Small Wars Journal

The NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan: A Game-Changer; Lest We Forget.

Sat, 12/05/2015 - 6:15pm

The NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan: A Game-Changer; Lest We Forget.

Nick Barley

Much has been learnt from recent U.S. and NATO combat operations in Afghanistan (2001-2014), and it has become a significant part in the wider debate on what future land operations will look like, and how militaries should prepare for them – or not.[1] One of the recognised successes has been the importance of Security Force Assistance[2] and Military Capacity Building[3], which was embodied in the NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan (NTM-A). This article will highlight some of the hard irreconcilable realities and complexities encountered by the NTM-A mission, and also emphasize the central role it played in ‘Transitioning Security to an Afghan Lead’ as part of a deliberate conditions-led exit strategy for US and NATO forces.                                                                                                                                

In 2001, U.S. and British forces alongside the Northern Alliance toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in a swift campaign that employed the ‘light footprint’ model of Special Forces networked to the firepower provided by Precision Guided Munitions while also enabling indigenous forces.[4] It resulted in the decisive removal of the Taliban regime and their al-Qaeda guests, but not their destruction as they dispersed in the face of the onslaught. But by 2009, the U.S.-led NATO Coalition, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), had becoming mired in an insurgency that had claimed the lives of thousands, cost billions, and showed no signs of lessening. That same year, nearly seven years after the fall of the Taliban regime, the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) was established to build an Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) so that by the end of 2014, the Afghan Army and Police would be able to take full responsibility for securing their nation and its people. It was a plan to ‘transition’ security responsibilities to the Afghans in order to set the political and military conditions to drawdown NATO forces. NTM-A was to play a central role in contributing to this end state, but it was not without its challenges, frustrations and setbacks.

Afghanistan (2001-2009): A Confused Beginning

The force generation and development of the ANA was an ad-hoc affair prior to 2009. Between 2001 and 2009 vital time was lost with the British ambassador to Afghanistan declaring that, ‘...the opportunity to train and equip the [ANSF] to fill the power vacuum was missed, allowing the Taliban to return.’[5]  There were a number of reasons behind this missed opportunity. There was the dissonant dual-policy that included a ‘population-centric’ counter-insurgency campaign nested within a stabilization operation, and an ‘enemy-centric’ counter-terrorism campaign which was part of America’s ‘Global War on Terror.’ Adding to the complexity was the U.S. stance on Pakistan where a disparate policy distinction between al-Qaeda and the Taliban insurgency led to a ‘misguided focus’ on countering al-Qaeda while underrating the Taliban threat and allowing the insurgents’ access to ‘cross-border sanctuaries and safe havens.[6]

It was also during this period that America’s military main effort was Operation Iraqi Freedom.[7] By April 2008 there were just 47,332 NATO Coalition troops in Afghanistan alongside just over 50,000 newly trained Afghan troops and 75,558 Afghan National Police – a pitiful force laydown in a country the size of Afghanistan.[8] It was during this period that a resurgent Taliban began to exert itself, and it was only with the subsequent drawdown of the military in Iraq  in 2008 that forces were available to conduct a series of troop surges to get ‘boots on the ground’ in Afghanistan.

2009 was a marker in the Afghan conflict. It was the year that the ISAF Commander, General Stanley A. McChrystal, declared that, ‘the situation in Afghanistan is serious...we face not only a resilient and growing insurgency; there is also a crisis of confidence among Afghans.’[9] That same year the U.S. responded by authorising a 33,000 troop surge as part of a full-spectrum counter-insurgency effort that blunted the Taliban’s momentum on the battlefield, while the British Army issued its Op Entirety order which placed its land forces on a campaign footing for Afghanistan.[10]

Also in 2009, the NATO heads of State and Government decided to expand ISAF’s mission to oversee higher level training and mentoring of the ANSF. Two new headquarters were established beneath the ‘four-star’ ISAF headquarters to delineate responsibility. Both were ‘three-star’ headquarters of equal importance with ISAF Joint Command (IJC), ‘fighting the fight’, while NTM-A was created to develop an ANA of 195,000 by October 2012 – within an ANSF of 352,000. At the Lisbon Summit in 2010, NATO reaffirmed its ‘Enduring Partnership’ and commitment to Afghanistan, and announced the launch of a policy of ‘Transition’ whereby the ANSF were to take an ‘Afghan Lead’ in security. Implementation began in July 2011 with the end state being the ANSF assuming the security lead in operations across Afghanistan by the end of 2014.[11] There appeared an end date. As NATO’s Senior Civilian Representative declared, the theme for 2011-14 would be a, ‘comprehensive transition from stabilization to sustainment.’[12]

Building an Army: Some of the Early Complexities

When the Northern Alliance rumbled into Kabul alongside British and US Special Forces and deposed the Taliban, they numbered around 50,000.[13] A militia force composed largely of Tajiks from the Panjshir Valley and the Shamali Plain, they became a key player in shaping the ANA along with the remnants of the mujahedeen and local militias.

