It’s 2015 and across Afghanistan security institutions are failing. NATO wonders: What Went Wrong?
Bernard Fall wrote that “When a country is being subverted it is not being outfought; it is being out administered” and that is has certainly proven true in Afghanistan.
In 2011 I wrote an article stating my belief that the Coalition had failed to understand the Afghans capabilities and, instead, imposed systems that were far too complex and unsustainable. I still maintain we tried to do too much (complex, technology based systems) with too little (a human capital base that ranks among the least literate in the world) in too short a time (Afghan literacy is a generational issue). I closed that article saying “History will ask; why did they think that would work”?
What Afghanistan looks like in 2015
If one accepts Bob Woodward’s reporting in “Obama’s War” (and I do) various presidential advisors consistently identified key factors to success in Afghanistan: solving the Pakistan issue, good governance, addressing the rampant corruption and the creation of a credible Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). In fact, the decision to ‘surge’ in 2009 intended to set conditions to address those very matters.
Despite two different administration’s seemed understanding of the necessity of fighting corruption and demanding good governance they were, in the larger picture, essentially ignored under the auspices of Afghan sovereignty. There are endless examples of rampant corruption across the breadth of the Afghan government and security forces yet there are NO instances of major convictions for those crimes. Literally, billions of dollars were diverted to private coffers by malign actors yet no one was held accountable--thus the citizenry developed a decided disdain for the government in power. There is little evidence that either the Greater Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s (GIROA) policing efforts or their judiciary helped the government of Afghanistan in a way that made any significant, positive impact with respect to the daily lives of the people. With that in mind the people implicitly understood that when the Coalition Forces left the government would not be able to lead because the citizenry neither believed in, nor trusted, the government. Had the citizens possessed the confidence that their government’s security forces would protect them and provide emergency services, they would likely have been loyal to the state. Quite simply, the legitimacy of their government was at stake and they failed.
Everyone failed in terms of holding anyone accountable. The same power brokers and malign actors who controlled Afghanistan throughout the last 20-30 years of conflict are still empowered. A culture of impunity developed and that built public distrust. ANSF Generals were caught red-handed and either not punished or, worse, transferred to other assignments for fear of disrupting political power bases. Our insistence that Afghanistan be treated as a sovereign nation clouded our judgment and we continued to pour billions of dollars into the country without prosecutions or forced retirements. Instead, we took no action other than continually demanding that GIROA address the issue of epidemic corruption which touched virtually every facet of the ANSF. Quite simply, we implicitly condoned corruption by failing to act in any meaningful way. That having been said, in 2015 corruption continues unabated and increasingly impacts the ANSF while the overall pool of donor nation funding declines resulting in ever greater infighting over ever smaller resources.
Crippling corruption not only created systemic failures of governance but directly impacted ANSF logistics as well. Corruption affected the quantity and quality of the stocks in the national depots leaving desperately needed fuel, clothing and equipment in short supply. Couple those shortages with the fact Afghanistan’s ring road offers the only significant supply route supporting the ANSF. Along its length strategic insurgent interdiction has resulted in convoy delays and losses that severely curtail the flow of critical supplies to the provincial security forces. In response the ANSF has committed extraordinary assets to road clearing/ security which, subsequently, is adversely affecting maneuver operations. In fact, over large parts of the country offensive operations have ceased entirely and, in cases even resulted in a withdrawal of security forces from key terrain. Similarly, the vaunted fiber optic cable ring offering national connectivity was easily cut, disrupting the advanced information management systems and communications designed around the system rendering them virtually inoperable. Moreover, the Afghans cannot afford the cost of the satellite bandwidth necessary to offset the loss of the fiber optic system. Without adequate supplies and effective communications large portions of the east, south and west are effectively isolated from Kabul and operational readiness and living conditions have plummeted. Those conditions, coupled with the abandonment of key terrain have caused increasing numbers of security force to become disillusioned and normally high attrition rates have swelled to epidemic, levels that greatly exceed the rate at which new recruits are being added.
How did this happen?
We failed to grasp the depth of the Afghan environment as it related to their religion, culture and levels of literacy. In doing so we established far, far too advanced technology systems and bureaucratic processes mirroring Western Governments but which far exceeded the Afghans human, religious, and cultural capacities.
