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In Fixing the Afghan Army, We Need to Start with The Afghan Air Force
President Trump has decided to allow the Pentagon to send in more American troops to reinforce the Afghan security forces which are faltering in the face of this year’s annual spring/summer offensive by the Taliban. This is a welcome change for the military which chafed under President Obama’s arbitrary timelines for the “Afghanization” of the war. It is easy to blame Obama for the sorry performance of the Afghan National Army (ANA) since 2012, but the military and Pentagon planners need to ask themselves some hard questions. The Pentagon has tried to build a competent ANA for nearly two decades now under two (now three) presidents; the results have been sub optimal at best. In planning its mini-surge the Pentagon planners need to ask themselves not what they did wrong, but what they didn’t do right. In my view, the primary answer is logistics. Combat arms officers (and I was one of them) have a tendency to roll their eyes when logisticians begin to pontificate, but I have spent enough time observing the ANA to be convinced that a better air supply chain is the answer to many of its problems.
To understand the problem, we need to understand the nature of the war. Afghans on both sides of the conflict know how to fight. Their natural instincts may run counter to western norms, but given proper support, they will fight effectively. The primary difference between the two sides in this conflict is that the Taliban are largely fighting on home ground and are able to use interior lines of communications (LOCs) for logistics. The ANA was built on western lines; it requires longer LOCs and most of its troops are fighting far from home. We have not adequately addressed those challenges.
If an Afghan Army brigade is expected to take terrain away from the Taliban, it has to establish a main base of operations in a province. Its various battalions (kandaks) have to establish forward operating bases (FOBs) in key districts, and they, in turn, need to establish outposts to control the terrain. Each of these outposts needs resupply on a weekly basis and quick reinforcement when attacked by superior forces. This takes fuel. Badly wounded soldiers need quick medical evacuation; this is a key morale question because wounded Taliban can expect help from local family and tribesmen. ANA soldiers are generally far from home. At the present time, the ANA is hard pressed to come up with adequate supplies of fuel and to provide timely medical evacuation because its helicopter fleet is inadequate to support the entire army over some of worst terrain in the world where good roads are mostly nonexistent.
The result of all this is that kandak commanders are reluctant to outpost their area of responsibility, losing whole districts to Taliban control because they lack the fuel to keep outpost garrisons re supplied and to reinforce them when they are attacked. In addition, they face the possibility of mutiny by soldiers who believe that if they are injured at a remote outpost, they will not be medically evacuated.
We equipped the Afghan Army with motorized vehicles, but did not create an adequate logistics system to get fuel to remote areas. I saw this first hand in the district where I was a civilian adviser. Under the mentoring of US Marine special operations teams and an Italian contingent, the district’s ANA kandak was making good progress. It began conducting independent local security operations and conducted offensive operations to expand the district security bubble with a minimum of coalition combat support. But the façade of independence was skin deep. The vast majority of the fuel used to resupply and rapidly reinforce the remote outposts came via American and Italian helicopters or via parachute air drop. There was virtually no convoy service possible between the Afghan brigade headquarters in the Provincial capital and our district. We also had a US Army MASH-like clinic that had its own helicopter contingent for evacuation of the most seriously wounded casualties.
Our district was one of the first to be transitioned to all-Afghan security control under the Obama plan, and the loss of NATO air support was immediate and catastrophic. Within weeks the security bubble had shrunk to the village that acted as the district capital where the kandak base was located. The outposts were abandoned because they couldn’t be sustained and soldiers were reluctant to patrol knowing that even minor wounds would be a potential death sentence due to the unavailability of adequate medical care or aerial medevac.
Our district proved to be the canary in the coal mine. This tableau has played itself out many times in many districts since 2012. No all provinces and districts are as remote as ours was. Those garrisons near the ring road highway as those well as in the major cities are relatively well off, but that is not where the Afghan military is losing the most ground. The remote mountain areas along the Pakistan border and areas where good roads are poor-to-nonexistent are where the war is going worst, and that is where air support is needed most. The most badly needed air support is not bombing; transport helicopters are the primary deficiency.
The Afghan Army has 43 old Russian produced helicopters. It needs at least twice that many. Of the 43, the readiness rate is appalling. At times, the entire fleet has been grounded due to safety concerns and lack of spare parts. When Afghan generals make out their wish list for the Air Force, they tend to ask for sexy new attack aircraft.
As a consequence of all this, I would recommend that revamping the Afghan logistics force, and particularly the availability of helicopters to support the Army. That means getting them more helicopters and totally transforming the way that all of their aircraft are maintained.
Unlike ground vehicles and equipment, Afghan aircraft maintenance can be centralized. Aircraft scheduled for routine maintenance can be flown to a main depot. If an aircraft is grounded at a remote location due to a malfunction, contact teams can be flown out to make the aircraft airworthy enough to get it to the depot for proper repair.
Revamping the Afghan Air Force will be expensive, but not impossible. The United States has surplus transport helicopters available that would be easier to supply with spare parts than the junk that the Afghans are currently flying. If we could supply fifty helicopters and the major NATO allies (Great Britain, France, and Germany) supply ten each, the Afghan Air Force would be able to provide sufficient support to its dispersed forces.
Any contract let to set up a proper depot and a maintenance training program should be performance based and geared to making the Afghans capable of competent independent maintenance in a certain time frame; my rough estimate is two years. The company selected should be required to work itself out of a job in whatever time frame is designated in order to be paid in full. The spare parts flow should be carefully monitored by our advisers until the Afghans show that they can control the rampant corruption that infects the current Afghan logistics establishment.
The logistics needs of the Afghan Army are not as great as those of American forces. Commanders can largely purchase food and procure water locally. The delta is in the resupply of fuel and ammunition as well as medical support in remote areas. That is something that only adequate air support can provide.
Revamping the Afghan air logistics system should be the centerpiece of whatever mini-surge that the Pentagon comes up with as a result of the president’s direction. We don’t need any more “advise and assist” brigades for their ground forces. That would be throwing good money after bad. As previously mentioned, in their own way, the Afghans know how to fight. Increased counter-terrorism support is needed as well and improved reconnaissance support always helpful. Also promising is the stated intention of the US Defense and State Secretaries to pursue political and diplomatic long-term solutions. What is clear is that what we have been doing for the past fifteen years has not been adequate. We need a new approach. If it cannot be adequately supplied Afghan forces in contested areas will revert to the modern equivalent of Fort Apaches with the Indians running loose in the countryside.
Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Colonel who has been a civilian adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan. From 2003-5 he was a Special Adviser to the Deputy Secretary of Defense on Counterinsurgency.