US finds building Afghan army isn't easy
Afghan forces prove unreliable and quarrelsome during latest battle.
WASHINGTON — The biggest US ground offensive in the war on terrorism leaves no doubt that Washington is willing to forgo proxies, and put American lives on the front line when necessary to root out the enemy.
Yet the campaign also underscores how US military cooperation with local forces, while often fraught with difficulty, remains vital to President Bush's long-term aim of denying sanctuary to terrorist groups in Afghanistan and around the world.
Indeed, even as American troops spearheaded the battle against hundreds of Al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts in Afghanistan's forbidding Shahi Khot Mountains, US military commanders stressed the integral role of their Afghan allies. "Central Command and the Afghans are joined at the hip," said Brig. Gen. John Rosa several days into the campaign.
At press time, two Afghan forces - one US-trained and a second dispatched by the Kabul interim government - were massing, along with several hundred US and other foreign troops for a final assault. Their mission: mopping up the estimated 200 enemy fighters still holed up in caves in the 60-square-mile combat area south of Gardez.
Some 600 US troops have left the combat zone, and Afghans may "take the lead in tracking down the remnants," says a US Central Command spokesperson in Tampa, Florida.
In leading the joint operation, US commanders have had to coax Afghan forces that have at times proven rivalrous, undisciplined, and reluctant - more prone to conserve their men and negotiate surrenders than to fight, US military officials and analysts say.
For example, the American military was forced to mediate when a US-recruited Afghan group balked at the arrival on Monday of a fresh contingent of some 1,000 Afghans sent by Kabul.
"We make sure we work these things out," says Central Command spokesperson Lt. Col. Martin Compton of the conflict.
US commanders also had to discourage Afghan leaders who were exploring negotiations for surrender with the remaining enemy forces at Shahi Khot, a reminder of similar talks at Tora Bora in December that slowed the assault as hundreds of Al Qaeda and Taliban slipped away. "The United States does not want this to drag out through constant negotiations for surrender," Lt. Col. Compton said.
Finally, US troops in Operation Anaconda had to deal with the failure of Afghan allies to perform key missions. During the initial, heated hours of the battle, US ground troops in one area were left to fight alone when hundreds of Afghan troops under General Zia withdrew under heavy mortar and automatic weapons fire from Al Qaeda forces occupying local villages.
"These Afghan forces never arrived," said Army Sgt. Maj. Frank Grippe, of the 10th Mountain Division, who was wounded with shrapnel in the thigh. "This was a total American force in the Shalinkot Valley that day."
Despite such frustrations, the United States sees immediate and long-run benefits in giving Afghans a stake in the anti-terrorist struggle.
As part of that effort, US military officials are planning to help train an Afghan national army. Officials see such a force as essential for attaining the goal of a stable, terrorist-free Afghanistan.
"In the end, we've got to train Afghan forces to deal with these pockets [of Al Qaeda and Taliban] themselves," says Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers.
Military analysts give the US troops - especially the small teams of US Army special forces soldiers, or Green Berets - high marks for being able to work with deeply divided Afghan militias despite a culture that clashes with the more impatient, high-tech US approach.
"The US ability to work with the Afghans has been much higher than anyone thought," says David Isby, a senior analyst at Sparta Inc. in Arlington, Va., and author of "The War in Afghanistan." For Operation Anaconda, US forces were able to bring together two rival Pashtun Afghan groups that had been fighting each other in Paktia Province, he says. "The Americans have had to smooth a lot of ruffled feelings."
US forces have used incentives to encourage Afghan cooperation, providing training, uniforms, ammunition, and possibly some wages to the Afghan recruits, US military officials say. US forces have also won Afghan support by fighting on the ground with them, taking the same risks, and demonstrating powerful results, Mr. Isby says.
The Pentagon is hopeful that such ties will enable the US military to help establish an Afghan national army capable of preventing terrorist inroads in the country.
"It would be a national army, Afghan national army, that would help to deal with something like that as opposed to a peacekeeping force," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said last week.
Beyond Afghanistan, the US plans to train, supply, and assist forces in the Philippines, Yemen, and Georgia to hunt down terrorist groups linked to Al Qaeda. Still, defense experts say it is uncertain whether such a strategy will work.
"Proxies will work well in some countries, and will be a disaster in others," says Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a defense think tank. Often, he says, "as the situation changes, the goals tend to diverge."