The Northern Alliance was subsequently dissolved and reformed under the aegis of the Afghan Interim Administration, into eight regional corps that were to form the backbone of the fledgling Afghan Military Forces (AMF).[14] During this rebranding phase the active militia personnel shrunk from 75,000 in 2002 to 45,000 by the end of 2003, but the haphazard approach to the subsequent demobilization and reintegration of these Mujahedeen and militias did much to undermine ANA professionalism with such programs being little more than the distribution of patronages by a few Afghan elite.[15]

The result was that in the early years of ANA development a patchwork of command structures and little coordination between ISAF, U.S. forces and the Afghan MoD, made for only incremental and stuttering progress.  Between 2002 and late 2003, Afghan military development followed a disparate three track course. First, the remnants of the Afghan Military Forces (AMF) comprised the bulk of the security forces and deployed under the Afghan Ministry of Defence (MoD). Second, in the south, Afghan militias were trained by U.S. Special Forces to fight the counter-terrorist campaign under Operation Enduring Freedom.[16] And third, the ANA was slowly being developed by the U.S. military.[17]

The task of building the ANA was headed by the U.S.-led Office of Military Cooperation-Afghanistan (OMC-A) which launched a programme to train a 1,800 strong brigade. OMC-A was later reorganised into the Office of Security Cooperation-Afghanistan (OSC-A) when it assumed the additional mission of training the ANP too. In 2005 it was reorganised again and named the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A) and made responsible for manning, equipping and training both the ANA and ANP.[18] But although the U.S. provided more than $10 billion to develop the ANA between 2002 and 2008, this considerable investment failed to achieve the desired results because of chronic shortfalls in training personnel, faulty equipment, slow infrastructure development, poor logistics and crippling army attrition rates.[19] An analysis by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in January 2009 revealed that Afghan security forces were unable to account for thousands of weapons donated to the army over a period of eight years, and in June 2009, Commander ISAF General McChrystal, identified the under-resourcing of the ANSF as one of the chief obstacles to a successful ‘population-centric’ counter-insurgency campaign.[20]

Building the ANA: The NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A)

In November 2009, nearly seven years after the initial intervention,  all the force generation, equipping, training, professionalization and mentoring of the ANSF was centralised under NTM-A. Nested within a counter-insurgency campaign, the Commander of NTM-A, Lt General William B. Caldwell IV, described the NTM-A role thus:

NTM-A has been charged with building Afghan capacity in four primary areas: training and equipping the ANSF, developing the Ministry of Interior (MOI) and the Ministry of Defence (MOD); improving the country’s human capital; and investing in Afghanistan’s physical capital. Only after Afghanistan security institutions are self-sufficient and self sustaining will it be possible for the Afghans government to make geographic transition goals durable.[21]

Building the ANA was now on the strategic main effort.

ANA Structure: Structured Against What Threat?

In the beginning the ANA force structure was initially organised as an infantry-centric force that was dependent on NATO Coalition support to provide fires, ISTAR, route clearance, combat and construction engineering, and other critical enablers. It was an ‘Afghan surge’ to meet the resurgent Taliban and improve the ‘boots on the ground’ numbers that the NATO Coalition was reluctant to provide. Once the infantry kandaks (units) had been generated, twelve branch and vocational schools were established between 2010 and 2011 that specialised in engineering, artillery, logistics, maintenance and professional development.[22] NTM-A was beginning to create the foundations to ensure the ANA were self-sufficient. No longer was it just about quantity, there was a recognised requirement to improve quality as well.

The ANA force structure was a conventional force that was divided into six corps and one division.  The six corps were regionally based and partnered with NATO Coalition Regional Commands with a division centred in Kabul. Within each corps were three to four brigades each comprising four infantry kandaks, a combat support kandak, and a combat service support kandak. Within each corps were route clearance companies that cleared the IED threat, military police companies, an engineer kandak, military intelligence companies, a combat logistics kandak and an attached commando kandak.[23] Of note was the absence of tank and rocket kandaks which the ANA coveted for broader inter-state and regional balance-of-power considerations, but this was addressed later in 2012 with the generation of six Mobile Strike Force kandaks.[24] What was alarming were the lack of kandaks that resembled anything like maintenance units, and more worryingly still, it appeared that the whole mechanised force structure was being laid atop a very unstable foundation.

Leadership: Serve to Lead?

The Afghans had been fighting for nearly 35 years and their tactical leadership was beyond repute, however their operational and organisational leadership at the higher levels was questionable. In addition to the officers from the various Afghan forces and newly recruited young officers, former mujahedeen fighters were selected, vetted and then streamed through a Mujahedeen Integration Course with an average of about 520 ex-Mujahedeen joining the officer corps each year.[25] These officers were then responsible for an infantry-centric mechanized army that was hundreds of thousands strong, with billions of dollars worth of new equipment. Few of them had formal staff training, some could not read or write, and many owed their positions to patronage.

According to some reports, the root of the ANA leadership problem lay at the top between the Afghan MoD and the General Staff with ‘both having played the role of spoiler rather then facilitator of army development’.[26] An Afghan officer observed that tensions remained between high ranking Pashtun and Tajik officers which ‘... force senior commanders to choose sides... often to the detriment of the cohesiveness of their units.’[27] Furthermore, with little progress made in codifying the military’s administrative structures, army appointments remained politicised and demarcations of authority were unclear.[28]

Another weakness within the leadership which had corrosive permutations throughout the ANA was the weak relationship between the officers and the NCOs. NCOs were not empowered by the officers to take responsibility nor encouraged to use their initiative. While the reasons behind this may have been ‘cultural or societal’ as some analysts have suggested, the result was that a whole leadership layer of NCOs experience and capability was neglected and marginalised.[29] As a Canadian officer remarked ‘...NCOs are treated as any other soldiers. They are not trusted to do the work of NCOs – instead, this work is handled by officers.’[30] The NCO backbone of the ANSF was effectively crippled.

