It would appear that even the Washington Post is beginning to see through the way that the Defense Department continues to make outrageous claims regarding the capabilities of Afghan National Security Forces. An article published last night to the Post’s website carries the headline “Panetta, other U.S. officials in Kabul paint rosy picture of Afghan situation”. The article opens in conventional news-as-transcription-of-government-narrative fashion:
With Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta in Kabul to take stock as the Obama administration weighs how quickly to draw down troops over the next two years, a senior U.S. military commander on Wednesday hailed the progress Afghan security forces have made.
Marine Maj. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, the head of operations for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, said NATO troops have begun a radical shift in mission: doing the bare minimum to support Afghan troops, who, he said, are starting to operate unilaterally. “We’re now un-partnering from” Afghan forces, Nicholson told reporters Wednesday evening. “We’re at that stage of the fight.”
The article then plants a hint, stating that if Afghan forces are seen as achieving capability to function on their own, the US withdrawal can be accelerated from the current plan of taking another two years.
Remarkably, the Post then moves on to provide some perspective for Nicholson’s claim:
The assessment Nicholson offered, however, is far rosier than the one that U.S. officials have provided recently. They have been citing the resilience of the Taliban and the shortcomings of the Afghan government and military.
Just one of 23 Afghan army brigades is able to operate on its own without air or other military support from the United States or NATO, according to a Pentagon report to Congress that was released Monday.
But Nicholson wants us to believe that even though the Defense Department has been lying for years about Afghan troop capabilities, they really, really mean it this time and we should believe them:
Nicholson said that although U.S. commanders have made “disingenuous” claims in the past about the extent to which Afghans were acting as equal partners in joint missions, officials now see the Afghan army as ready to operate largely on its own, albeit with key logistical and financial support from NATO. The new strategy as the United States tries to transfer greater responsibility to the Afghan government and military is one of “tough love,” Nicholson said.
Sadly, Nicholson’s claims appear to have no more credibility than previous DoD claims on ANSF capabilities. Consider this exchange from the briefing held Monday at the Defense Department, featuring as speakers Senior Defense Official “[Briefer name deleted]” and Senior State Department Official “[briefer name deleted]” where we see that the Post isn’t the only media operation that sees through the duplicity. This exchange starts with a question from Lita Baldor of AP [emphasis added]: Continue reading
Ain’t but one way out baby, Lord I just can’t go out that door.
The long-stated “mission” for NATO forces in Afghanistan has been to train Afghan security forces so that they can take responsibility for the nation’s security as NATO forces are withdrawn by the end of 2014. But with most joint operations involving both US and Afghan forces now suspended due to the rapid increase in green on blue killings, that goal seems unobtainable since training is mostly suspended and the high rate of attrition means that the overall size of the ANSF will shrink rapidly. Articles this week from Reuters and the New York Times indicate that major media are now beginning to realize the impossibility of meeting this objective. Reuters brings us details on a green on blue killing from August 27, while the Times goes into detail on what the training program now looks like.
Reuters provides suggestions that the Afghan National Army member responsible for the attack on August 27 was recruited by the Taliban before he joined the ANA. Whether he was Taliban or not, the poor vetting leading to the perpetrator being in the ANA highlights the extent of the problems with the current Afghan forces:
Interviews with Afghan officials suggest that Welayat Khan was not properly vetted. He was admitted to the force seven months before the attack, despite presenting a fake birth certificate and having gotten a flimsy recommendation from a commander who vouched for him simply because the two men were ethnic Pashtuns, according to Afghan sources speaking on condition of anonymity.
might be your man I don’t know
Reuters is not buying the military’s claim that vetting will be better in the future, even though there appears to be no thought given removing the many thousands of current force members who shouldn’t be there:
The Pentagon is promising better vetting of Afghan recruits like Welayat Khan, and NATO last week announced it was scaling back cooperation with Afghans to reduce risk to Western troops. That includes Anders’ unit, stationed at Combat Outpost Xio Haq in Laghman province, in eastern Afghanistan, which, for the moment, has halted joint operations.
But it’s unclear whether the United States or NATO or the Afghan government forces they’re training will be able to stop the next Welayat Khan before he strikes.
In its description of what training has become, the Times describes a day of “training” that is nothing short of farce:
Advisers flew into Bad Pakh last month to teach the Afghans how to load wounded soldiers into an American medevac helicopter. Time permitting, they also planned mortar practice.
But when the Americans flew out 10 hours later, the training day had gone much like three previous ones held here in the past two months: the helicopter never showed. It was either down for maintenance or called away for a more pressing mission. The advisers never got a clear answer why.
Mortar practice also had to be scratched when it turned out the Afghans were missing the sight for their sole mortar tube.
Even more telling is that the Times even points out how the military has resorted to outright lies to present an illusion of progress in training (I previously addressed this particular lie): Continue reading
On Saturday, I noted that the move by US Special Operations forces to halt training of Afghan Local Police and Afghan special forces while those entire forces were re-screened for security threats meant that there would need to be an equivalent action taken on the larger effort to train the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police while they are re-screened:
So, while only Special Operations forces have suspended training for now, it is hard to see how this will not extend to all training of Afghan security forces soon, because the lapses in screening of recruits applies equally to the much larger ANA and ANP forces (approximately 350,000 for those two forces combined, compared to various estimates in the 20,000 range for the ALP and Afghan special forces when combined).
