Afghan Army's next hurdle: logistics

If the Afghan Army is to take over security in Afghanistan, it must be able to effectively resupply weapons, food, and other supplies without foreign air support or technical assistance.

Matt Ford/AP
Capt. Wahidullah, head of the Afghan National Army at Forward Operating Base Tillman in eastern Paktika province, talks with local children after giving them warm clothes for the winter on Monday.

Most US soldiers say the Afghan Army has become a capable combat force. US Army Capt. Craig Halstead even credits a group of Afghan soldiers with saving the lives of several of his men during a recent firefight.

Despite the growing abilities of its soldiers, though, the Afghan Army must now catch up in another area: logistics. If the Afghan Army is to outlast the US and NATO presence here, it must be able to effectively resupply weapons, food, and other supplies without foreign air support or technical assistance.

“The capability exists at the boots-on-the-ground soldier level,” says Capt. Halstead, commander of Bravo Company, 2-28 Infantry Battalion, laying the foundation for a successful Afghan takeover. But, he continues, “Success depends on the unity of effort and communication between the Afghan Army, Border Police, and National Police.”

US and NATO forces have kept the Afghan military supplied in large part until recently. Ending this cycle has proved a challenge for Afghan soldiers who’ve become accustomed to getting whatever they need from foreign troops.

In recent years, Afghan forces have made considerable progress building their supply system, but development remains stymied by a complicated bureaucratic process, overreliance on NATO, a limited budget, and limited coordination between different Afghan security organizations.

In Kunar Province, the Afghan Border Police complain that they have mortars, but no rounds to fire. On long missions throughout Afghanistan, the Afghan Army often doesn’t bring enough water or food to last the entire patrol. Paperwork is often held up by small errors.

In remote areas with a strong insurgent presence, the problems of resupplying Afghan forces are most acutely felt. Along a remote border area of Kunar Province, Afghan Border Police are unable to truck in food supplies because they say insurgents will attack the convoys if they know the supplies are for the police.

“We try to buy supplies here, but the prices are extremely high. Our police are paying three times the market rate for food,” says Lt. Haji Mohammed Gul Haymad, an Afghan Border Police officer. He adds that the police provide them with a small stipend for food, but it only covers half the soldiers’ food costs; the rest they pay out of pocket. For soldiers who only make a very modest salary, expenses like these can make a noticeable difference in their income.

Western forces and their Afghan counterparts have worked to create a logistics system to make Afghan forces more self-reliant. The system depends on Afghan forces filling out paperwork to request supplies through their chain of command, as happens in most militaries. US soldiers working with the Afghan security forces say the system has given them much optimism that these hurdles can be overcome.

“The foundation of the logistical resupply system is in place. The trick is to get them to use it,” says Capt. Adam Maneen, executive officer for Bravo Company, 2-27 Infantry Battalion in Kunar Province. “They would use it, I think, if that was their only option. It’s hard cutting people off, [hearing] them say ‘we have nothing,’ and you’ve got to say 'keep waiting, keep filling out those forms.' ”

But much of developing an effective logistics system for the Afghans may rely on finding a happy medium between Western and Afghan methods.

“Until now, most of the logistics is sent by air and it’s done by the foreigners. Since we don’t have a full air force now it will be a bigger problem after the withdrawal of the foreign forces,” says Abdul Rahman Shaheed, a former police officer who is currently a member of parliament for Bamiyan Province. Mr. Shaheed says that rather than attempt to follow the Western model, which may break apart when the West leaves with its Air Force and other resources, Afghans should focus on supporting themselves as they did before US troops came to Afghanistan.

Rather than wait for NATO to supply bottled water, for example, Shaheed says Afghan troops should dig their own wells.

Still, the Afghan Army will remain dependent on foreign support for years to come. During the last Afghan fiscal year, March 2010 to March 2011, the Afghan government was only able to contribute a sum equivalent to about 4 percent of the $11.6 billion that the US government invested in Afghan security forces during 2011.

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