Michael's Dispatches

The Pathetic Afghan Army
&
Will Obama Fumble Iraq?

11 March 2009

The disconnect between reporting and reality on Iraq was dramatic during 2005.  Media stories about the incompetence and hopelessness of the Iraqi army and police were like the soup of the day, every day.  Yet month by month, before my eyes, Iraqi security forces were improving.  Reporting this truth earned the label of “stooge,” because the soup of the day was Failure.  Millions of Americans and Europeans apparently wanted Iraqis to suffer because those same Americans and Europeans seemed to hate George Bush.

Today Iraq is succeeding, but as Generals Petraeus or Odierno might say, the situation remains fragile and reversible.

Whereas the Bush-war ended in a new if messy democracy, this year we could see an Obama-war begin; the new President has sent a clear signal that we intend to mostly abandon Iraq during this crucial transition period.  Today, the progress is obvious.  But if Iraq descends back into chaos, the Obama-war, a newborn war, will not be a result of U.S. aggression, but of limp leadership intent on fulfilling campaign promises that were misinformed to begin with.

Back in 2003, it was understandable that many people would detest what they believed was an illegal war – despite that Hussein refused to abide by U.N. resolutions – but it was telling to see that many people apparently wished cruelty upon the Iraqis out of malice for the United States or George Bush.  Those wishes were coming from cold, cruel hearts, pretending to care.  Among these people were the cruel souls who would later stand outside military hospitals, mocking young men and women who had suffered amputations and other grievous injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Today there remain people who wish to precipitously disjoin from the growing success in Iraq, and who apparently ultimately wish to see Iraq fail out of sheer malice not toward Iraq, but toward certain politicians and governments.  If President Obama fumbles the evacuation of combat forces, they may get their wish.

But while millions of people wished to see Iraq fail, courageous Iraqi volunteers lined up to join the army and police.  They were frequently blown to pieces while they waited.  Nevertheless, the Iraqi army and police grew like bamboo.  Every day the body counts rose, satisfying the pernicious souls parading as peace lovers who seemed to relish the mounting losses.  I once reported that apparently more people had been killed on an annual basis under the wars and genocides of Saddam Hussein, than were dying in the current war.  This observation was made without narration or opinion, but it unleashed a special venom that strikes only at the ankles of inconvenient truths.   Should we have expected otherwise, after our government had behaved so arrogantly and deceptively?

Today the Iraqi army and police are on their feet and the government and economy are improving, though still in need of years of assistance, and at this time of mounting success, we are leaving.  The enemies seem to be biding their time.

Going into Iraq was a decision made by many.  Pulling out so quickly is a decision made by one man.

Yet the Afghanistan situation was nearly opposite.  Most westerners seem to want to see Afghanistan succeed, and they veritably chant about poverty and women’s rights, though few people actually are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to achieve dreamy visions.  Whatever the case, the public and the media gave a free pass to dozens of nations in Afghanistan, and today about 40 nations are directly involved.  Some of the military bases look like a carnival of uniforms, and the soldiers behave under a carnival of rules.  By the time you add in all the contractors, aid workers, “friendly” spies and deadly enemies, it’s likely that people from a hundred countries are inside Afghanistan at this moment.  Despite the broad representation, until recently we called it “The Forgotten War.”

Today we have an American President and Secretary of Defense who have essentially kicked, prodded and begged our allies to get more serious about Afghanistan, but mostly to no avail.  And so 17,000 more American troops are kissing their loved ones goodbye, many of them for the last time in their lives, and heading into Afghanistan.  Per capita combat deaths probably will be higher in Afghanistan this year than for any year in Iraq.  The situation is very serious for the relatively few soldiers fighting there.  Some are in combat every day and night.