Even though it was a holiday weekend, it is remarkable that Pentagon Spokesman George Little was taken so off-guard in this line of questioning that Marcy pointed me to in Tuesday’s transcript:
Barbara, do you have a question?
Q: Thanks, two questions. On green-on-blue or insider attacks, what I didn’t hear you mention was that — what ISAF tells us is essentially all 350,000 Afghan security forces either have gone or are going through the process of being re-screened. And that comes from ISAF. So what would you — what does — what do you say to the families who have lost loved ones or their colleagues in the military after so many incidents this year alone? Who’s accountable for it taking so long for the U.S. military, for the coalition to realize they had to re-screen? Because for months, we were told isolated incidents, and apparently not.
MR. LITTLE: Well, let me put this in some perspective here, Barbara. It’s not that we have come only recently to this issue. We’ve taken it seriously for some time. In March of this year, six months ago, the — ISAF issued a tactical directive — and let me just list all that that tactical directive contained. It made it the adoption of specific and tailored force protection measures. Personnel and increased risks from insider attack were required to undertake specific close quarter combat and active shooter training. All commands are required to conduct refresher training, particularly for mentors and others who routinely work side-by-side with Afghans.
The directive required additional in-theater cultural awareness training. The directive also asked that coalition force units create safe zones inside ANSF compounds where they can defend themselves if necessary. And more recently, there’s been a great deal of focus by General Allen and his team on the importance of Guardian Angels, small unit leadership, and counterintelligence matters that will help identify potential attackers early on.
Q: But why did it take — and I have a follow-up to this, please — why did it take so long for the military in the department to come to the conclusion that 350,000 troops had to be re-screened? Why did (off mic)
MR. LITTLE: Three hundred and fifty thousand troops? Continue reading
Patrick Eddington pointed us toward a report (pdf) released yesterday by the GAO. The report is titled “Afghanistan Security: Long-standing Challenges May Affect Progress and Sustainment of Afghan National Security Forces”. GAO describes their reasons for the report (which is also Congressional testimony):
This testimony discusses findings from GAO reports and ongoing work that cover (1) progress reported and tools used to assess ANSF capability, (2) challenges affecting the development of capable ANSF, and (3) use of U.S. Security Force Assistance Advisory Teams to advise and assist ANSF.
The report does a very good job of catching the Defense Department redefining the highest category of ANSF capability in order to claim progress in the percentage of units that have achieved the highest level. However, as Eddington pointed out in his tweet, GAO falls far short of its second goal of enumerating the “challenges affecting the development of capable ANSF”, as the report is entirely silent on the two biggest hurdles faced: defections and green on blue killings.
Here is Reuters’ Missy Ryan describing the use of changed descriptors to claim progress:
The Pentagon’s decision to change the standards used to grade the success of Afghan police and soldiers, who are a centerpiece of U.S. strategy for smoothly exiting the war in Afghanistan, helped it present a positive picture of those forces’ abilities, a U.S. government watchdog reported on Tuesday.
“These changes … were responsible, in part, for its reported increase in April 2012 of the number of ANSF units rated at the highest level,” the Government Accountability Office said in a new report on Afghan national security forces, known as ANSF.
In a twice-annual report to Congress in April 2012, the Defense Department reported that Afghan police and soldiers “continued to make substantial progress,” classifying 15 out of 219 army units as able to operate ‘independently with assistance’ from foreign advisors. Almost 40 out of 435 police units got the same rating.
And what was the redefinition of terms that was used? Merely a slight change that completely negates its meaning:
“Key definitions used in capability assessments … have changed several times,” the GAO said. Its report said the Pentagon’s highest rating for Afghan forces had changed from ‘independent’ in early 2011 to ‘independent with advisors’ later that year.
Gosh, the only way that DoD could show that the ANSF had increased the number of units rated at the highest level of capability was to redefine that highest level of capability. So, instead of “independent”, the most capable units are now “independent with advisors”, which is, you know, NOT independent. Continue reading
Back in February of 2010, US President Barack Obama’s surge of troops in Afghanistan began its offensive by trying to take the Marja district of Helmand Province. Then US commander of forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal famously touted his counterinsurgency program for the area, saying “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in”.
Eight months into the battle for Marja, we had this:
As U.S. involvement in the war enters its 10th year, the failure to pacify this town raises questions about the effectiveness of America’s overall strategy. Similarly crucial operations are now under way in neighboring Kandahar province, the Taliban’s birthplace.
There are signs the situation in Marjah is beginning to improve, but “it’s still a very tough fight,” said Capt. Chuck Anklam, whose Marine company has lost three men since arriving in July. “We’re in firefights all over, every day.”
“There’s no area that’s void of enemy. But there’s no area void of Marines and [Afghan forces] either,” said Anklam, 34, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “It’s a constant presence both sides are trying to exert.”
The result, so far at least: Residents say the town is more insecure than ever.
“There was peace here before you came,” farmer Khari Badar told one Marine patrol that recently visited his home. “Today, there is only fighting.”
Of course, the Defense Department would have us believe everything is now fine in Marja. They staged a stroll through the marketplace back in February by a Deputy Defense Secretary, presumably to mark the two year anniversary of the offensive. I wonder if this stroll was as heavily protected as John McCain’s 2007 stroll through a Baghdad marketplace.