These were all recognised concerns of the Afghan leadership and steps were taken to address them. Under NTM-A, institutions such as the National Military Academy of Afghanistan, the Combined Sergeant Majors Course and the Non-Commissioned Officer Leader development course were made part of a broader institution called the Afghan National Security University.[31] This was a practical development but there remained a layer of ex-Soviet trained or former Mujahedeen senior officers sitting above newly trained professional young officers who were being taught to use their initiative and  ‘mission command’. The professionalization of the leadership would not take just 5-6 years but more like 15-20 years to permeate the whole officer and NCO corps.

Equipment: A First Worlds Worth of Equipment Issued to a Third World Nation

Prior to NTM-A the delivery of equipment to the ANA was desultory and ad hoc at best. ANA units that did not receive new weapons had to use refurbished Warsaw Pact weapons drawn from demobilised militias.[32] But with the establishment of NTM-A, NATO, and predominantly the U.S., began equipping the entire ANSF with new NATO grade equipment with Commander NTM-A writing that this, ‘significant investment has been made to consciously provide the army, air forces and police with capable, affordable and sustainable weapons, vehicles, equipment and infrastructure.’[33] Between November 2009 and August 2011, NTM-A  issued 56,859 weapons, 10,700 vehicles and 70,262 communications assets with a net growth of 74,000 ANA officers and soldiers – the equivalent to 64 new kandaks worth of equipment.[34] This was impressive and certainly demonstrated commitment but it was also a ‘First Worlds’ worth of military equipment being issued to a ‘Third World’ army. The ANA was effectively being Westernised with all of the liabilities of Western technology but few of its assets. This was recognised by the U.S. DoD Inspector General’s Office who found that, ‘…the ANSF logistics systems that support the ANA and ANP remain institutionally immature and insufficiently effective.’[35]

Manning: Recruitment, Retention and Attrition.

The recruiting and vetting process for both the ANA and ANP was a national program designed to minimise the influence of local strongmen and improve the ethnic balance among the enlisted ranks. It was a three step process that involved health and criminal screenings, biometric scanning, and the requirement for two village elders to vouch for a prospective soldier’s integrity. Recruiting however, had never been a problem with the Kabul Military Training Centre (KMTC) having never missed a recruiting target.[36]

But this recruitment was also a source of division as far as ethnic diversity and quotas were concerned. Because of Afghanistan’s ethnic makeup, the template approved by the MoD for recruitment directed that the ANA should reach a personnel quota of 42 percent Pashtun, 27 percent Tajik, 9 percent Uzbek, 9 percent Hazara and 13 percent others such as Arab, Baluch and Nuristani.[37] But this idealism was at odds with socio-political and historical realities. The Western partnership with the non-Pashtun groups of the Northern Alliance during the initial conflict were a source of suspicion to the Pashtun south. Closer scrutiny of the makeup of the ANA revealed that Pashtuns represented 42.6 per cent of the army overall while Tajiks represented 40.98 percent, Hazaras 7.68 percent and Uzbeks 4.05 percent and other minorities 4.68 percent.[38] But while the presence of Pashtuns at all levels corresponded to their proportion to the general population, Tajiks continued to dominate the officer and NCO ranks with evidence that 70 percent of infantry kandak commanders were Tajik, and NTM-A officials confirming that there were far more Tajik officers fighting the insurgency in the Pashtun southern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand and Zabul.[39] This sensitivity made the building of a diverse national army all the more challenging.

It had been estimated that at least one third of the ANA evaporated every year through desertions and non-reenlistment and that the ANA could never grow larger than 100,000 men because at that point the annual attrition losses would equal the maximum number of new recruits entering the force each year.[40] Retaining the soldiers who had been invested in through training was imperative in maintaining the ANA.

Soldiers pay was an issue. In 2006 the pay for a first year Afghan recruit was US$70 a month.[41] Recognising this frugality, the Taliban were offering up to US$300 a month; $10 a day to join an attack against Coalition forces; $15 to launch a single mortar round into a Coalition base; and $1000 for the head of a government worker or foreigner.[42] However, even when young Afghan soldiers did get paid, the absence of an effective banking system prevented them from sending their money home to their families. The only trusted mechanism was to deliver it in person and with transportation as poor as it is, this would often take weeks.

Leave was also a concern. Most NATO Coalition units deployed on intensive counter-insurgency operations with the expectation of returning home to rest and recuperate after 6-12 months. For the ANA, conducting these counter-insurgency operations indefinitely day-in and day-out was unsustainable. It was only in the latter stages of the campaign that the Afghan MoD made an effort to rationalize procedures for the deployment and rotation of Afghan troops. Many Afghan soldiers assigned to units in the south spent ‘….the majority of their three-year tours on the front line with little or no relief.’[43] With no formalised leave plan, soldiers often took matters into their own hands with the holy month of Ramadan and the celebrated week of Eid-il-Fitr being especially notorious for increased AWOLs or soldiers returning to duty late.

However, these issues were soon addressed by NTM-A. Recognising that in the autumn of 2009, ‘the ANA and ANP were experiencing negative growth due to premature attrition,’ the Commander of NTM-A, attempted to address this ‘through better training and pay, predictable rotation policies and better leadership.’[44] Pay was improved from $70 a month for a soldier to $165 a month, and also paid on time – mostly.[45] Also, an additional bonus of $2.50 per day was given to soldiers located in the fourteen provinces designated high threat areas.[46]  It seemed to have worked. From November 2009, the ANSF averaged just fewer than 7,000 recruits with an average net growth of 5,300 per month when attrition was taken into account.[47] However, pay was still $145 less per month than the Taliban offered.

