November 30, 2009

The most important piece on the Afghan army you'll ever read

The same day I ding his blog, Dave Anderson at Newshoggers points me to something absolutely brilliant.

I cannot recommend this piece, by USMC Col (retd.) Haynes on how to fix Afghan army mentoring, highly enough. It's a brilliant recap of everything the good mentors have been saying in public and in private about the ANA. Everything he says, pro and con, could have been said about the Afghans I worked with in a different corps in a different part of the country. It's pieces like this that keep my hope alive for this mission: for we really are learning how to do this right, bit by precious bit.

I sincerely hope that when people are looking at operationalizing the President's undoubtedly fine words to come tomorrow night about building up Afghan military capacity, in order that the West can leave, they think of this piece. Like so many other good proposals, it assumes a degree of Afghan government cooperation with the plan that has not often been in evidence to date, but other than that, I only wish I'd written it. If we all fail in the end, it will be because advice this good wasn't followed in the end:

To get more out of the ANA and decrease the requirement for additional US troops, we urgently need a construct that creates a sense of ANA responsibility and accountability of the security situation in a given area. ANA culture is such that appearance and face saving are strong factors in a leader’s decision-making process. The desire to not “look bad” permeates everything they do. It is pointless to try to change this aspect of their culture, so we must exploit it. Couple their face-saving tendencies with the lack of a clearly articulated ISAF security transition plan and you get the lack of initiative and failure to take risks that we often see in the ANA. Overlay the Soviet background of many of the officers, and you have today’s ANA leadership deficiencies.

Multi-National Force-West’s 2007 Memorandum of Understanding in Al Anbar province with the Iraqi Army (IA) is a successful security transition model worthy of close examination. This agreement defined relationships between coalition and Iraqi units with an eye always toward handing over areas of operational responsibility to the Iraqi Army. Once capable, an IA unit was released from the Tactical Control of the coalition and given responsibility for a specific area of operations (AO) while MNF-W units remained in overwatch as required by the threat and the competence of the Iraqi unit. The purpose was always to take the “training wheels” off as early as possible while maintaining a watchful eye to prevent catastrophe. Embedded advisors provided the linkage to in-extremis US support. Further, MNF-W and the Iraqi Army had the option to establish a Combined Operating Area “when both 1st IA Division and MNF-W ground forces are conducting combined tactical operations within the same area of operations.” A MNF-W like model must be developed and implemented in Afghanistan now, with an eye toward Provincial Afghan control as soon as possible.

Exactly, exactly right. In Afghanistan when I was there, there was not even a formalization of a command relationship ("Tactical Control" being the loosest defined in NATO doctrine) as soldiers understand the term with regard to the ANA. They did their thing, and we did ours, in overlapping battlespace. We accordingly violated that key military principle of "Unity of Command" in nearly every last thing we did. It seemed to get us, and them, almost exactly nowhere. That seems the biggest difference right now between how the comparatively successful ETT effort in Iraq, where command relationships between the US and the Iraqi Army, albeit loose ones and still supplanted by a mentor-liaison framework, were established, and the questionable parallel OMLT efforts in Afghanistan, where command relationships between the Afghan forces and ISAF, at least while I was there, remained largely undefined.

Posted by BruceR at 08:30 PM

David Ray dis-association

For the record, I have no time or patience for certifiable Truther nutballs like David Ray Griffin. For a blog like Newshoggers to link to him and this blog in near-successive posts diminishes them and this site by association (yes, I recognize it's a group blog, with the two posts coming from different authors), whether Griffin turns out to be right about Osama's fate or not. There are better sources on the question. David Aaronovitch's latest book is worth a read in this regard. (I also thought the Fifth Estate's recent doc on the Truthers that didn't "take sides" was yet another low point for Canadian journalism, that diminishes everything else they've ever done, as well.)

UPDATE: Newshoggers has responded by removing their link to this site.

Posted by BruceR at 09:28 AM

Afghan reading catchup

Back from a little business trip where I was too busy to blog... a couple random thoughts.

