Training the Afghan army

By LAWRENCE SELLIN, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   Jan. 5, 2010 at 11:45 AM   |   Comments

HELSINKI, Finland, Jan. 5 (UPI) -- Despair Inc. offers lithographs that are parodies of inspiration posters. One is called "Incompetence," defined as "when you earnestly believe you can compensate for a lack of skill by doubling your efforts, there's no end to what you can't do."

That may also be a description of current efforts to build the Afghan national army.

According to multiple sources, the United States has spent more than $17 billion since 2001 trying to build the ANA. This does not include the contributions of numerous other coalition forces.

The Afghan government claims that the ANA numbers more than 100,000 troops. NBC News has obtained an unpublished preliminary military report written in mid-December 2009 for Central Command Commander Gen. David Petraeus. The report indicates that at least some ANA battalions (Kandaks) are undermanned by as much as 50 percent and no way near combat ready.

Nevertheless, Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Zahir Azimi expects to expand the ANA to 240,000 soldiers for which the United States has pledged an additional $16 billion, not including an additional NATO contribution.

U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, NATO and U.S. commander in Afghanistan, admits that after eight years of recruitment and training, the Afghan national army and the Afghan national police are not sufficiently effective to take ownership of Afghanistan's security.

He said, "The Afghan national army must accelerate growth to the target strength of 134,000 by fall 2010, with the institutional flexibility to continue that growth to a new target ceiling of 240,000."

NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel reported that an unpublished report obtained by NBC News indicates it will take much more time to expand and rehabilitate Afghan forces than U.S. President Barack Obama's schedule to draw down the troop surge starting in July 2011. The report said it "cannot take a year to fix this problem." Both Azimi and the report authors expect the process to correct the current deficiencies in the ANA to take up to four years.

Appearing on MSNBC's "Rachel Maddow Show," Engel discussed the report's conclusion that, above the company level, the Afghan army is "not at war." Many ANA field grade officers "work short days, are often absent and place personal gain above national survival." The ANA senior leadership suffers from "corruption, nepotism and untrained, unmotivated personnel," which makes "success all but impossible."

The critical absence of adequate ANA leadership and motivation are only exacerbated by numerous reports of illiteracy, language differences among recruits, drug use, lack of fire discipline during combat operations and desertion rates as high as one in four.

The New York Times reported that newly appointed Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, responsible for building and improving Afghanistan's security force, intends to devote unprecedented time and effort to improving the quality of leadership, rather than merely concentrating on increasing the number of troops.

No doubt changes in the ANA leadership to end corruption, self-interest, nepotism and a lack of devotion to duty are essential for ultimate success. Nevertheless, replacing entrenched high-level ANA officers will be time consuming and a bloody political process. There is simply not enough time for a trickle-down effect.

Engel may have, however, identified a more effective approach to building the ANA into an effective fighting force more quickly. He stated that small, company level units (100-200 soldiers) on the ground are fighting, and these could provide the potential to regain the initiative against the Taliban.

Improving the quality of leadership, the skill, motivation and dedication of the ordinary Afghan soldier will occur most quickly and effectively at the company and platoon level, which is where our primary effort should be placed. We need to challenge the Taliban directly in those locations and governance levels, which they consider critical to their ultimate success. The Taliban does not attack the Afghan government or the coalition head-on but acts by subversion of the Afghan central government and the will to win among the coalition forces.

Afghanistan is a blend of ethnic groups, languages, tribes and clans that have traditionally provided religious, social and cultural identity and, most often in history, an alternative to a central government. We must knit together coalitions among tribal groups. This can only be accomplished by first understanding tribal structures, their relationship with other tribes and their bases of local authority and legitimacy. The Taliban succeed through a combination of brutal oppression and leveraging local grievances. It is believed that the Taliban have organized shadow governments in 33 out of 34 Afghan provinces.

This is a bottom-up fight, where company- and platoon-sized coalition and Afghan units will have the greatest and most immediate impact. This will be done by gaining the trust and loyalty of tribe members, by living and working among them and, in particular, respecting their traditions and assisting them in the defense against Taliban subversion. Such a tribal-based strategy clearly complements and can effectively enhance and accelerate the urban, networked, ink-spot approach of the McChrystal plan.

Clearly, Americans know that even Washington can't change itself but more often does so via grassroots movements outside of the Beltway. In their own fanatical and brutal way, the Taliban understand this and are succeeding by intimidating and controlling forces within Afghan society that, if not reversed, will eventually make the current Afghan central government irrelevant.

We won't succeed in Afghanistan simply by doing more of the same based on scenarios that are either inappropriate or obsolete.

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(Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D., is a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and a veteran of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army or government.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

© 2010 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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