The widespread illiteracy among Afghan recruits also impacted training. According to Lt General Caldwell only 14 percent of new army recruits were functionally literate.[48] This had significant implications and as improving the ‘human capital’ of the ANSF was part of NTM-As mandate, literacy training was key to unlocking the potential of Afghan soldiers. NTM-A employed 2,600 teachers to ensure every recruit received literacy training in accordance with the Afghan Ministry of Education standards, but it cannot be emphasized enough the inertia created by illiterate soldiers and its impact on every facet of administration and organisation.[49]

Security Force Assistance (SFA)

As NTM-A force generated, trained, equipped, mentored and professionalised the ANSF, there emerged three functional and complimentary components to the development of the ANSF. There was the training component which involved training the Afghans both individually and collectively, and which also included training the Afghan trainers to train themselves. There were also the U.S Embedded Training Teams (ETTs) who would physically embed into an Afghan kandak and train, advise, mentor and enable. And the third component included ‘partnership at every level.’ Taken together, these three complimentary components were part of a Transition Process which would lead to the ANA being able to take over security responsibilities fully and enable the Coalitions exit strategy. It came under a more overarching concept of Security Force Assistance (SFA) in which both NTM-A and IJC contributions overlapped. NTM-A effectively force generated and developed the ANSF but IJC contributed to the operationalization of the ANSF with ETTs and Partnering. In October 2011, doctrine formally caught up with this model when ISAF issued a revised campaign plan centred on SFA.[50] In January 2012, Commander ISAF, declared that:

SFA is the single most important change that ISAF will implement in more than ten years of the campaign—it reflects a fundamental milestone in the campaign and change in relationship with the ANSF.[51]

Training: Quantity Now, Quality Later

With the ANA manned and equipped, another crucial element was training. This involved training infantry soldiers, Junior NCOs, Senior NCOs, young officers, staff officers, commanders, engineers, gunners, military police, military intelligence, mechanics, logisticians, machine gunners, administrators, drivers, mortar men, ordnance disposal teams, pilots, military police, pay clerks, communication specialists, and also training to train the trainers who trained the ANA for the future. It was a formidable task. At any one time there were 30,000 Afghans conducting training at 70 sites across the 21 provinces of Afghanistan, and there were around 2,500 Coalition advisors assisting in this training.[52]

Adding to the complexity were the actual numbers and quality of the ISAF training staff. A think-tank reported that ‘...the persistent shortfall in training personnel has been one of the biggest stumbling blocks to successful [ANA] growth since 2003.’[53] This had been a chronic problem and although the numbers of trainers improved, it remained paltry compared to tens of thousands of combat personnel in Afghanistan. As one U.S. defence analyst decried ‘the fact that ANA development remains the strategic main effort yet is so woefully undermanned is a sad contradiction that does major damage to the overall war effort.’[54]

Compounding this quantitative shortfall in ISAF training was the qualitative shortfall. According to a former Chief of Staff for NTM-A, ‘very few personnel in NTM-A have recent experience or prior interest in either Afghanistan or ANSF development. Most trainers were detailed from other units that [did] not specialise in ANSF training.’[55] As U.S. Army Field Manual 3-07.1 also declares, ‘not every Soldier is well suited to perform advisory functions; even those considered to be the best and most experienced have failed at being an advisor.’[56] And as an experienced advisor of the ANA warned, ‘hire the right people for the job, because all it takes is a single point of failure to totally invalidate a whole team’s efforts.’[57] The institutional aversion to the advisor, trainer and mentor role and the prioritization to fill the combat roles in Afghanistan was a difficult balance to strike, but it was an aversion that was eventually overcome.

ANA Individual and Collective Training

When an Afghan recruit began their training, they attended a nine week ‘Basic Warrior’ course at the Kabul Military Training Centre or a Regional Military Training Centre (RMTC). Upon completion, some deployed directly to their regional corps to backfill infantry kandaks that required additional manpower, or they continued specialist training at one of the branch schools. Any recruit with the aptitude or education was fast tracked into the NCO ranks and attended the Squad Leader Course with the recognised risk that they were without any soldiering experience and yet expected to lead upon graduation. Most of these ‘Basic Warriors’ and branch specialists would then attend the Consolidated Fielding Centre (CFC) based in Kabul which fielded newly formed kandaks to their assigned corps.[58] This was openly recognised as a tight timeline but operational requirements outweighed the risk. At CFC these newly formed kandaks were the building blocks of the future ANA and they conducted just nine weeks of individual and collective training together with a new commander, new kandak staff, new soldiers and newly issued equipment.[59] Training focused on ‘survival training’ which included vehicle convoy drills, casualty handling, and reaction to improvised explosive devices and ambushes. On completion of this limited training, these kandaks quite literally drove out the front gate of Pol-e-Charki Garrison with an escorting NATO callsign providing Force Protection – with some kandaks having to transit hundreds of miles as far as Herat, Kandahar, Lashkar Gah and Mazar-e Sharif.[60] Fully aware of these tight training timelines, as the Canadian commander to the KMTC Advisory Group explained, the aim at this stage was to train the ANA to a level where they are, ‘Afghan good enough.’[61]

Embedded Training Teams (ETTs) and Operational Liaison Mentor Teams (OMLTs)

Once these newly formed kandaks deployed from CFC, further mentoring and training assistance was to continue. To assist them in conducting manoeuvre operations, framework patrolling, controlling checkpoints, and dominating their areas in order to ‘protect the people,’ ISAF deployed alongside the ANA kandaks ETTs and Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams (OMLTs) to assist in this ‘on the job training.’[62] The purpose of these small teams of 18-21 officers and SNCOs, was to bridge the gap between basic training and combat operations. ETTs/OMLTs provided crucial combat enablers such as fire support, ISTAR, medical evacuation, command and control and close air support, and they also mentored the kandak staff on how to train, administer, and operate the kandak both in and out of barracks. But mentoring and working alongside a kandak also meant potentially deploying into combat and national caveats were effectively preventing these vitally important ETTs/OMLTs from being filled from the various ISAF nations. As the ANA expanded, more ETTs/OMLTs were required, and as the Transition plan was to ‘thin out’ combat troops, ETTs/OMLTs continued to play an important role in supporting and enabling ANA development and operations.[63]

