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