Will The Afghan National Army (ANA) Be Able to Sustain Itself Once Western Troops Depart?
By Olivier Azpitarte
Olivier is a former Foreign Legion officer and a Paris-based multimedia reporter: he is part of the SLD team since June 2010 as a reporter. Below are his findings based on one of his trips to Afghanistan.
11/30/2010 – Since the announcement by the French former Minister of Defence Hervé Morin about the start of withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan in 2011, the issue of the evaluation of Afghan security forces is more relevant than ever. Foremost among the concerns are the maintenance, logistics and troop support. Will these native troops be able to sustain themselves after the withdrawal of Western troops? On the occasion of a one-week stay in July 2010 in the main base of the Afghan National Army near Kabul, we had the opportunity to see several battalions in training and operation. Here is our report.
Credit: Olivier Azpitarte, Afghanistan, July and August 2010
- Photos 1 through 6: Initial training of Afghan battalions in Deh-Sabs (suburb of Kabul), July 2010
- Photo 7: Afghan soldiers and Ford Ranger pick-up, Surobi district, August 2010
- Photos 8 through 10: Kabul logistical convoy, Tagab Valley, July 2010
- Photo 11: Logistics vehicles of the Afghan National Army, Tagab Valley, August 2010
- Photo 12: Tanker of the Afghan National Army, Kabul, July 2010
The Pol-e-Sharki camp is located on the outskirts of Kabul on the Jalalabad road. Dozens of Afghan battalions – the “kandaks” in Dari – are permanently stationed there. North on the Shamali plain, hundreds of peeled hectares extend in the foothills of the Koh-e-Safi massif: the place called Deh Sabz is the main field of the “kandak factory”. This summer, the pace of production is a battalion (around 700 men) every fortnight. Units cross and follow each other, to quickly instruct the future mass army of the Karzai government. They no longer carry the Kalashnikov assault rifle, as it was still the case across the country in 2008, but the M16, and as handgun, a Beretta. The troops ride in brand new Ford Ranger pick-ups or “reconditioned” U.S. Humweees: sand painting has been replaced by a coarse camouflage, the most important being not to be confused with the insurgents. Across the country, American troops remain the preferred targets of rebel bombs. All these vehicles, we are told, are maintained and repaired by a civilian company. Western and Afghan employees would be working within this sector of outsourced maintenance. On the shooting target range, they wear with discipline sand-colored American boots, pixilated fatigues, Kevlar helmets and modern body armor. With some individual adjustments: one prefers leather sandals, and another has the kevlar helmet backwards. “It allows me to place my rifle better,” he says. His instructors bow to the cardboard he shows in support: everything is right on target. So be it.
On the shooting target range, they wear with discipline sand-colored American boots, pixilated fatigues, Kevlar helmets and modern body armor. With some individual adjustments: one prefers leather sandals, and another has the kevlar helmet backwards. “It allows me to place my rifle better,” he says. His instructors bow to the cardboard he shows in support: everything is right on target. So be it.
At the rear of a Ford Ranger, four recently incorporated Afghans are tossed towards an area where they are supposed to show up in response to a fictitious ambush. That is their initial instruction, which must come to an end within weeks. One of them, aged 18, shares with spontaneity. “I have not received pay for the past two months,” he says, half-amused, half annoyed. Laying on the ground moments later, under orders from an instructor who tries to make a good impression, the soldier shouts: “Bam bam bam bam bam bam bam … I would have liked to shoot, but we do not have blank ammunition for the exercise “ Is he still in good spirits anyway? He does not answer yes or no, a grunt escapes his mouth. However, his determination to fight at gunpoint is firm: “I’m not afraid to go into battle, I am even eager to be there,” he says with an attitude steeped in masculinity. A tradition in Afghanistan.