We simply ignored the old adage “First Crawl, then Walk, then Run” as it applies to a long term transition plan for step-by-step growth in a society where cultural acceptance, technological infrastructure, literacy and economic capability were all critical factors to success or failure. When you do not clearly define your mission any destination along the way can be deemed ‘mission accomplished’ even though the end result may well be expensive as well as lacking in focus to the point of being dysfunctional---there was never a clearly defined end state with respect to what we hoped to accomplish with the ANSF as a whole. Just what was our plan for the interrelation of army and police for 2014 and beyond?
We worked to the Coalition timeline rather than an Afghan timeline. The rate of growth of the ANSF overwhelmed the institutional reforms required for the development of, and control over, independent, democratic security institutions. As a result, corruption was pervasive. For example; the widespread demand for bribes by the security forces themselves eroded the confidence of the public. Security forces require the support and trust of the public before they can enjoy any degree of success. In essence, we did not take the time to generate and build a shared appreciation of the problem and a way forward. Instead we forced our solutions and our timelines onto them. They deferred, rather than agreed, with us because that was the path to the most money, which we held and they wanted. Therefore, as we withdrew, few of our processes survived because they were not Afghan processes.
The unrealistic growth of the forces emphasized quantity rather than quality. This led to poor leadership, low rates of literacy as well as poorly trained and motivated personnel. Literacy levels failed to reach the minimum required proficiencies extolled by the Coalition as we failed to recognize that significant improvements in literacy across a society are generational in nature. In many cases the ‘solution’ worked like this: An American Air Force officer designed an Army unit that was staffed with largely illiterate forces, trained by a British officer, validated by a Canadian officer and later mentored by Italian officers and NCOs….sound like a recipe for success? Make no mistake, while we are all members of the same Coalition we all have slightly different ways of doing things and the result often confused the Afghans. Why not a single coalition member embedded with the unit throughout?
Our focus on the Afghan leadership was too technocratic. We magnified the smallest successes of the Afghan leaders; even when those successes were, in reality, the result of Coalition efforts. Conversely, we minimized failures of the Afghan leaders. Our assessments focused on the numbers, charts, and other factors of quantity while the human side of the processes, the quality factor, including deliberate misbehavior of the high-positioned Afghan actors was condoned.
We focused on the wrong level. The Coalition focused on building national-level capabilities and institutions. At the same time we ignored the provincial level is the true locus of power and influence in Afghanistan. We over-estimated the ability of Kabul to exert control over outcomes in the rest of the country. Because of that, much of our effort became irrelevant. To the average Afghan, Kabul and a national government are an abstraction, and while our metrics for success led us to believe we were improving Afghanistan, in reality we were really just improving Kabul.
We trained the wrong leaders. In an effort to bring current changes to the leadership of the ANSF, we trained the senior leadership but failed to train their successors. The second tier followed by example and fell into the cycle of graft and corruption they observed as they grew up within the system. To effect enduring change we should have trained those who would have the most impact in the future. Training the junior members of the organization provides the greatest return on investment because those personnel will remain a part of the system long enough to have the largest impact; even if it meant hand picking them and taking them out of the country for a 1-2 year training program
We created an unsustainable level of cost and complexity. We thought we were shattering the slow-moving Soviet style bureaucracy in the belief that was the major impediment to progress. What we failed to realize was that the Soviet system was something the Afghans were comfortable with and could manage. Instead we replaced that ‘peasant’ run style of bureaucracy of centralized control, which was compatible with low literacy, with a dynamic staff system. Dynamic staff systems require intense coordination, delegation of responsibility, and careful planning; capabilities the ANSF could not internalize in the time available. Thus, once we pulled back they reverted to what they were comfortable with. In much the same manner the physical resources we built/provided -- training centers, headquarters, countless other facilities, vehicle fleets, IT systems, etc. -- can only be managed by the processes we had created, not the ones the Afghans could manage. In the end the ANSF found themselves unable to anticipate requirements, plan and budget effectively, or allocate resources in a timely fashion. As we watched from the sidelines hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure fell into disrepair, were deliberately destroyed or misused and the ANSF failed to reap the benefits of what we had created in their name.
