Small Wars Journal

security force assistance

Trial by Fire in Afghanistan

Tue, 01/15/2013 - 2:00pm

As the endgame in Afghanistan nears, debate over the pace of withdrawal has intensified. Commanders in Afghanistan worried about ground conditions have argued for a slow transition. Some officials in Congress and the White House have pushed for an accelerated withdrawal, citing political concerns about declining popular support for the war effort.

Few have argued for a faster withdrawal based on what is best for Afghanistan. The proponents of a more gradual transition argue that pulling out too quickly could lead to a split in the army, mass defections, or even the collapse of the government. These are real possibilities. What is certain is that at some point in the near future, western troops will depart and the Afghan army and police will face a trial by fire.

It would be better for Afghanistan to face that trial sooner rather than later, before the Taliban manage to recover from the surge of US forces and while there is still time for the government to adjust to independence. Continuing with the current gradualist effort will only delay the inevitable and give the Taliban time to prepare for another offensive.

There is little additional value to be gained from another year or two of advising and training at the tactical level. If after more than a decade the Afghan security forces cannot operate without foreign partners and embedded advisors, they will never be able to.

For years now, US and NATO forces have operated closely with their Afghan partners – patrolling alongside them, supporting them logistically, and helping them plan and execute operations. Afghan soldiers and police have taken heavy casualties and fought bravely and well.

Yet, rarely have Afghan units been truly tested in fully independent operations, for fear they might fail. With few exceptions, Afghans have operated only under the comfortable umbrella of western combat forces. They have come to expect that western troops will rescue them if they get into a bind and give them fuel and ammunition if they run out. In the words of one Afghan army officer in Helmand, "we like drinking the American milk."

The potential for the Afghans to stand on their own will remain in doubt until they have demonstrated their ability to do so. As long as large numbers of foreign troops remain embedded in the Afghan army and police, the perception that western forces are propping up the security forces will persist, as will the growing belief that they will collapse as soon as the bulk of US and NATO troops depart.

These perceptions are among the Taliban's main advantages. They are also a major obstacle to successful negotiations. The Taliban have little reason to come to the bargaining table as long as they believe the Kabul government will not survive the departure of western troops.

Commanders in Afghanistan are understandably cautious about pulling back too quickly. No one wants to see an Afghan army battalion or district police force fail, given the amount of blood, treasure, and sheer grit that has been devoted to raising them. So far, these fears have not been realized. Helmand, for example, where the number of US Marines has been cut by more than two thirds, remains stable.

Instead of causing chaos, the draw-down has forced the US and NATO to do things they should have done years ago – such as handing greater responsibility to Afghan forces, conducting fewer operations on their own, and refraining from pushing into remote areas that the Afghan government has no intention of securing on its own. Above all, the draw-down has compelled the US pursue a political solution after more than a decade of war.

As any good parent or teacher knows, the bird must leave the nest before it can learn how to fly. When ordinary Afghans see that their army and police can function with minimal foreign support, they will have greater confidence in the future and the Taliban will not seem so frightening.

It is time to pull US forces out of Afghanistan’s towns and villages and out of tactical army and police units. The US and NATO should continue to provide the Afghan security forces with whatever they need, in terms of material support and over-watch, but should no longer patrol or train with Afghan forces or live with them on small, remote bases.

Training the Afghan National Army

Wed, 08/01/2012 - 6:00am

Success in drawing down our combat forces in Afghanistan by 2014 supposedly depends on training the Afghan National Army (ANA) to assume responsibility for the country’s security. Hence the recent shift from COIN to SFA (Security Force Assistance). Even granting that our training efforts have expanded relatively recently, we have still been at this for 10 years. Why is the ANA unable to prevail over a batch of insurgents of similar cultural and economic background wearing flip-flops and toting AK-47’s?  It is, of course, always easier to be an insurgent since they have the initiative in attacking. But still, it seems hard to believe that the ANA are so much less capable than the insurgents and so much more in need of training.

Are the Opposing Fighting Forces Inherently Different?

