Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry said today that it had arrested or fired hundreds of Afghan soldiers in an attempt to stem insider attacks against NATO troops that threaten to undermine Western withdrawal plans.
Over the weekend, US officials announced that the United States had suspended training for Afghan police recruits in order to vet existing members as insider attacks grow more common: Afghan troops have killed at least 45 foreign troops so far this year.
The future of Afghan security increasingly rests on the shoulders of Afghan troops as they slowly assume security responsibility from foreign forces. But clashing military cultures and the resulting misunderstandings and frustrations raise questions about the success of the transition.
“US forces have been placed in an extremely difficult situation,” says Seth Jones, a senior analyst at the RAND Corp. and former senior adviser to US Special Operations in Afghanistan. “They are being asked to quickly train and mentor Afghan forces in a situation where they are withdrawing but the war is far from over.”
According to the Congressional Research Service, more than half of the US foreign assistance to Afghanistan goes into training the Afghan military and police. At a summit in Chicago in May, NATO member states pledged their support for a force of 228,500 with an estimated annual budget of $4.1 billion. There are currently 350,000 Afghan soldiers and police battling the ongoing insurgency.
At Combat Outpost Zormat in Paktia Province this summer, a general sense of frustration has set in among most troops.
“That’s all we are — big brothers with guns making sure that the big bully doesn’t beat up our little brothers on their way to school,” says Staff Sgt. Anderson, describing the attitude of many soldiers in his company.
Despite such frustration, many soldiers point out both the gradual progress as well as the ambiguity in dealing with Afghan Security Forces. According to a US corporal, “It’s hit and miss with the Afghan National Army. There are some good units, and then there are some units who run at the first shot.”
Afghan National Army units engaged in continuous skirmishes with the Taliban are better trained and disciplined than units stationed in more secure areas, he says. “The ANA in hot areas are solid. They know that they have to fight or die.”
Still, there are examples of successful cooperation among Afghan soldiers with US troops.
“US and Afghan soldiers are brothers,” says Afghan Maj. Mohammad Jan, commander of an Afghan company near the town of Kaligu.
Jan has experience with another great power that came to Afghanistan: He studied at Moscow’s military academy and fought in the Soviet-trained Army in the 1980s and early '90s. Jan pointed out that the biggest difference between US and Soviet advisers is that the Soviets insisted on doing their missions on their own.
“They trained with us but never wanted to combine units and conduct joint missions the way the US and ANA [are] doing it right now.”
He insists that if the US can teach the ANA before it leaves how to better their special forces, the transition will be successful.
“I am also in favor of unrestricted night raids by US forces.” Jan says. “I could noticeably see the difference in my area of operation when the Taliban were afraid to get attacked at night where now they can openly rest and recuperate while we still lack some of the special forces capabilities and training that US forces enjoy.”
Still, the danger for US troops has risen during the transition period – an outcome of combining trained militaries with a recently established force with little leadership and planning experience.
Many junior officers find themselves in delicate political spots, becoming cross-cultural diplomats and carefully having to weigh the risk of exposing their own troops to danger or jeopardizing the delicate Afghan-US partnership.
A US platoon led by 1st Lt. Saylor took on a support role during an Afghan-led two-day clearing mission in Paktia Province in eastern Afghanistan. Though the Afghan military leader outranked the younger US platoon leader, the platoon leader had more experience in these types of missions.
The mission turned into a comedy of errors, Saylor says. After going from house to house, the Afghan leader went the wrong way, refused to follow a map or compass, and his decisions, such as taking a four-hour lunch, seemed to the US platoon leader incomprehensible and dangerous to its US counterparts.
“My Afghan platoon commander decided to do his own thing. He is not following the original plan and halted 1,000 meters before our objective and started searching houses,” says Saylor.
The mission ended a day ahead of schedule, but rather than come back to the protection of the base, the leader was unsure what to do. Instead of taking advice from the younger US soldiers with him, which would be considered an embarrassment, he decided to keep the platoon out for the night and have the troops stay in an old farmhouse, one that had been overrun by the Taliban a year earlier. It made the US troops nervous and angry.
Saylor radioed to his superior on base. Since it was an Afghan-led mission, the rules of engagement required the US troops to stay put, establish a security perimeter, and hope that the Taliban mortar team in the area would not target them, he was told.
When asked about risks for his soldiers in this transition phase, the battalion commander of the 3-509, Lt. Col. Shawn Daniel, emphasizes, “Our soldiers just cannot tell Afghan soldiers what to do. We have to take a step back. We cannot impose our values.”
“We have been making progress, but we have to let them make mistakes!”