Partnering : An Afghan Lead

During the early stages of the Afghan conflict the ANA supported ISAF operations. In 2009, General McChrystal was aware of this unbalanced relationship and sought to change it by improving ANA effectiveness through greater ‘partnering’ with other NATO Coalition units. This required ‘… a radically improved partnership at every level, to improve effectiveness and prepare them [ANSF] to take the lead in security operations.’[64] Corps were partnered to ISAF Regional Commands and the process was replicated down to kandak and company level. Ultimately it was part of a ‘transition process’ which would lead to the ANAF being able to take over security responsibilities fully and enable the Coalitions exit strategy. However the intent for an ‘Afghan Lead’ was not always fully understood. As one Australian officer from IJC headquarter remarked, ‘...there is still a reluctance of [ISAF] commanders to accept this risk. They will not include the ANA in operational planning or allow them to take the lead...because they do not want to have failures within their sphere of responsibility.’[65] Working shoulder-to-shoulder, or ‘Shohna-ba-Shohna’ entailed sharing ANA successes, but it also meant sharing ANA failures too… although balanced against not failing too badly.

Cultural Misunderstanding: It Exists

Despite the genuine high regard that many advisors and mentors had for the common Afghan ‘Warrior’, there were cultural differences that added yet another layer of complexity to the training, mentoring, advising and partnering with the ANA.  In a study that researched the cultural incompatibility between the ANA and U.S. Army soldiers, the killings of 58 ISAF personnel by ANA members between May 2007 and May 2011 were investigated.[66] The reading was grim and the threat of ‘green-on-blue’ incidents was real. The conclusion was not so much the threat of Taliban infiltration of the ANA – although that existed too – but rather that such incidents resulted from ‘personal clashes’ and cultural misunderstanding. Factors that fuelled ANA animosity were ‘convoys not allowing traffic to pass; indiscriminate fire that caused civilian casualties; violating female privacy during searches; publically searching ANA; urinating in public; cursing and being rude to ANA and not willing to listen to advice.’[67] Similarly, the study of U.S. soldiers was also negative. Of the ANA they reported ‘pervasive illicit drug use; massive thievery; dishonesty; no integrity; incompetence; unsafe weapon handling; corrupt officers; no real NCO corps; high AWOL rates; laziness and repulsive hygiene.’[68] But this cultural incompatibility also had strategic consequences. The French government's decision to fast-track France’s troop withdrawal, just days after an Afghan soldier gunned down four French soldiers, demonstrated the strategic impact these murders had.[69] The natural reaction to this ‘insider threat’ was to increase visible Force Protection measures but this came at the expense of trust. The cultural misunderstandings were mitigated to a degree through greater awareness and understanding, but the NATO Coalition presence itself was also easily perceived as a form of cultural imperialism and the Taliban were quick to exploit this perception.

The Afghan National Police (ANP) and the Afghan Local Police (ALP)

If there was an Achilles Heel to the SFA and NTM-A efforts it was in the development of the Afghan National Police (ANP). Most NATO nations lacked the capacity to deploy substantial numbers of police trainers to develop the ANP. Instead the ANP were often trained by Coalition military personnel who did not possess the specialist skills to train a functioning police force. The result was an ‘ANP [that were] corrupt, brutal and predatory…[and]…feared and mistrusted by Afghan citizens.’[70] This not only undermined the legitimacy of the Afghan state, but also of NATO who were responsible for training the ANP.

To counter this perception, ISAF sought local ‘buy-in’ in order to circumvent the perceived corruption that led back to the central government. This sought to engage directly with village elders through what became known as the Village Stability Operations (VSO) programme, and the Afghan Local Police (ALP) programme.[71] But the VSO/ALP programme remained a contentious and fraught issue which exemplified the enduring and endemic ‘power sharing’ tensions between central, regional, provincial, village – and ethnic and tribal – interests. The central government was concerned that the ALPs would morph into the fractious militias of the past, but proponents of the concept argued that the ALP programme implicitly (and some would say explicitly) sought to outflank issues with the central government of Afghanistan in order to get on with ‘protecting the population’ from the Taliban insurgency.[72] To appease the Afghan central government the ALP was limited to no more than 30,000, but reportedly they were one of the ‘most resilient institutions’ within the ANSF, incurring high causality rates but also recording one of the ‘lowest monthly attrition rates’ of all ANSF.[73]                                                                                                    

The ANP, VSO and ALP highlight the span of SFA activities, and also the limitations of NTM-A whereby the VSO and ALP were very much the responsibility of other organizations (IJC and Special Forces). The development of these amalgamated para-military, militia, and gendarmerie type forces was beyond the strict parameters of the ANSF, and demonstrated that the spheres of responsibility for SFA were often overlapping and intertwined.