The various insurgent factions (we tend to lump them all under the Taliban brand, although only some are connected with the Quetta Shura Taliban) seem to be a rag tag bunch. That is, they are Afghans. They are minimally equipped, depend on the local population for food and shelter, and do not shoot much more accurately than the ANA. Yes, they have R&R and training facilities just across the border in Pakistan, but how sophisticated are these? Do they compare with the sort of training that British and U.S. forces offer? The financial and logistical support from Pakistan may maintain the conflict at a simmer, but does not explain why the ANA would be less capable as a fighting force.

The ANA Model

 One problem is the model we have been trying to instill. The ANA is modeled on a Western army, carrying lots of equipment (even our bottled water), using M-16s that are harder to maintain than AK-47s, and requiring a complex supply/logistics/air asset/medevac support capability that the Afghans have no realistic chance of sustaining. The ANA are also being trained to plan in Western terms. It was once suggested that they be trained in the six steps of Marine Corps planning and in war-gaming. These conceptual tools seem unlikely to have much cultural resonance for the Afghans. (Afghan mission planning is reputed to consist of “We’re here; the enemy are over there. Let’s go.”) The Western training model with its reliance on written materials is also not well suited for a largely non-literate society. A fourth grade reading level is required for some Kabul-based training, and very few soldiers in the south qualify to attend. Soldiers are recruited and assigned nationwide, which means a burdensome human resource function as well as a lot of homesick or AWOL soldiers. If success in countering the insurgents depends on the ANA becoming a Western-style fighting force, we are looking at committing the projected $4.1 billion per year plus technical assistance for the indefinite future—an order of magnitude more than the insurgents are collectively spending. We would be better advised to focus on developing low-budget sustainable capability for a non-literate fighting force.

Do the Two Sides Care Equally?

The more fundamental issue may be motivation. Both ANA and Taliban come from the culture that managed to drive out the British and the Russians; Afghans of any stripe will fight tenaciously even against great odds when the outcome matters to them. It is possible that the various insurgents simply care more about their mission. They may be paid a stipend, or ideologically motivated (pro-Islam or anti-foreigner), or politically opposed to the Karzai regime, or profiting from the drug trade, or simply happy with a job close to home. (It has been reported that most Taliban are fighting within 20 km of home.) The assignment of ANA soldiers often puts them some distance from home and in battles they do not want to fight. (Witness the number of desertions of ANA headed for Marjah in 2010.) While the ANA have gained respect from the population, at least relative to the police, they do not appear to be motivated by any great cause. There is anecdotal evidence of families covering their bases with one son in the ANA and another in the Taliban. While I have seen some genuine ANA enthusiasm for defending the country against Pakistan, there is little apparent support for the Afghan government. It is hard to fight and die for the Karzai regime.

Training and mentoring are not going to overcome any of these motivational factors. Soldiers and citizens need a government they can believe in. The Karzai government is widely viewed as corrupt and incompetent and has refused to implement those portions of the 2004 Constitution calling for elected mayors and elected district, city and village councils. ANA performance may be more a symptom of Afghan governmental failure than a problem in its own right.  We might see considerably better outcomes if we focused our efforts on governmental accountability. With a credible government that had the loyalty of its citizens, the ANA motivational problem might take care of itself. There might also be fewer insurgents to deal with. With local electoral accountability, those who are simply anti-Karzai, as opposed to anti-American or pro-Taliban, could compete in the political arena rather than on the battlefield.


While there should not be inherent differences in the two fighting forces, several factors work in favor of the insurgents, and ANA training seems unlikely to make much of a difference. It is even conceivable that our Western design and training programs are subtracting capability—by pushing adoption of an alien military culture and by constantly telling the Afghans that they are falling short.

We have expected the ANA to fight as we do in order to protect a government that we support and Afghan citizens do not. The U.S. Government should insist on full implementation of the Constitution and the development of accountable sub-national government. We are wasting time and resources by interpreting the ANA difficulties as merely reflecting a training problem.