February 21, 2010

Kunduz, again

Sigh. Were the NATO troops German again? It's their province.

Posted by BruceR at 09:10 PM

Marja: not going too well, 2: the ANA performance

The ANA in Helmand is not acquitting itself well in the eyes or Marines or accompanying reporters:

Statements from Kabul have said the Afghan military is planning the missions and leading both the fight and the effort to engage with Afghan civilians caught between the Taliban and the newly arrived troops.

But that assertion conflicts with what is visible in the field. In every engagement between the Taliban and one front-line American Marine unit, the operation has been led in almost every significant sense by American officers and troops. They organized the forces for battle, transported them in American vehicles and helicopters from Western-run bases into Taliban-held ground, and have been the primary fighting force each day.

The comparisons with the reporting of Sheehan and Halberstam in January 1963 Saigon should be obvious. We continue to see near Ap Bac levels of discrepancy between the people who call things as they see them, and official estimates of Afghan military capability.

The good news is, as the piece says, Afghan soldiers are "better than Iraqis" as soldiers. But their leadership at all levels is still nowhere what Western soldiers would consider acceptable. One can only restate this is largely because it was never allowed to emerge organically in a societally integrated fashion from the start, and cannot now due to the inability to disentangle ANA and ISAF operations into separate spheres of operating responsibility at any level. They have become our door-kickers. And for that they don't need their own leaders: in fact, stronger leadership on their part would now be an even greater inconvenience to us than the lack of it.

Star picture of ANA ops from Marja, taken last week. Note how there's no military utility here: if that door is booby trapped they're still all in the blast area, and no one's covering the door in case there's a bad guy behind it. It's purely so that it's an Afghan rather than an ISAF soldier is seen to be doing the property damage and/or entering the private dwelling.

Note how the story is about how a platoon of ANA joins a company of Marines and then is split up among its squads, not treated in any way as an extra, discrete platoon. So what exactly is that Captain commanding it, Amanullah, leading? Yes, he may be an unimpressive leader, but was he unimpressive before he was deprived of any real authority, or because of it? And how exactly now will he reclaim it in the eyes of his men as well as his own mind, short of passively resisting Marine authority until they are rotated somewhere else? His actions, the refusal to bring his men food and water, his slowing down the tempo of operations, his stealing a swig from a soldier's Red Bull, need to be seen in this context.

My point is not that Capt Amanullah is a competent officer. He probably isn't. But you have to interpret his actions as they're described here at least in part as a reaction to how he and his men are being treated by a company of fresh, gung-ho, no-excuses Marines.

Chivers and the Times portray this as an ANA failing: "officers and soldiers follow behind the Americans and do what they are told." But that is what we demanded they do. Why is it not an ISAF failing that they could not give this operation, or a significant part of it, to an Afghan battalion or higher level organization with imbedded enablers, working in their own box? Would they have done things differently? Certainly. Badly? Probably. Would they have been defeated like the ARVN at Ap Bac? Possibly. But the alternative described here, if that were all that was ever tried, is a proven dead end.

The way the ANA has been embedded (without dedicated Western mentors alongside) with this Marine company is something of a necessary evil. These Marines need their "Afghan face." But Company K's way is not in any way a step on the road to greater capability: it is its antithesis. (And the mentored ANA battalion the Canadians are embedded with in Marja are doing a bit better, I suspect. Not a lot. But a bit.)

UPDATE: Just to clarify, I don't think these Marines on the whole are doing anything wrong, or the piece is inaccurate. But note the piece does refer to more "competent Afghan contingents" out there than Capt. Amanullah and his platoon. And please try to consider that before you give someone the responsibilities of a senior officer (coordinating air support, arranging ones own logistics) you first need to give them the responsibilities of a junior officer. And this particular poor Afghan captain, whose men have been parcelled out a couple to a section while he walks along beside the Marine company commander and "learns command", and who feels he has to reassert his authority over his men by such petty acts as stealing a can of Red Bull or slowing up their resupply or their start times in the morning, has not been given that level of responsibility by Westerners yet. And so it has been all the way up the chain. They might have been better having a Marine platoon working with and for an Afghan company. But there's not enough ANA for that, and all the Western troops need their door kickers, and in an offensive against a highly competent enemy, that's a huge risk of mission failure you'd be assuming. This is the dilemma. The training and development of Capt Amanullah's platoon needs to take a hit here to support the Marja offensive, in order that the offensive itself can give enough security that the training and development of other ANSF can occur far away from that fight. At best the improvement to security capacity from Marja is a second-order effect.

Oh, and this is petty, but why couldn't the Marine have just GIVEN the soldier the can of Red Bull, instead of demanding his unit patch in return, in front of his officer? It surely would have been easier for him to get another drink than for the Afghan soldier to get his uniform back in order. (It's not like he has another one, or he could drop by the company quartermaster's to report the loss and pick a new one up, even if they were at the "largest Marine base in Helmand".) Yes, soldiers trade articles off their uniform all the time and claim them to have been "lost" later. I know. But we generally don't do it when the leadership is looking on. Yes, the officer should have just told the soldier he was shaming his unit for trading a badge of ANA and unit pride for a caffeine drink. But instead I expect he chose to teach him a lesson his own way. Because otherwise next week all his troops would be missing parts of their uniform, weapons, etc. that were traded away for little Western luxuries, like so much Indian beads. Or he could have just been a jerk. Or even a little of both.

Posted by BruceR at 08:57 PM

Marja: not going too well

The ISAF move into Marja, in Helmand province, which Canadian OMLT personnel are participating in, seems to be turning into more of the usual Afghan story. WashPost:

The civilian team's most important immediate task will be to assist the newly appointed district governor, Haji Zahir, who recently returned to Afghanistan after 15 years in Germany. Zahir plans to make his first trip to Marja in the coming days.

A key challenge for the stabilization team and Marine commanders will be transforming Zahir, who does not hail from Marja and knows few people there, into an influential local figure. Helmand provincial governor Gulab Mangal selected him for the post largely because he is a friend, but in meetings of tribal elders before the operation, he was primarily a backbencher.

The man with the most sway in Marja is Abdul Rahman Jan, the former police chief in Helmand. His officers in Marja were so corrupt and ruthless -- their trademark was summary executions -- that many residents welcomed the Taliban as a more humane alternative.

Although Jan, who has extensive ties to narcotics traffickers, was removed from his post in 2005 after pressure from the British government, which was then about to send forces to Helmand, he remains close to Karzai

Government in a box? More like government in a fedex package.

Posted by BruceR at 08:33 PM