Affordability and Sustainability

Could a poor post-conflict state support a professional mechanised army of 195,000 equipped with modern weaponry and vehicles? Lt. General David Petraeus declared that Afghanistan, ‘would require substantial international funding for years to come in a host of different areas, not the least of which is their security forces' with spending on security forces alone likely exceed total GIRoA  [Government Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] domestic revenue collection for the foreseeable future.[74] This was acknowledged by the U.S.  Secretary of Defence when he declared that, ‘there is realism on our part that it will be some time [before] Afghan security forces can stand on their own.’[75] With the end of NATO’s combat mission on 31 December 2014, Operation Resolute Support stood-up as a ‘train and support’ mission to continue institutional capacity building, protect the investment of 14 years of combat, and ‘finish the job’.[76] NTM-A appears to have genuinely been a ‘game-changer’ that helped turn the momentum of events back in 2009, but regardless of the outcome in Afghanistan and as some have warned, what must not happen is a ‘systems reboot’ similar to the post-Vietnam years where there was a tendency to ‘purge those military innovations most associated with a campaign that [was] considered a failure.’[77] The NTM-A model may have utility again in the future.

End Notes

[1] For a counter argument to the merits of developing land forces designed for nation-building and stabilization read Michael J. Simmering’s ‘The Limitations of Security Force Assistance and the Capabilities of the U.S. Army,’  Small Wars Journal Article , (13 August 2013).

[2] Security Force Assistance (SFA) - The unified action to generate, employ, and sustain local, host-nation or regional security forces in support of a legitimate authority. SFA improves the capability and capacity of host-nation or regional security organization’s security forces - US Army Field Manual 3-07.1 – Security Force Assistance (May 2009) – para 1-1.

[3] Military Capacity Building (MCB) - The generic term used to describe a range of activities in support of developing an indigenous security force, such as training, mentoring, partnering, monitoring and enabling - The British Army Field Manual for Counter Insurgency, Volume 1 – Part 10 (Jan 2010) – pg. 10-1.

[4] The ‘light footprint’ model, in contrast to a ‘heavy conventional footprint,’ aims to achieve effect while keeping costs low – politically, diplomatically, financially and in terms of casualties. But in some situations such as counter-insurgencies, the inherent risk to the ‘light footprint’ is the lack of  mass which can only really be mitigated by indigenous forces if ‘Classic’ COIN is to be practiced  - Major Luján, Fernando, ‘Light Footprints The Future of American Military Intervention’, Centre for a New American Security, (Mar 2013) pg. 8.

[5] Sean Rayment, ‘Our big mistake was to assume we had won, says British ambassador [Sir William Patey] to Afghanistan’, The Telegraph (10 Mar 2012).

[6] An ICG Report suggests that while Pakistan’s military regime acceded to U.S. demands to eliminate al-Qaeda’s presence in Pakistan in return for ‘unconditional support,’ it continued to support its hand-picked Afghan proxies, including the Taliban, the Haqqani network and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e Islami. The result was that cross border sanctuaries in Pakistan and the Pakistani military’s support to the Taliban played a major role in helping the insurgents make a comeback in Afghanistan and destabilize the country - International Crisis Group, ‘A Force in Fragments; Reconstituting the Afghan National Army‘ Asia Report No 190 (12 May 2010), pg. 10.

[7] Operation Iraqi Freedom commenced U.S-led Coalition combat operations in Iraq on 19 March 2003.  Following the initial invasion the U.S-led Coalition comprised around 176,000 soldiers (2004-09). Operation Iraqi Freedom ended 1 September 2010 to be replaced by Operation New Dawn whose purpose was to support stabilization operations with 50,000 U.S troops. Operation New Dawn ended 15 December 2011 with all U.S. troops withdrawn from Iraq -

[8] NATO: Progress in Afghanistan: Bucharest Summit 2-4 April 2008.

[9] General Stanley McChrystal, ‘COMISAF’S Initial Assessment to US Secretary of Defence Robert M. Gate’ NATO ISAF, Afghanistan, (30 Aug 2009), pg. 1-1.

[10] General Sir Richard Dannatt, Keynote Speech, Royal United Services Institute - (23-25 Jun 2009),

[11] NATO Lisbon Summit Declaration (20 Nov 2010).

[12] Mark Sedwill, NATO Senior Civilian Representative: ‘Afghanistan - The 2011-14 Campaign’ (25 Jan 2011).

[13] International Crisis Group, ‘A Force in Fragments; Reconstituting the Afghan National Army‘ Asia Report No 190 (12 May 2010), pg. 3

[14] Ibid. pg. 7.

[15] Ibid. pg. 1.

[16] Operation Enduring Freedom – Afghanistan, commenced on 7 Oct 2007 and was a joint U.S., U.K., and Afghan operation, and was separate to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The two operations ran in parallel with different mandates. Operation Enduring Freedom was counter-terrorist in nature and focused on al-Qaeda, while ISAF conducted counter-insurgency against the Taliban. At the end of December 2014, both operations came to an end to be replaced by the U.S. Operation Freedom’s Sentinel and NATO’s Operation Resolute Support. Operation Freedom’s Sentinel would continue to train, advise and assist the ANSF in partnership with the NATO’s Operation Resolute Support, and also continue counter-terrorist operations against al-Qaeda -

[17] International Crisis Group, ‘A Force in Fragments; Reconstituting the Afghan National Army‘ Asia Report No 190 (12 May 2010), pg. 7

[18] Obaid Younossi, Peter Dahl Thruelsen, Jonathan Vaccaro, Jerry M. Sollinger, Brian Grady, ‘The Long March: Building the Afghan National Army’, Rand National Defense Research Institute (2009), pg. 16.

[19] International Crisis Group, ‘A Force in Fragments; Reconstituting the Afghan National Army‘, Asia Report No 190 (12 May 2010), pg. 2.

[20] Ibid. pg. 1.

[21] Lt. General Caldwell, ‘Return of Investment’, Armed Forces Journal (01 Aug 2011)  -

[22] Ibid.