Little arrangements regarding jerrycans…
Starting at dawn towards the valley of Tagab. A logistics company of the Afghan army (a “coy”) leaves to supply kitchen wood to two Afghan outposts. Their food supply, unlike the Western troops, is local. And their method of cooking, traditional: from large pots on the fire. In the convoy, Ford Ranger pick-ups and Humwees armed in a respectable way surround gleaming trucks with a payload of 7 tons and bearing the International brand. There are also three French armored vehicles: on board, armed militaries of the “Train” (i.e. the French Army logisticians) on a mentoring mission with their Afghan counterparts for a period of six months. Journey without mishap until the first battle station, situated on parallel 42: the “hornet’s nest” controlled by supporters of the Tagab Valley begins at this point, but no incidents to report. Lieutenant Jérémie [the French army requires that the civilian press keeps the anonymity of its members in Afghanistan, NDLA] still displays astonishment. This officer of the 2nd material Regiment is the chief of the convoy’s French elements. He receives a message sent trough his interpreter: the Afghan part of the convoy, he learns, has restarted without his knowledge towards the second position on the parallel 51, further north, and in the heart of the insurgent area. The Afghan convoy commander estimated that the risks of being attacked were lowered significantly by not being accompanied by French armored vehicles. His calculation paid off: not even one harassing fire punctuated his one and a half round trip. On the position of latitude 42, the French find time a bit long. The mood is philosophical: “After all, they are at home, it is their country, we’re just guests”, a French logistician interjects. Another one is more upset: “When they need us, they know where to find us, but beyond that, they do not even bother to be courteous.” This sentencing was a little tough but did not take long to prove true: the French Lieutenant just received a second message through his interpreter that makes his blood boil. He gathers his ten men on the field and addresses them in an unfussy style: “The Mouchkil [the problem, NDLA] today is what? The Mouchkil is that they are almost dry on some vehicles. In one of them, they have less than a quarter tank. It means that we will go to Kabul on the way back and we will run out of fuel. So, as usual, we will give them a jerrycan. I’m sorry but that’s the way it is.” According to their own smart calculations, the Afghan logisticians manage to systematically be given fuel by the French under duress: unless they remain stranded and fear a possible roadside bombing, the options are scarce. That’s worth an explanation between French and Afghan command. We observe the scene from a distance: the Afghani tempers, smiles effectively and the “case” is resolved. The return convoy starts off, rolls a bit, and 60 kilometers from Kabul, stops. Cans are unloaded from the French tanks by Afghanis. Chief Warrant Officer Yves, a noncommissioned officer of the 515th regiment of the train, looks on, perplexed. He comments: “For them, everything that can be set aside is worth taking. It is even common for a tanker of the Afghan army to never reach its destination. The crew disappears for two weeks, and then returns to the kandak, where it is immediately reinstated, after one of their secret arrangements, as if nothing had happened.” It must be said that fuel is a very sought after good, because the difficult supply makes it very expensive. Corruption, which is so often the subject of debate at the political level, sometimes undermining the diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Karzaï administration, thus also affects, not surprisingly, the army ranks … “It is morally reprehensible,” moderates the Sergeant-Chef Hervé of the 515th Regiment of the Train,” but humanly understandable: the price of fuel on the black market in Kabul is very high.” Certainly.
“Time to fill their pockets”
Back in Paris. We meet Johan Freckhaus, a French expert on Afghan issues. A former Massoud comrade, a former team member of the presidential campaign of the candidate Abdullah , he prefers to blame large scale political mistakes rather than individuals. “Corruption in Afghanistan is not based on a group of bad people that we could identify and replace. What a good excuse: we would do an admirable job unfortunately marred by a shameless native administration! The truth is that the centralized and authoritarian system that we have put in place [at the loya jirga – traditional constituent assembly – in 2003, NDLA] with the help of an emigrant, urban and progressive Afghan elite, is unsuited to the fundamentally rural, conservative and religious country. This system has no chance of survival and, by using force to impose itself, it only creates rejection, as indeed before him Prince Daoud’s “republic” in the ’70s and the Communists’ “democracy” in the 80’s. The more resentment, the less hope and the more Afghans are in the moment, in search of quick profits. Today, there are foreigners and money; it’s time to fill their pockets for the future of the family, the future education of the children, even exile if the Taliban was to be back soon! ”
