We are running out of time. In the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death, there is a renewed sense of urgency for American soldiers to leave Afghanistan, and we must decide what that departure looks like. Will the transition from International Security Assistance Forces(ISAF) to Afghan National Security Forces(ANSF) reveal a well-trained and well-equipped force capable of protecting the Afghan people, or will it reveal a group of brave but tragically undertrained soldiers and police?
This question is best answered by how well-trained the ANSF are now, and how well-trained they will be for transition. As of June, the standard for an Afghan National Army(ANA) Soldier to zero, or sight in, his weapon required he fire 5 of 6 rounds from 25 meters at a target 4 centimeters in radius(ANA 0-3.5 82). His US Army counterpart zeroes his rifle from 25 meters by firing 5 of 6 rounds on a target 2 centimeters in radius(FM 3-22.9 5-14). Recently, the ANA standard has been changed to 8 of 10 rounds on a 4 centimeter radius target from 25 meters. However, the basic standard for an Afghan Soldier to learn to shoot is still on a target twice as wide and four times as large as his US counterpart. This is in spite of the fact that both Afghan and US Soldiers are equipped with the same M16/M4 series weapon. The performance gap widens from there. US Army maneuver units conduct maneuver live fire training to the company or platoon level before combat. This crucial training closely simulates combat, with soldiers shooting and moving as a unit. Conversely, after graduating basic training, the ANA soldiers form into battalions or kandaks at Camp Blackhorse, Afghanistan where they conduct blank fire, but no maneuver live fire training. From there, the ANA units move to the fight where they are partnered with an ISAF unit. It is not hard to understand why there is such a sense of dependency on ISAF, right now most ANA are not well-trained enough to operate without them.
NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan has made significant progress in the last two years both in the standards that the Afghans are trained to and in an honest assessment of what will be required to build a capable professional force. Real and powerful progress is being made. However, there are still long-term challenges that must be met to enable a successful transition. The cost of the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan will depend on the speed of ISAF’s transition to ANSF units. The outcome of the conflict in Afghanistan will depend on the will and skill of those Afghan units. Transitioning too soon to lesser-trained units will precipitate a collapse of what ISAF and ANSF have fought long and hard for. However, ISAF doing too much of the fighting for the Afghans creates a sense of dependency that must be broken for transition to take place. The answer lies in training the Afghans to a level of skill similar to that of their ISAF counterparts to ensure that they can prevail against the level of violence born now primarily by ISAF units. This starts with training the ANA to a higher level, similar to the one that the US Army trains to. Once that indigenous capability is built within the ANSF, it can be applied to training special police or border patrol units. However, the most glaring portion of the tactical and technical performance gap between ISAF and ANSF lies in the units that bear the highest level of violence, ANA Maneuver Units. This training deficiency must be addressed first.
During my most recent tour in Afghanistan, it was decided that all combat operations would be partnered with the Afghan Army or Police. This was great for understanding our surroundings and more effectively protecting the local population. However, our soldiers were concerned about the skill of our ANA counterparts. We had not trained with them, and as a result were naturally skeptical of what they could do. Would our ANA partners react safely in a firefight? Could they shoot straight? How trained were they? Suddenly, their problems had become our problems. As a result, our battalion developed a Training Academy, the Mohawk Academy. This academy trained our partnered ANA battalion, the 6/4/205th ANA, to US Army standards in basics skills, which included marksmanship and live fire. I remember discussing my earlier plans for ANSF live fire with my battalion operations officer. As a seasoned Major with extensive deployment experience, he was understandably concerned about the safety of having our partnered ANSF conduct live fire training with us. He had a point, GEN Petraeus was shot in the chest doing this kind of training, it is dangerous. I responded that if we could not trust our ANSF partners to shoot and move in a controlled environment, we had no business going on patrol with them and potentially getting in a firefight. It was and is an uncomfortable truth, and an awkward pause followed. He told me to continue mission.