[23] Combined Training Advisory Group - Afghanistan (CTAG-A) Command Brief  (16 August 2011) –

[24] The Mobile Strike Force included 637 Armored Personnel Carriers based on the modified M1117 APC chassis. It was a 4x4 armored vehicle fitted with a .50 cal machine gun turret with a crew of seven including a driver, gunner and commander. The average cost of each vehicle was $US1 million. The first tranche of vehicles were delivered in 2011, but already by 2014 they were concerns over the ANAs ability to maintain the fleet; Dan Lamothe, ‘Questions raised about Afghanistan’s Mobile Strike Force Vehicle fleet’ – The Washington Post (29 Jul 2014).

[25] International Crisis Group, ‘A Force in Fragments; Reconstituting the Afghan National Army‘, Asia Report No 190 (12 May 2010), pg. 18.

[26] Ibid. pg. 1.

[27] Ibid. pg. 11.

[28] The legal framework for the ANA’s establishment and administration consists of various laws, compacts and policy guidelines. The 2004 constitution made only passing reference to the status of the Afghan military, leaving its role in supporting the state open to interpretation. Under the 2006 Afghanistan Compact, the Afghan government committed to establishing a “nationally respected, ethnically balanced Afghan National Army” that is “democratically accountable, organised, trained and equipped to meet the security needs of the country... funded from government revenue, commensurate with the nation’s economic capacity’ - International Crisis Group, ‘A Force in Fragments; Reconstituting the Afghan National Army‘, Asia Report No 190 (12 May 2010), pg. 13.

[29] Robert D. Kaplan, ‘Special Intelligence’ (Feb 1998) in ‘The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War,’ Vintage Books – New York (Feb 2001), pg. 109.

[30] Personal communication with Canadian Captain at CFC (Kabul) - 27 Feb 12.

[31] Lt. General Caldwell, ‘Return of Investment’, Armed Forces Journal (01 Aug 2011)  -

[32]  Samuel Chan, ‘Sentinels of Afghan democracy: The Afghan National Army’, Research Paper – Nanyang Technological University Library, Singapore (2007), pg. 13.

[33] Lt. General Caldwell, ‘Return of Investment’, Armed Forces Journal (01 Aug 2011)  -

[34] Combined Training Advisory Group - Afghanistan (CTAG-A) Command Brief  (16 August 2011) –

[35] DoD Inspector General’s Report Anthony H. Cordesman, ‘Afghan National Security Forces: What It Will Take to Implement the ISAF Strategy’, Centre of Strategic & International Studies (Nov 2010), pg. 77.

[36] Obaid Younossi, Peter Dahl Thruelsen, Jonathan Vaccaro, Jerry M. Sollinger, Brian Grady, ‘The Long March: Building the Afghan National Army’, Rand National Defense Research Institute (2009), pg. 15.

[37] Lt General William B. Caldwell IV,  ‘A Response on the Training of the Afghan Army’, Foreign Policy (29 Mar 2011)  -

[38]  International Crisis Group, ‘A Force in Fragments; Reconstituting the Afghan National Army’, Asia Report No 190 (12 May 2010), pg. 19.

[39] Lt General William B. Caldwell IV,  ‘A Response on the Training of the Afghan Army’, Foreign Policy (29 Mar 2011)  -

[40] Ibid.

[41] Samuel Chan, ‘Sentinels of Afghan democracy: The Afghan National Army’, Research Paper – Nanyang Technological University Library, Singapore (2007), pg. 12.

[42] Ibid. pg. 13.

[43]  International Crisis Group, ‘A Force in Fragments; Reconstituting the Afghan National Army’, Asia Report No 190 (12 May 2010), pg. 21.

[44] Lt. General Caldwell, ‘Return of Investment’, Armed Forces Journal (01 Aug 2011)  -

[45] A kandak pay officer at CFC repeatedly failed to submit the soldiers pay statements on time and his senior officers repeatedly refused to replace him – author’s observations while serving at a training centre in Afghanistan (2011/2012).

[46] International Crisis Group, ‘A Force in Fragments; Reconstituting the Afghan National Army‘, Asia Report No 190 (12 May 2010), pg.  18.

[47] Lt General William B. Caldwell IV,  ‘A Response on the Training of the Afghan Army’, Foreign Policy (29 Mar 2011)  -

[48] Lt. General Caldwell, ‘Return of Investment’, Armed Forces Journal (01 Aug 2011) -

[49] Ibid.

[50] Having learnt many lessons from Iraq, the U.S. Army issued its Security Force Assistance Doctrine – Field Manual 3-07.1 (May 2009).  It took another two years for NATOs ISAF to develop its own theatre specific SFA policy for Afghanistan which was very much based upon U.S. SFA doctrine.

[51] General John Allen, USMC Commander ISAF, (Jan 2012).

[52] Lt. General Caldwell, ‘Return of Investment’, Armed Forces Journal (01 Aug 2011)  -

[53] Anthony H. Cordesman, ‘Afghan National Security Forces: What It Will Take to Implement the ISAF Strategy’, Centre of Strategic & International Studies (Nov 2010), pg. 22.

[54] Ibid. pg. 22.

[55] Ibid. pg. 70.

[56] US Army Field Manual 3-07.1, ‘Security Force Assistance’ (May 2009) – para 7-17.

[57] Leslie Adrienne Payne, Jan Osburg, ‘Leveraging Observations of SFA in Afghanistan for Global Operation’, RAND National Defense Research Institute (2013), pg. 11.

