When US troops leave Afghanistan in 2014, will the country’s own forces be able to hold the line against the Taliban?
By filmmaker John D McHugh
The US military has an expression – no man gets left behind. But with the withdrawal of coalition combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014 drawing closer, the men of the Afghan National Army (ANA) could be forgiven for feeling that they are indeed being abandoned.
|In 2009, the US announced that the size of the ANA would be increased to almost 200,000 soldiers [John D McHugh]
In order to be able to leave and not have Afghanistan collapse immediately on their departure, the Americans announced at the end of 2009 that the size of the ANA would be increased to almost 200,000 soldiers.
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A huge recruitment and training drive began, with new military training centres being set up around the country to facilitate the explosion in numbers.
In June 2012, slightly ahead of schedule, the ANA reached its quota. With great fanfare this was announced to the world as a sign that the army was ready to fulfill its obligations in protecting Afghanistan.
But the hard reality is that the ANA still depends on the US-led coalition for logistics, maintenance, intelligence-gathering and analysis, artillery and air support, medical evacuation (Medevac) and much, much more.
In fact, talk to any coalition troops on the ground and they will tell you the Afghans can fight, but only after they have been fed, clothed, armed and delivered to the battlefield by NATO.
Chief Warrant Officer Klaus Augustinus is a Danish mentor/advisor to the ANA and is on his third tour in Afghanistan. He openly admits that he was unimpressed with the ANA in the past, but now he feels they are making real progress. However, he says, it is the insistence on viewing the ANA through the prism of a Western army that leads to many problems.
“Always keep in mind that the Afghan way is the right way,” Klaus says. “We’re not going to do it any faster than they can cope with it. Otherwise we’re going to lose.”
|The Afghan Defence Ministry admits that between seven and ten per cent of its troops desert every year [John D McHugh]
There is no doubt that this huge new army is plagued with problems, but by far the biggest is the sheer turnover of men – currently running at about 30 per cent a year. In other words, the ANA has to find replacements for around 60,000 men every year.
There are many reasons for this attrition. The casualty rate is high, with more than 850 soldiers confirmed killed in 2012 alone, and a great many more wounded. As the ANA takes over the lead role in providing security throughout Afghanistan in 2013, both figures are expected to increase dramatically.
Part of this will doubtless be due to more fighting, but only barely adequate medical support and the likely withdrawal of full airborne Medevac services will not help either.
Currently the ANA relies on the coalition helicopters to take its wounded to hospital quickly. If not available, the ANA will have to use ground transportation to move badly injured men, increasing the time it takes to get them to a place of proper care and significantly reducing survival rates.
Failure to re-enlist is also a big problem. Right now about one-quarter of all recruits decline to sign up for a further tour of duty contract after their initial three-year commitment is completed.
Then there is desertion – a concern to all army commanders of a volunteer army during a war, but something to which the ANA currently seems especially vulnerable. The Afghan defence ministry admits to losing between 7-10 per cent of its troops every year in this way.
When we spoke to General Karimi, the ANA chief of staff, he told us that desertion is much reduced and that measures are in place to reduce it further. That may be true, but no one knows exactly what will happen when the ANA begins bearing the brunt of the fight against the Taliban in a little over a year’s time.
Taliban intimidation and threats
So why are desertion rates so high? We managed to find some deserters (it is not hard to track them down) and they cited three main reasons: corruption and abuse of power by officers, lack of care for troops and probably most significantly, Taliban intimidation and threats.
Naim was in the ANA for two-and-a-half years. His family had not wanted him to join the military, but they were poor, and so in order to help out he signed up. He says he actually enjoyed his time in the army and he saw a lot of action in the turbulent east of the country. But one day he was wounded in a firefight, shot in the knee, and everything changed. He says it was an American soldier who rushed to his aid, and gave him immediate treatment. Within 10 minutes he was on a US Medevac helicopter, and spent the next month being treated by US medical staff – for which he is grateful.
But from the time he was injured, he says, he was abandoned by his own army. No one, not even his platoon NCOs (non-commissioned officers) or commander, came to check on him, to see how he was doing or to ask whether he was receiving appropriate care. Worse still, nobody from the ANA bothered to tell his family where he was.
After a month, he was transferred to another facility and was able to call home. But by this time, having repeatedly asked for information on their missing son, his parents had been told that he was dead and had held funeral rites. Though delighted and relieved to hear he was safe, they were understandably furious about ANA’s callous disregard. When Naim was released from hospital two months later, his father forbade him from returning to his unit. It is a story in line with an often-heard complaint from former recruits, who say the value that the coalition armies place on the health and general wellbeing of their troops is rarely, if ever, replicated in the Afghan force.