“The truth is that the centralized and authoritarian system that we have put in place [at the loya jirga – traditional constituent assembly – in 2003, NDLA] with the help of an emigrant, urban and progressive Afghan elite, is unsuited to the fundamentally rural, conservative and religious country. This system has no chance of survival and, by using force to impose itself, it only creates rejection, as indeed before him Prince Daoud’s “republic” in the ’70s and the Communists’ “democracy” in the 80’s. The more resentment, the less hope and the more Afghans are in the moment, in search of quick profits. Today, there are foreigners and money; it’s time to fill their pockets for the future of the family, the future education of the children, even exile if the Taliban was to be back soon! ”
“The strategy of ‘always more’: an illusion”
Beyond the feelings collected during this report, the issue raised by Johan Freckhaus about the Afghan army is more fundamental: “There is indeed an insurgency in Afghanistan because you have 30 000 or 40 000 rebel fighters – according to allied military intelligence – backed by millions of Afghan civilians, in growing numbers, who feed them, house them, transport them, protect them, give them information and so on. These civilians are doing it foremost to drive foreign troops out of the country and in rejection of the system we are trying to impose, but do not want the return to power of the mullahs either. Withdrawing our troops is therefore the right strategy to effectively drive a wedge between the rebels and their supporters. This famous momentum, this magic moment where the power relationship can be reversed, will come from fair and complete withdrawal of foreign forces, because then the fate of the country will return to its population. Then the Afghan security forces, as they exist today, would very well be capable, with the help of villagers, of chasing away those rebels on motorcycles mainly armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers, whose most lethal know-how is simply to trigger explosives remotely. The strategy of “always more” prevalent until today for the Afghan security forces is a dangerous illusion: more troops, more money, more power to the central government, all of this is counter-productive, it fuels the insurgency! We are building oversized security forces in Afghanistan that the country is far from being able to afford. We imagine a police state, supported from abroad, which would subject the population to the decisions of Kabul. We imagine building in a few years, for one of the poorest countries in the world, an army that could successfully maintain in power a hyper-centralized system. This is not sustainable.” Let’s remember, for the record, that the Afghan government, which now has 140, 000 military and 109, 000 police officers, aims at a 240,000 military and 240,000 police officers force . And that is for a country of about 20 million inhabitants. In comparison, France, for a population three times larger, has fewer than 170,000 military personnel (ground and air) and 265 000 gendarmes and police officers.
For the record, that the Afghan government, which now has 140, 000 military and 109, 000 police officers, aims at a 240,000 military and 240,000 police officers force . And that is for a country of about 20 million inhabitants.
Exiting the conflict “from the top”
Organizational and strategy matters are also emerging: shouldn’t the Afghan army enhance its defense functions rather than the control of areas by a mass infantry? Focus on heavy melee and support weapons, such as tanks, artillery, engineering, and its vital functions such as maintenance, logistics and supporting the troops, rather than recruiting legions of brave men left and right? In addition to the French military logisticians mentors belonging to the “Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams” that we followed, several thousand of troops, French and from other nations under the NATO banner, already participate in the Epidote mission, within “Embedded Training Teams” in educating and mentoring in the logistics, artillery, cavalry and engineers fields. An action plan from the U.S. military has set up an effective system of payment for the Afghan army in 2010 although, as we leaned through our story, progress still needs to be made. No partnership initiative has yet emerged internally, to our knowledge, in the areas of maintenance. Those practical considerations are essential but certainly not sufficient for exiting the conflict “from the top”. The geostrategic explorations still deserve to be discussed elsewhere .
No partnership initiative has yet emerged internally, to our knowledge, in the areas of maintenance.
Footnotes & references
 Present in the second round of Afghan presidential elections in 2009, before withdrawing his candidacy due to suspicions of electoral fraud.
 Johan Freckhaus wanted to add about this matter during our interview: “Our mistake is that of stubbornness. We’d do better to finally propose a more relevant, decentralized and distributed political system, and to give up the poison of “strategic partnership” to return to the historical neutrality – which has always been the stability of Afghanistan – rather than wanting to create over time a “new man” who would adapt to what we wish for his country, who would obey the President “in all that he will order” provided that that President is favorable to us. Finally, we only give the Afghans a choice to be with us or against us. And unfortunately, we must note that they are increasingly likely to be on the side of our enemies.”