I'm hereby coining the phrase "Going Gant", a combination of "Going Galt" and "Going Kurtz," to describe the new emphasis on Special Forces-type disrupt operations using tribal auxiliaries in uncontrolled areas of Afghanistan. Maj. Gant, who is the exemplar of what this would look like, has since been sent to Iraq, and many have raised perfectly valid criticisms about how this wouldn't work, at least as a comprehensive Afghan security strategy, that don't need reiteration here.

That said, there's a bit of a category error here. You can't rebuild Afghanistan using Gant's methods, true, but I think it's really being looked into more as another method of keeping the enemy hopping in areas where a sustained government or ISAF presence is uneconomical at present. And that's not a totally crazy idea. If the alternatives when all you're trying to do is "sustain the disrupt" are Predator strikes and SOF kinetic ops involving black-painted helicopters and door-kicking, Gant-type teams could even be the more economical way of keeping the Taliban from settling down in an uncontrolled area. (Pat Lang, who if nothing else has danced this dance before, is one of those who thinks it has promise in that more limited context.)

There's two requirements for that limited-Gant-type approach to work that haven't been clearly identified yet, though. One is a clear delineation by ISAF and the Karzai government of what parts of the country are "outside the inkspot" at present. Without calling them "free-fire zones" or the like, both Afghans and westerners need to be clear what districts of the country are the preserve of SOF, SF, etc., and which parts are the preserve of ANSF, their mentors, and PRTs. Because otherwise you'll be into a friendly-fire situation before the week's out.

And for that division between the "hold" and the "clear" you'd need the full cooperation of the Afghan government, which is always loathe to admit it doesn't control a district any longer. Because otherwise they'll continue to send fresh police and poorly protected soldiers into areas outside the inkspot to fly flags at district centres, and desert, be killed, or be suborned (and, assuming there's a Gant team around, inevitably shoot at or be shot by them). Of course, it's fair to say a LOT of other things could have been going better if we'd had the "full cooperation of the Karzai government", too... that's hardly a trivial objection to even a limited Gant-type approach.

Other points: with regard to the fallout from the Kunduz attack: keep it coming. There's more people that need firing over this one yet. It's hard to count the number of rules and best-practices that were broken or disregarded here if this had happened in a Canadian AO, but I'll start: single-source humint, no eyes-on from the ground, no apparent PID, no apparent "green PA" or CDA checks, on a truck stuck in a river and not going anywhere fast, practically within sight of the base, and within easy Quick Reaction Force range. In the KAF context, it'd be like calling in an air strike because someone had reported sounds of firing at Tarnak Farms. (Oh, yeah... right. Question: is there a USAF investigation on Kunduz ongoing? If not, why not?) Watching the leaked aerial footage in Bild is worth your time.

And as far as ANA desertion rates, you may well have read it here first, but good work to Gareth Porter for exploring the inconsistencies in U.S. government reporting. Any story with the phrase "questionable accounting methods" is also worth the time spent. I would agree with the Mason and Jefferson study mentioned by Porter, that 100,000 seems a pretty realistic maximum size for the ANA alone. Any plans to grow much beyond that are not likely to succeed in real-world timescales.

Finally, from the Star:

But what concerns [photographer Louie Palu] more is the increasing number of so-called "in-field" detainees – Afghan men taken into custody in Afghan-led operations, with Canadian or U.S. soldiers (or both) present as advisors.

"When the blended mentoring teams capture a detainee, who does he belong to? They become Afghan detainees because the Afghans are in the lead."

Buried in a weekend edition, Palu has pinpointed the shoe that hasn't dropped yet on the Colvin detainee allegations ("in-field transfers" is the more common term). It isn't just those taken today in mentored operations, although I'm sure that number is increasing. Over the last couple years, dozens of Afghans have been taken on ISAF-led ops in Kandahar Province and handed over at the point of capture by ISAF personnel to participating Afghan security forces. Because they were never technically in Western hands for any extended period, there is no reporting requirement imposed on the Afghans under our existing protocols. Unavoidable? Probably. But supporters of the mission might want to continue to keep their arms braced on the seat-back in front of them, because at some point the media may connect those dots.

Posted by BruceR at 09:08 AM