The AfPak war began more than seven years ago.  It is fair to ask why are we sending more U.S. troops today.   After all, we’ve had plenty of time to build an army and police.  If drive-by journalists listen to some of the commanders on the ground, they might come back with reports that all is okay, and that the Afghan army is coming along nicely, and that certain writers are exaggerating.  I’ve had those same briefings from commanders.  Just as in 2004 Iraq, I believe that Americans and Europeans have been deceived by their governments.

I’ve asked many key officers why we are not using our Special Forces (specifically Green Berets) in a more robust fashion to train Afghan forces.  The stock answers coming from the Green Beret world – from ranking officers anyway – is that they are taking a serious role in training Afghan forces.  But the words are inconsistent with my observations.  The reality is that the Green Berets – the only outfit in the U.S. military who are so excellently suited to put the Afghan army into hyperdrive – are mostly operating with small groups of Afghans doing what appears to be Colorado mule deer hunts in the mountains of Afghanistan.  Special Forces A-teams are particularly well suited to train large numbers of people, but are not doing so.

Command will dispute my words, and privately have been doing so.  But they cannot point to a map of Afghanistan and show where they are training significant numbers of Afghans.  This information would not be secret or even confidential.  Our troops who are partnered up with Afghans are often not the right choice for that particular job.

Nevertheless, some officers are already privately disputing my claims about the Afghan Army, and so I present these words from the British government:

HOUSE OF COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
TAKEN BEFORE THE
FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE

GLOBAL SECURITY: AFGHANISTAN
WEDNESDAY 25 FEBRUARY 2009
PROFESSOR THEO FARRELL and COLONEL CHRISTOPHER LANGTON
PROFESSOR SHAUN GREGORY and SEAN LANGAN

….Q<28> <Sir John Stanley:> To clarify, I am asking you to set out, as best you can, how you think we can achieve an Afghanistan where the insurgency has ceased-ideally totally or to the greatest possible extent-and where there is a stable Government in place, who hopefully are democratically elected and respect basic human rights and in particular the rights of women.

<Professor Farrell:> That is a very challenging question. I will say two things on the centre of gravity-the key thing that will unlock success in the campaign. Currently, the centre of gravity is building the capacity of the Afghan security forces. There are 85 battalions in the Afghan national army. It is very small with only 68,000 troops. We must double that force size. More battalions must be able to operate independently. Of the 85 battalions, one can operate independently at battalion level and only 26 can operate with ISAF [international security assistance force] support at battalion level. We need to increase the training and capability. We must increase the Afghan air force, which is pathetically small.

The key to getting out of Afghanistan is to build the Afghan forces. British practice on that has been very good over the last year. They have increased the co-embedding of Afghan and British battalions. An Afghan battalion is partnered with every British battle group in the Helmand area of operations. However, more could be done. For example, the operational mentor and liaison teams are 40% under strength. We must put more resources into building the Afghan air force and national army. That will give us success.

<Colonel Langton:> I agree with that, but in order to do it the international forces must have a unified strategy, which they do not. They must have a unified command structure, which they do not.

This is not necessarily about NATO. NATO happens to be leading the international security assistance force, but it has been led by other bodies. NATO is not essential to this function. We could revert to Turkish command, which is how it all started. However, there must be more unity of strategy. I have heard Afghan Ministers complain that individual countries are delivering their individual strategies through their embassies. I have struggled to find another example of where that has happened.

This testimony, that only a single battalion out of 85 can operate independently, and only 26 can operate even with support, sharply diverges from what high commanders will tell journalists in Afghanistan.  Our Special Forces (Green Berets) in particular have taken only a passing role in the training.  Some can argue otherwise, but as we roll into 2009, we have been at war in Afghanistan for more than seven years.  More than 2,500 days.  How much is it costing us per day?  $100 million?  $200 million?  We have little to show for the lost limbs and lives.  According to the British testimony, only a single battalion can fight without a real army holding its hand.  The police are in far worse condition.

We are not busy teaching Afghans to fish; we are busy fishing for them, and they are slowly but surely getting tired of us.


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