to do with that, either.)

Obviously, this is to some degree the byproduct of the West's chain of command issues in Afghanistan. Oversight of mentoring remains split between the U.S. Operation Enduring Freedom and NATO's ISAF deployment. If all the Western soldiers were drawn from the same country, or a highly interoperable smaller coalition of countries, this wouldn't be quite as bad. But really right now each regional command/ANA corps (which map onto each other) is its own independent area of operations, and in most cases the ANA Brigades and corresponding Western forces within each corps can be equally isolated from each other for the reasons above. The U.S. surge into the country right now promises to help with this, if only because a larger portion of troops generally will be drawn from the one country, and a lot of these issues may be accordingly mitigated. That won't help much in Helmand though: most of the U.S.-mentored ANA that could be joined up with the Marines are in Regional Command East, on the Pakistani border, and they're not without things to do themselves.

The real long-term answer is ANSF growth, but that's also hampered right now by the lack of non-U.S. countries coming forward with new offers of mentor support. An unfortunate side effect of this has been a series of attempts to certify ANA units as fully capable combat-wise, so that their mentor support can be drawn down and reassigned or withdrawn. Unfortunately, those never seem to translate into real independence in combat settings, and one can't help feeling a lot of the pressure to draw down mentor support on the better Afghan units has very little to do with improvements in Afghan capability and a lot to do with spreading too little butter over too much bread. So I suspect the Marines are going to have to make due with the Afghan faces they have for now.

It's fair to say a lot of these challenges were unanticipated when we first decided as a military coalition to try to help the Afghans. Part of that is the unique Afghan operating environment, but I would hazard that a larger part is there aren't a lot of well-defined historical models for what it is we've been trying to do here, in terms of military-building. Saying we're beginning to "get" counter-insurgency overall, through the efforts of Petraeus and others, is one thing. But getting right the building of an indigenous, supportive permanent armed force, in the middle of a war, without compromising that force's independence or its leaders' freedom to ignore our wishes in any way, does not have much relation to the sorts of historical COIN models people usually try to drag out.

When you forego from the start any influence over the disciplinary or pay and promotion systems of your indigenous armed force; when you forego all operational control, limiting yourself to monitoring their planning and operations without ever actually taking them over if they start to go sideways; when you are attempting to use the military as an instrument of national unity, rather than the colonial practice of employing and arming one tribe or minority to oppose your will over another's; when you're fighting an insurgency for the people, rather than conducting one with them against a third-party oppressor; when you're supplying all their equipment and financing, but trusting them to keep track of it; you're in a whole different place than the British army ever was with Clive, or Lawrence, or Wingate, or all the other cliched role models we tend to trot out (Algeria, Malaya, etc.).

Our real predecessors as mentors in Afghanistan would seem to be relatively less-studied figures: more on the lines of a Von Steuben at Valley Forge, or a John Paul Vann in his pre-Ap Bac days, or the Jedburgh teams in the Second World War, or even British Indian Department types in colonial America like Matthew Elliott and William Johnson: influencing military forces positively without ever exerting leadership over them. Truly, the prehistory of operational mentoring as a military art, even though it would appear to be a key component of modern COIN, has yet to be written. And it's partly because of that, that when it finally is, I'm frankly not sure yet that the current Afghan experiment is going to be its most glorious chapter.

Posted by BruceR at 03:07 PM