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Training the Afghan Army

The comment piece below was published in Pakistan’s Daily Times over two years ago, on September 17, 2009. It was critical of the foreign armies’ system of training the Afghan army.  Alas, since then, almost nothing has changed. There is now a joint international command headquarters,  certainly, but it is purely nominal in effect.  Units of U.S. special forces continue to operate without reference to anyone — not even their own in-country national headquarters — and the training system is notable only for the fact that increasing numbers of trainees are killing their foreign trainers: some 75 foreign “mentors” have been murdered by Afghan soldiers since 2007.    

In Kabul last week [in September 2009], “an American service member and an Afghan police officer got into an argument because the American was drinking water in front of the Afghan police, who are not eating or drinking…because of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan…[The policeman] shot the American and seriously wounded him, while other American troops responded and seriously wounded the [policeman].”

This depressing cameo encapsulates the problem for foreign troops in Afghanistan. And it shows the problems that Afghans have with ignorant foreigners whose boorish insensitivity would be laughable were it not so dangerous.

A perceptive American military officer told the Washington Post that “Having US troops enforcing martial law where they don’t understand the people or speak the language — this is a recipe for disaster.” Quite so. (Although his use of the phrase “martial law” is a trifle disconcerting.) And the same applies to the training of the Afghan army and police force.

The training and “mentoring” of Afghan troops and policemen by foreign advisers (shades of Vietnam era condescension) are inadequate.

First, the training is conducted by different nations, none of which have similar instructional methods. Indeed the foreign armies in Afghanistan don’t even have compatible rules of engagement, communications systems, logistics arrangements, equipment, command structures or domestic political imperatives. NATO and the “International Security Assistance Force” have some 65,000 troops in Afghanistan. About half are American, but more than 30,000 other US troops operate under entirely national command. [Two and a half years later there are some 130,000 foreign troops in country, 99,000 of them Americans.]

To state that this arrangement is a cockamamie nonsense is to put it mildly. Here are the lordly superior nations of the West, intent on bringing law and order to Afghanistan, and they do not have a single distinct headquarters that is responsible for commanding all military operations.

If a young captain at any military college in the world came up with such a structure, when told to design a configuration for the most effective use of military power by a group of supposedly allied armies engaged in a counter insurgency war in a foreign country, he would be laughed at.

There is no overall Mission Statement for the foreign troops in Afghanistan. As the war intensifies it is likely that national contingents now operating in comparatively safe areas will be subjected to action by warlords, Taliban, drug barons and other criminal thugs. If this happens, there will be even more chaos.

It is stated that training of soldiers is the responsibility of the Afghan army with assistance from others, which is true, so far as it goes. But at least six nations are involved in such training — a recipe for confusion. So last April [2009], realising that the training process had failed, NATO announced that it would create a Training Mission with “a single commander for both the US-led Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan and the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan.”

And the best of luck. But it won’t work. Because what is needed is a stand-alone training system that could be designed in detail by a competent major in about a week.

When I returned to Australia from serving in Vietnam, I was made responsible for the basic training of hundreds of soldiers, a task I much enjoyed in spite of rising at 0530 every day for the morning run. It wasn’t easy to train youngsters straight from civil life, but it was worthwhile, and at passing-out parades proud and happy parents who flew from the other side of the continent would tell me they never thought that anyone could persuade their sons to make their own beds.

Terrific.

But I had many advantages: all recruits were literate and spoke the same language; the dedication and ingenuity of my staff of instructors never ceased to amaze me; and the logistics system was staggeringly efficient. (One recruit had size 16 feet, so the quartermaster phoned the boot supplier and we had two pairs next day. And we won the inter-company swimming, too, because Bigfoot went like a motorboat.)

The course of instruction took 12 weeks of enormous effort by everyone. At the end of it the recruits were able to begin to serve in their units. But their training was far from complete, because they had a great deal more to learn about soldiering. I won’t go into boring detail, but it takes at least a year to produce a reasonably efficient soldier — and that’s with an almost perfect system. It would be criminal to commit a soldier to hazarding his life before he was competent.

In Afghanistan the training course is ten weeks [it has now been reduced to 8 weeks], and 90 percent of recruits are illiterate and language-incompatible with their peers, let alone with foreigners. Afghan instructors are keen but barely effective and the logistics system is a tattered joke. Some foreign instructors may be good, but most are depressingly ignorant of language, culture and customs.

It is reported that “As part of the Obama administration’s surge, the 4th Brigade of the 82nd Airborne is being deployed to serve as trainers. This brigade is a regular Army brigade not specifically structured for the advisory mission.” My case rests.

What a farce.

So the foreigners’ training system in Afghanistan won’t work — and nor will the absurdly complex new command arrangements supposed to be in place on 12 October [2009]. There is going to be a “new ISAF Upper Command Structure, [which] will consist of a higher operational Headquarters, ISAF HQ commanded by a 4-star General, and a subordinate 3-star HQ called ISAF Joint Command (IJC) HQ. Both will be located in Kabul . . .”   And so on.

In a marvellous piece of gobbledygook milspeak, “COMICJ [which acronym is not explained by the authors of this twaddle] will be exclusively a NATO Commander, as opposed to COMNTM-A who will be double-hatted as NATO/ISAF Commander and Commander of the US-led Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A).”

COMICJ ? You couldn’t make it up. But it’s real, if barely believable.

Heaven help Afghanistan.

*****

The commentary above was written over two years ago. And now we are told by Obama’s White House that it is “pursuing a well-resourced and integrated military-civilian strategy intended to pave the way for a gradual transition to Afghan leadership” by the end of 2014. This is garbage, not only because so many foreign training instructors have been killed by their Afghan trainees, but because the Afghan army isn’t even remotely competent, after so many years of wasted effort.  Countless millions of dollars have been squandered in trying to train the Afghan army.  The entire system was ill-constructed and is ineffective as well as costly beyond belief.  There was no examination of Afghan tribal culture before the foreign armies leapt into inept and wasteful action in trying to train recruits.

Dereliction of Duty, the superb paper about the war in Afghanistan written by U.S. army Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis, notes that in October 2011 the US head of the Training Mission, a Disney character called Lieutenant General  William B Caldwell, declared that “Two years of intense education and training have turned members of the Afghan army and police into a national security force that is learning to protect and serve and that is producing a new breed of leaders,”  which was a inane untruth.  It showed that Caldwell was either a liar, a fool, ignorant of facts, or (probably) a combination of all the above. On March 8 I went to the site  http://www.isaf.nato.int/en/about-isaf/leadership/lieutenant-general-william-b.-caldwell.html to find out more about Caldwell and saw the message :

Leadership

This page is not available

about which no comment is necessary.

Recent events and evaluations have shown beyond doubt that the foreign training “system” is a failure.  The “coalition forces” in Afghanistan will continue down the road to disaster and defeat. The commanding generals will prosper, and their staff officers will be promoted.  Fighting soldiers and officers will continue to die in the cause of nothing — and Afghanistan will collapse once more into regional regimes of savagery.

Brian Cloughley’s website is www.beecluff.com

 

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Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.

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