But in truth, Taliban threats against individual ANA soldiers – and more insidiously against their families – are probably a much bigger cause for desertion than their own side’s institutional indifference. We spoke to one deserter, identified in our film as ‘Amir’, who had gone absent from his unit only a few weeks earlier. He told us that the Taliban had visited his family home several times and told them that if he did not leave the army, they would cut off his head. When that did not work, they extended the threat to the whole family and he had no choice but to do as they ordered. He is still furious about it, but said he had to put his relatives first.
‘Green on blue‘
Of course, it is not the only way the Taliban have sought to disrupt the buildup of the ANA. It is now generally accepted that in the rush to accrue the huge numbers needed, the ANA was far from effective in vetting volunteers – and that is a failing that the insurgents have done their best to exploit.
Although it is by no means the only cause, it may well have contributed to a rise in so-called ‘green on blue’ attacks over the last 12 months. So far, more than 50 coalition soldiers have been killed in 2012 in these insider incidents, when a member of the Afghan security forces, or an infiltrator dressed in a uniform, turns his weapon on his unsuspecting Western allies. The problem is, it is something that is almost impossible for coalition troops to guard against when working alongside Afghans, and worse, every safeguard that is put in place erodes trust between the two groups.
Of course, the perception in the West that the Taliban is behind all of these attacks is somewhat misplaced. Insurgents routinely claim each and every ‘green on blue’ attack as a planned operation, but the reality is that many are the result of a real or perceived slight, or an argument that just went too far. After extensive questioning of the attackers (or at least those that are not gunned down immediately) the Afghan authorities say approximately 25 percent of the perpetrators have provable links to the Taliban, but the rest of the incidents are down to other factors.
Whether this is true or not, the fact that some attacks are orchestrated by the Taliban is enough to add to the general Western clamour to get out of an ungrateful Afghanistan as soon as possible – which means they have fulfilled their purpose.
|ANA officers say the US promised military material to help them go it alone after the 2014 withdrawal [John D McHugh]
Another key question facing the ANA is how well-equipped its troops will be to take on the Taliban. Officers told us that they have been promised all manner of military material by the coalition forces to help them go it alone after the 2014 US withdrawal.
But it is questionable how much time has been spent asking the Afghans what they actually want – even down to that most basic item of an infantryman’s kit, his rifle.
When in 2008 the much loved and trusted AK-47 (the Kalashnikov had previously been the ANA’s standard issue weapon) began to be replaced by the American-made M-16 rifle, there were loud cries of complaint.
The M-16 may be a reliable gun in the hands of a well-supplied and well-trained US soldier, but in dusty and dry Afghanistan the weapon is a disaster. Its lubricant-hungry parts soak up the dirt causing the weapon to jam and stick persistently.
Coalition trainers say that with proper cleaning and maintenance the M-16 is reliable and effective – but most Afghan army veterans are quick to point out that they already had one of the world’s most reliable weapons. They add that ANA supply lines are poor and getting the necessary cleaning oil out to where it is needed on the battlefield often proves impossible.
In fact, many consider that the issue of the M-16 is actually just another sign of coalition mistrust. The AK-47 takes a 7.62mm round, whereas the M-16 uses the standard NATO 5.56mm bullet. Yet because the AK-47 is widely-used both by the Taliban and elsewhere in the region, the ammunition for it is readily available. M-16 rounds, of course, are that much harder to obtain. It means that if an ANA soldier deserts to the Taliban with his newly-issued M-16 in tow, he will struggle to find bullets for it. Spend any time with ANA troops and cynics among them will tell you that they are being forced to fight (sometimes with dangerous consequences) with a rifle that jams, purely because their allies want to stop it of being any use to the other side.
|If the ANA collapses Afghanistan’s last line of defense will crumble and chaos will engulf the country again [John D McHugh]
In Chicago in early 2012, Barack Obama, the US president, described the plans to withdraw from Afghanistan as “irreversible”.
But the fortunes of the ANA are very much reversible, and if the army collapses, or fractures along ethnic lines, Afghanistan’s last line of defence will crumble and chaos will engulf the country once again.
From what we witnessed in the making of this film, it is hard to see how the Afghan army, however dedicated, can achieve what the far greater resourced “Coalition of the Willing” has failed to do over the past 11 years.
And yet, despite this, morale among ANA troops – or at least among many of those we spoke to – is higher than it might be expected to be.
Although they have been playing a support role in the coalition’s fight against the Taliban up until now, Afghan units have had their successes and on occasion ANA troops have displayed notable courage and determination in the field. This kind of commitment may not be enough to prevail against the Taliban in any long drawn-out fight, but once US troops leave and the dynamics of the war change (as they must), it may just be sufficient to hold the line for a time, and allow Afghanistan to find a way to peace through other means.
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