Fight­ing sea­son in Afghanistan

What the Afghan army needs is an ad­e­quate air force

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - By Gary An­der­son Gary An­der­son, a re­tired Marine Corps colonel, was a State De­part­ment civil­ian ad­vi­sor in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion is con­tem­plat­ing a mini-surge in Afghanistan; it will prob­a­bly be a mix of coun­tert­er­ror­ism troops and train­ers, but I would sug­gest that the train­ers not be in­fantry ad­vi­sors; in their own way, the Afghan sol­diers know how to fight.

When an ex­plo­sion rocked Kabul in late May, at­ten­tion again was drawn to the state of the Afghan se­cu­rity forces. Spring ush­ers in the fight­ing sea­son, and the Afghan Na­tional Army (ANA) has been los­ing ground; this is par­tic­u­larly true of the Pak­istan bor­der ar­eas where the Pash­tun tribal cul­ture is strong­est; it was the cra­dle of the Tal­iban and re­mains Tal­iban’s pri­mary sanc­tu­ary. While the ur­ban ter­ror of the Kabul blast re­mains pri­mar­ily a po­lice re­spon­si­bil­ity, the army’s strug­gles re­main a mys­tery to many Amer­i­cans who won­der why the Amer­i­can trained ANA has trou­ble tak­ing and hold­ing ground against a poorly equipped non-state ac­tor such as the Tal­iban af­ter 15 years of Amer­i­can men­tor­ing. The an­swer is lo­gis­tics, or lack of it. We have failed to build a self-sus­tain­ing Afghan army.

It is true that the ANA has some deep in­sti­tu­tional prob­lems of lead­er­ship, in­clud­ing cor­rup­tion and nepo­tism, but it is not the drug-ad­dled mob that is de­picted in the re­cent Brad Pitt movie “War Ma­chine.” The Tal­iban have the same prob­lems; that is why they are hav­ing such a hard time stem­ming ISIS in­cur­sions into some tra­di­tional Tal­iban strongholds.

We failed to build a lo­gis­tics struc­ture based around he­li­copter re­sup­ply in a coun­try that has some of the most mil­i­tar­ily chal­leng­ing ter­rain in the world. Most re­sup­ply for Afghan troops comes from the ma­jor cities. Roads are poor to nonex­is­tent and the only ef­fi­cient way to re­sup­ply re­mote gar­risons and op­er­a­tions is by air. We failed to build an Afghan air force ca­pa­ble of re­sup­ply­ing its army. There is an old mil­i­tary maxim that am­a­teurs talk tac­tics while pro­fes­sion­als talk lo­gis­tics.

I saw this first­hand in Afghanistan in 2012. I was a civil­ian ad­vi­sor to a re­mote district in the north­west that had a Tal­iban pres­ence. Bala Murghab is one of the most re­mote spots in Afghanistan. The only re­li­able form of travel be­tween our district and the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal was by he­li­copter.

For four years the Ital­ian army and U.S. Marine Corps spe­cial op­er­a­tions teams had worked hard to help the lo­cal ANA bat­tal­ion and po­lice to clear Tal­iban from the Murghab val­ley, and by the spring of 2012, we had com­fort­able se­cu­rity bub­ble where the civil­ians of our in­ter­a­gency District Sup­port Team could try to help re­form the lo­cal po­lice and ju­di­ciary as well as to im­prove the district’s ap­palling 80 per­cent il­lit­er­acy rate.

We even had hopes of get­ting elec­tric­ity in the district. We fig­ured that, with two more years of work, we would be able to hand se­cu­rity over to to­tal Afghan con­trol. Then, dis­as­ter struck. In June 2012, we were in­formed that se­cu­rity of the district would be handed over to the Afghans in ac­cor­dance with the Obama draw­down by Septem­ber. No one in the lo­cal U.S. con­tin­gent had ever sug­gested that the district was ready for tran­si­tion, but there was no ap­peal.

In a meet­ing of the District Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, the se­nior coali­tion mil­i­tary and civil­ian lead­ers with our Afghan part­ners re­viewed the po­ten­tial post-coali­tion mil­i­tary sit­u­a­tion; it was bleak. We care­fully es­ti­mated the Afghan bat­tal­ion’s mil­i­tary and po­lice lo­gis­tic needs as op­posed to the Afghan he­li­copter lift avail­able. The num­bers didn’t add up. De­spite ap­peals for de­lays, we tran­si­tioned as or­dered by the end of Au­gust. The re­sult was pre­dictable. With­out the abil­ity to sup­ply their re­mote out­posts, the Afghan army and po­lice se­cu­rity bub­ble col­lapsed to the im­me­di­ate perime­ter of the district cap­i­tal. This has hap­pened ex­po­nen­tially in the rest of the coun­try since 2012.

The cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion is con­tem­plat­ing a mini-surge in Afghanistan; it will prob­a­bly be a mix of coun­tert­er­ror­ism troops and train­ers, but I would sug­gest that the train­ers not be in­fantry ad­vi­sors; in their own way, the Afghan sol­diers know how to fight. The Afghans need peo­ple to train their me­chan­ics and lo­gis­tics per­son­nel to keep their equip­ment run­ning, and the need more he­li­copters. Our district’s pes­simistic lo­gis­tics es­ti­mate in 2012 was based on the as­sump­tion that the Afghans could keep their he­li­copters run­ning at 60 per­cent avail­abil­ity this was in­ad­e­quate. Ac­tual he­li­copter readi­ness fell well short of even that mod­est goal.

We need to dou­ble the size of the Afghan he­li­copter fleet and im­prove its main­te­nance and lo­gis­tics ca­pa­bil­ity by an or­der of mag­ni­tude if the Afghan se­cu­rity forces are to be ex­pected to hold ter­ri­tory or ex­pand gov­ern­ment con­trol out­side of the cities. We built an Afghan army that looked like ours with­out build­ing a lo­gis­tics ca­pa­bil­ity to sus­tain it. We should rec­tify that mis­take.

ILLUSTRATION BY GREG GROESCH

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