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Afghan security forces – training and sustaining

November 6, 2012

By Tim Foxley

Summary: Two separate examples that highlight some of the difficulties in creating the Afghan army specifically and remind us of the problems of sustaining Afghanistan more generally after 2014

A couple of stories related to the race to get an Afghan National Security Forces up and running (or should that be fighting?):

The first reflects upon the difficulties in training artillery troops – stark cultural and education differences between the US trainers and their Afghan trainees

“There was a strong metallic clink, followed by a blast as the bomb went zooming out from the mortar. Seconds later a boom reverberated over the surrounding mountains, and the Afghan crew stood on tiptoe, trying to see where it had landed…And that is the point. Over the course of 10 days in October 2011, the Afghan National Army (ANA) mortar crew never actually aimed their tube. They never took a bearing, never read out elevations, never set up their aiming sticks — though they did continuously clean and oil the weapon.”

Although preserving the force and experience levels remains a major challenge, it has proved relatively easy to produce vast numbers of light infantry – small arms, RPGs and fighting spirit.  Creating the modern support and combat support components of an army – artillery, air support, medical, intelligence, engineers, transport, reconnaissance – is proving much more difficult.  But these are the “force multipliers” than give an army an edge.

The story brings training efforts up to date.  The US trainer’s confidence about the prospects for the Afghans he has been training to be able to operate unsupervised is there, but in lukewarm quantities:

“I feel that they’ll be trained. I think time will tell how they react to it. Because eventually there’s not going to be a U.S. infantry platoon to go out with their infantry. There’s not going be a U.S. gun battery that can partner with theirs. So the more we pull away from [them] now, while we’re still here, the better they will be for the long haul.”

I still prefer the slightly less diplomatic assessment from a British soldier also engaged in training the ANSF in Helmand:

“Yeah, they’ve got the training…but they just can’t be arsed…”

The second angle has parallels with a couple of the other stories (here and here) regarding development weaknesses  that I highlighted a few weeks back.  The latest report from the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) looks at Operation and Maintenance (O and M) and highlights significant deficiencies in the infrastructure for the Afghan army:

Afghan National Security Forces Facilities: Concerns with Funding, Oversight, and Sustainability for Operation and Maintenance

The Afghan government will likely be incapable of fully sustaining ANSF facilities after the transition in 2014 and the expected decrease in U.S. and coalition support. The Afghan government’s challenges in assuming O&M responsibilities include a lack of sufficient numbers and quality of personnel, as well as undeveloped budgeting, procurement, and logistics systems.

We found:

  • As of June 1, 2012, the Afghan government had filled less than 40 percent of authorized O&M positions. U.S. officials cited salary discrepancies between these ANSF positions and private sector jobs, such as contract positions, as a prime factor in the lagging recruitment efforts.
  • The ANSF lacks personnel with the technical skills required to operate and maintain critical facilities, such as water supply, waste water treatment, and power generation.
  • The Ministry of Defense’s procurement process is unable to provide the Afghan army with O&M supplies in a timely manner.  The Ministry of Interior did not make its first budget allocation for O&M at police sites until March 2012.
  • As of August 1, 2012, 25 sites had started the transition process.

However, USACE had not yet developed a plan and procedures for removing partial facilities from the contracts and continued to pay O&M costs for structures that were no longer covered under the contracts.

My interpretation of this would be that, although sheer numbers might be high, the ANSF edifice might be built on shaky ground.  This story is not as direct and immediate as troop numbers and capabilities, but the whole issue of sustainability across Afghanistan after 2014 –in every dimension where the international community has been building (or propping up) systems, institutions, equipment, buildings and people – should be a real cause for concern.  As with the Helmand schools now being closed, as with artillery troop training, my sense is that:

  • there are many more of these stories of unsustainability that will come to light in the next few years – probably most of them after 2014
  • the rush and increasing pressure to “build/train/initiate stuff” before the 2014 deadline is blinding us to these problems
  • some are probably wilfully ignoring the implications

Perhaps the spotlight should be refocused onto infrastructure of all kinds.



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