We created ‘needs’ which did not really exist. Just because a single Coalition officer declared that it was a ‘requirement’ did not make it so. Look no further than the following two examples of ‘requirements’: (a) More than 13,000 of vehicles built into what is supposed to be a ‘light infantry’ army. Vehicles require drivers, mechanics, parts and fuel while drivers and mechanics require extensive training. (b) 31,000+ computers for an army that is functionally illiterate and for which we trained less than 2,000 computer operators is not a ‘requirement’ but foolishness. On the equipment side, the byproduct of inadequately trained and too few maintenance personnel resulted in the forced used of contractor based maintenance and unacceptable operational readiness rates. Excess vehicles and equipment accumulated and contributed to the long standing ‘hoarder’ mentality long ingrained in the Afghan mind. Damaged or broken vehicles and equipment were not addressed until the ANSF reached a point at which chronic equipment failure caused mission failure. Even at the most critical junctures leaders failed to understand the logistics picture and were unable to manage sustainment through any semblance of lifecycle management.
We did not take sufficient risk in trusting the Afghans to generate Afghan solutions and were never prepared to let them feel the pain of failure though we often talked of holding them accountable and ensuring their leadership took responsibility. The reality was other than minor, unimportant matters we always bailed them out and they never felt the consequences of poor decisions, corrupt institutions, and ad hoc processes until we left and everything fell apart. In order to truly develop capabilities and capacities we must be willing to accept, or even force, selected, controlled failures. Human nature is to learn more from mistakes, especially mistakes that have some negative impact, than we do from decisions/actions wherein we succeed or are saved from failure through no action of our own.
We greatly exceeded Afghanistan’s economic capacity to sustain the ANSF. For some reason, until far too late in the game, we either ignored or failed to grasp the cost consequences increasingly complex requirements posed. As late as 2010 we were projecting annual budgets of $8B-$9B to sustain the 325,000 man ANSF we were building but where did we think that money would come from? Even worse, when we finally realized the financial risk outweighed the benefit associated with its’ size we persisted in fielding a security force we acknowledged was unsustainable; all at the cost of several hundred million dollars in equipment and personnel costs which we were concurrently planning to downsize! The Afghans simply could not afford the system we built. A common failure of security assistance efforts is to attempt to duplicate our own security architecture for a developing country even though the developing nation clearly lacks the human or financial capital to sustain what we build.
In working with ANA we consciously fielded infantry first, without logistics or other enabler support. Granted logistics are harder to master, require more literate personnel, and thus, take longer but does not that literally scream ‘Enablers First!’ With the infantry at full strength, but poorly supplied, they lost faith. Logistics supports armies and without that support armies fail; it’s really just that simple. Finally recognizing the problem we attempted to surge enablers. Unfortunately, simply filling technical positions with personnel incapable of mastering the requirements of the position does not solve the problem. We simply waited too long to transition from recruiting “numbers” rather than enablers.
The Coalition mandated that the ANSF change from their historical “push” logistics system to the westernized “pull” system; a mandate which only compounded the logistics problem. The head of that new ‘pull’ logistics snake resided in Kabul and the Coalition demonstrated little or no understanding of what issues the ANSF faced as they stockpiled supplies that then sat in Kabul’s warehouses. Without adequate policies and sufficiently trained personnel the logistics systems collapsed.
As a result of the 2014 deadline, the organizational framework (personnel assignments, policies, and procedures) were not in place to sustain the force 2014 and beyond. Rapid expansion of the ANSF and accelerating the need for them to assume the fight, within fixed timelines set by the Coalition’s withdrawal, skewed the perception the ANSF’s capability and masked their readiness to assume responsibility for security
From the outset, policing was militarized so they could 'join in the fight'. Thus, the Ministry of Interiors and its various forces were never effectively shaped into a police model which met the expectations of the people. The model for the Afghan police appeared to be based on Coalition experiences learned elsewhere but which bear little or no resemblance to an Afghan environment where we find no form of stable government but, instead, weak security institutions and extremely low levels of human capital.
The ANSF leadership could not prioritize issues then make hard decisions with respect to resourcing mission essential requirements versus ‘nice to have’ capabilities. Inadequate, initial institutionalized training (partnering and field advising) coupled with epidemic levels of corruption undermined all productive efforts toward that end.
This combination of mistakes created a crippling combination of factors and created a near ‘perfect storm’ for Afghan security forces and led me to the title of this article “What Went Wrong?”
In summary, the ‘next time’ we cannot allow our hubris to again shape our thinking toward the belief that every country’s security force is capable of being forged into a mirror image of our own. We cannot posture about corruption without a willingness to act on it. We cannot ignore the realities of the developing nation’s human capacity, it’s near term economic capabilities or the fact many issues are generational in nature. Quite frankly, Afghanistan required a different approach yet we failed in our analysis, strategy and application of resources; mistakes for which we have paid a horrific price and can ill afford in the future.