[58] The Consolidated Fielding Centre (CFC) was formed in Aug 2008 and alone fielded 138 units and 42,844 officers/soldiers by 29 Feb 2012.

[59] While most of the training at CFC was conducted by the ANA with oversight from Canadian training mentors, the MDMP was taught by US contractors, the Warsaw Pact weapons by Romanians, the D-30s howitzers by Croatians, the driver training by a Greek contingent, the specialist and heavy equipment by US contractors, with further mentor support provided by teams from the US Army, US Marine Corps and a Jordanian contingent. Observations from author serving with NTM-A (2011/2012)

[60] Observations from the author who served with NTM-A (2011/ 2012).

[61] Sean Rayment, ‘Their drill may be out of step, but the Afghan army is ready for the fight’, The Telegraph Newspaper (11 Mar 2012).

[62] Embedded Training Teams (ETTs) were a U.S. concept and very similar to NATOs deployment of Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams (OMLTs). Both required specially trained soldiers who could operate independently in an austere environment while earning the respect of the Afghan soldiers and fighting alongside them. It required very capable soldiers with an open mindset and a great deal of patience, humility and humour. ETTs/OMLTs had to be specifically designed according to the organization they would embed with alongside.

[63] As ISAF began to implement the SFA model and refine its delivery, ETTs and OMLTs morphed into SFA Teams (SFATs) and were designed to fit in from the ministerial to the unit level. They had five areas of focus; C2; combined arms integration; sustainment; collective training; and accountable and effective leadership. By April 2013 there were 415 pledged SFATs – Report to Congress, ‘Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan’ (Nov 2013) pg. 35.

[64] Anthony H. Cordesman, ‘Afghan National Security Forces: What It Will Take to Implement the ISAF Strategy’, Centre of Strategic & International Studies, (Nov 2010), pg. 70.

[65] Personal communication with Australian Officer at IJC (Kabul) – 9 Feb 12.

[66] Jeffery Bordin, ‘A Crisis of Trust and Cultural Incompatibility: A Red Team study of Mutual Perceptions of Afghan National Security Force Personnel and US Soldiers in Understanding and Mitigating the Phenomena of ANSF- Committed Fratricide-Murder’, Research Paper (12 May 2011),  pg. 3.

[67] Ibid. pg. 3.

[68] Ibid. pg. 3.

[69] Deb Riechmann & Slobadan Lekic, ‘Can NATO force weather France’s faster exit?’ Associated Press (29 Jan 2012).

[70] International Crisis Group, ‘A Force in Fragments; Reconstituting the Afghan National Army‘, Asia Report No 190 (12 May 2010), pg. 7.

[71] Initially the Afghan Auxiliary Police was established but it proved contentious and it was disbanded in 2008. In March 2009, U.S. units in conjunction with the Afghan MoI initiated the Afghan Public Protection Program in Wardak province but with much higher levels of training and oversight. But this too proved cumbersome and in June 2009, U.S. Special Operations forces looked to create what was initially called the Community Defence Initiative by inserting SOF teams directly with village leadership but without MoI influence. In December 2009, the program was renamed the Local Defence Initiative and expanded but it encountered resistance from both the U.S. embassy and the Afghan government who were concerned that the program created the potential for the resurrection of predatory militias. In March 2010, the program was renamed Village Stability Operations (VSO), reflecting the idea that the goal of the program was more than just the creation of local defence forces but included strengthening the local and district governance and development programmes. In mid-2010, the ISAF and Afghan leadership agreed to bring the local defence forces under the MoI, so in August President Karzai signed a decree establishing the Afghan Local Police (ALP). The result of this evolution was that as of August 2011 there were two separate but complimentary programs (VSO/ALP) focused on village-level stability and local defence nested within a counter-insurgency strategy. Village Stability Operations (VSO) were conducted by US-led Coalition forces – principally but not exclusively special operations – while the ALP were a formal component of the Afghan police under the MoI – Olga Oliker, ‘Security Force Development in Afghanistan: Learning from Iraq’ – Rand Cooperation (18 July 2012),  pg. 179-180  & 204.

[72] Austin Long; Stephanie Pezard; Bryce Loidolt; Todd Helmus, ‘Locals Rule: Historical Lessons for Creating Local Defence Forces for Afghanistan and Beyond,’ Rand Corporation (2012), pg. 182.

[73] Report to Congress, ‘Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan’ (Nov 2013), pg. 68-69.

[74] Anthony H. Cordesman, ‘Afghan National Security Forces: What It Will Take to Implement the ISAF Strategy’, Centre of Strategic & International Studies (Nov 2010), pg. 45.

[75] Ibid. pg. 44.

[76] Operation Resolute Support was a follow-on NATO-led train and support mission that followed 13 years of NATO combat operations. It comprised around 12,000 personnel from partner nations with its key functions being to; support planning, programming and budgeting; assure transparency, accountability and oversight; support the adherence to the principles of rule of law and good governance; and support the establishment and sustainment of such processes as force generation, recruiting, training, managing and development of personnel.

[77] Shawn Brimley and Vikram Singh  quoted in - Major Luján, Fernando, ‘Light Footprints The Future of American Military Intervention’, Centre for a New American Security (Mar 2013), pg. 34.


About the Author(s)

Nick Barley served with the NATO Training Mission - Afghanistan (NTM-A), 2011-2012.


101st Ranger

Mon, 12/07/2015 - 6:20am

A solid summary worth a few moments to read. I caution practitioners against using the NTM-A prescription prior to assessing the outcomes. The experimental drug known as the Surge was rushed to Afghanistan before we had a chance to recognize the intermediate impacts on Iraq. We should not do the same with a NTM-A model.