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Preparing for transition – the readiness of the ANA

January 18, 2013

By Tim Foxley

Summary: A worrying report from the NYT on the performance of an ANA unit when cut loose from their ISAF minders.

Only one brigade out of 23 is "combat ready", by US definitions

Only one brigade out of 23 is “combat ready”, by US definitions

This article, from the New York Times, is very good reading and a worrying reflection on what the security situation might start to look like when the international forces have withdrawn.  As international forces draw down and international attention drifts to Syria, Mali, etc, it will become increasingly difficult to et a good sense of the reality on the ground.  But journalist Luke Mogelson has done a good job here, embedding himself with an Afghan National Army (ANA) unit as they swept through Chak District of Wardak province.  The unit was not supervised by ISAF in any way during the course of its operations (doubtless this formed part of the “impressive” statistics that: “Afghan security forces are currently leading over 80 per cent of all security operations in 23 of the country’s 34 province”).

“After a week with Daowood’s battalion, what I found is that the A.N.A. looks very different when there are no Americans around. So does the war.”

I didn’t find any surprises here – I have read many of these kind of stories in other reports.  There are a few recurring themes, most of them negative:

  • The erratic and uncoordinated nature of ANA operations

“Where are we going?” I asked the machine-gunner.

He offered the words I had heard time and again — so often, and so predictably, they could be the battalion motto. The words were invoked in response to such questions as: What is the plan? Who is shooting? Where will we sleep tonight? How many dead?

The words are “Mulam nes” — “It isn’t clear.”

Finally the driver stopped and asked a bearded man in a black turban for directions. The man — a Talib? — kindly pointed the way.”

  • Limited capabilities:

“When the time comes, for instance, will Afghanistan’s army be able to maintain its own equipment and facilities? Evacuate and treat its own casualties? Overcome ethnic divisions within its ranks? Furnish its units with essential rations like food and fuel? Retain sufficient numbers despite alarmingly high attrition rates? Implement a uniform training doctrine despite alarmingly low literacy rates? Today, according to the Pentagon, exactly one Afghan brigade is capable of operating without any help from the coalition. For better or worse, come Dec. 31, 2014, the other 22 will likely have to do the same.“

  • The lack of resources and training:

 “Daowood told his subordinate officers: “The only thing we’re waiting on is the fuel. If we don’t receive the fuel, we will not be able to do the operation.” A cohort of American advisers stood in the back of the room, silently listening. In the past, they probably would have offered to provide the fuel themselves. But that paradigm has changed. Increasingly, A.N.A. units must rely on their own supply lines, however inefficient they may be.”

  •  The closing down of many bases and checkpoints, against the advice and wishes of the ANA, simply because there are insufficient manpower resources to sustain them:

“As coalition forces diminish, that is, the A.N.A. must decide not only how to fill the gaps but also which gaps to forgo filling. For years, to secure roads and rural areas, Afghan soldiers have manned hundreds of check posts throughout the provinces. Now the A.N.A. plans to relinquish almost all of these in favor of consolidating its forces in significantly fewer locations. General Karimi claims there are two reasons for doing this. First: the Afghans simply lack the wherewithal to keep the more remote posts adequately provisioned. Second: the A.N.A. must move away from defending static positions, toward executing offensive operations. Theoretically, the police will take over check posts as the army quits them. But this will not always be the case; it may seldom be the case. And when vacated posts are not assumed by the police — as has happened in Wardak — it will be hard not to see the ongoing “realignment of troops” as anything other than an old-fashioned retreat.“

To present some positives, the troops certainly do not appear to shirk from a fight and their approach to counter-insurgency (macho, assertive but very obviously much better at interacting with fellow Afghans and very aware of culture norms), may be uncomfortable to the Western eye (read the section where the commander interrogates a young boy), but carries its own inherent local logic.

Civil war in the years after 2014 remains a real risk, but the army may not simply disintegrate within months…

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