The abject failure of US efforts to train troops in Iraq and Afghanistan has been one of my most frequent topics. Even though the US mission in Iraq has officially ended and the mission in Afghanistan is mired in a surreal form of purgatory as the government re-invents it vote auditing procedure and even the structure of its government, the US military just can’t kick its addiction to training and is now contemplating yet another attempt at training Iraqi troops.
The New York Times tries to come to the aid of the military this morning with a front page story dedicated to re-starting the training process. The problem though, is that as the Times dives into the idea, it becomes apparent that our previous failures in training may have made it too dangerous to start (and, of course, fail again, but the Times doesn’t go there) the process yet again. That danger even makes it into the headline: “US Sees Risks in Assisting a Compromised Iraqi Force“.
The story opens:
A classified military assessment of Iraq’s security forces concludes that many units are so deeply infiltrated by either Sunni extremist informants or Shiite personnel backed by Iran that any Americans assigned to advise Baghdad’s forces could face risks to their safety, according to United States officials.
The report concludes that only about half of Iraq’s operational units are capable enough for American commandos to advise them if the White House decides to help roll back the advances made by Sunni militants in northern and western Iraq over the past month.
Imagine that. Despite eight years of work and over $25 billion invested, two and a half years after we left Iraq only about half of Iraq’s units are even fit enough for the US to advise them in an effort to take on their latest existential threat.
But the real beauty in the current conundrum lies in who stepped up to fill the training gap when the US left:
Adding to the administration’s dilemma is the assessment’s conclusion that Iraqi forces loyal to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki are now heavily dependent on Shiite militias — many of which were trained in Iran — as well as on advisers from Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force.
Shiite militias fought American troops after the United States invaded Iraq and might again present a danger to American advisers. But without an American-led effort to rebuild Iraq’s security forces, there may be no hope of reducing the Iraqi government’s dependence on those Iranian-backed militias, officials caution.
So when we left, Maliki supplemented his military with the very Shiite militias that US forces had been fighting. At least one reason for Maliki’s move was that these militias knew how to fight and the troops the US trained were useless. Those militias have been trained by Iran. And as much as the US would love to “rebuild Iraq’s security forces” through yet another ride on the training carousel, that could well be too dangerous because many of the people we would then be training might remember that less than three years ago, the US trained their weapons on them while training other Iraqi troops to go after them. The Times article rightly recognizes this situation as ripe for a resurgence of green on blue insider killings if the US tried to train such forces. They quote Michael Barbero, who was in charge of training in Iraq from 2009 to 2011 (funny, once again, while discussing training failures, David Petraeus is never mentioned):
“The advisory mission has inherent risks, but they can be mitigated,” he added. “You can put security with them. You can be selective about where you put the advisers. We can apply the lessons learned from dealing with the insider threat in Afghanistan.”
Gosh. Our military just can’t stop looking at hopeless situations and saying that they are at the turning point where they will get better. Despite all those previous failures, this time, by golly, we’ll get it right:
And General Dempsey also emphasized any American military involvement in Iraq would be different than in the past.
You see, this time we’ll call our guys advisers instead of trainers. That should make all the difference. Even if those we are advising know that we were trying to kill them very recently…
As the Afghanistan disaster careens closer to the late 2014 end of the NATO mission, the US continues to embarrass itself while it perpetuates the charade of trying to negotiate terms for US forces to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014. On Monday, the US flew Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey to Kabul where he had a photo opportunity with Hamid Karzai. Even while the “meetings” were taking place, unfolding events in Afghanistan demonstrate that US plans to keep thousands of troops in Afghanistan under an agreement that has not yet been negotiated show the same lack of situational awareness that has characterized the entire failed military effort there.
As I have been harping for months, a single issue controls the entire concept of whether the US will have troops in Afghanistan after 2014. Just as we saw in Iraq, the US simply will not leave troops in the country if there is no agreement granting criminal immunity to the troops. However, the articles in today’s New York Times and Washington Post on Dempsey’s visit make no reference to the role that immunity will play in whether an agreement is signed. It appears that one has to be retired from the Obama administration to be able to confirm the importance (and unlikelihood of its being granted) of the immunity issue. After blathering that he was making no plans under the zero option (of no US troops in Afghanistan post-2014), Dempsey said that he wants to know where things stand by October of this year and even allowed that there could be a “zero outcome”. That suggests to me that the military at least realizes the very late arrival at a zero outcome in Iraq was so disastrous that a year’s preparation for it will somehow make things better this time.
At the same time that Dempsey and Karzai were smiling for the cameras, the Afghan parliament was voting to remove the interior minister, Mujtaba Patang, from office over the high death rate of Afghan police. Patang announced that over the last four months, 2748 Afghan policemen have died. [I haven't seen any numbers for how many Afghan military lives have been lost during this time, but that number is also likely to be very high.]
An article today by ToloNews regarding Patang’s ouster (although Karzai is referring the move to the Supreme Court to buy more time), however, provides a rare glimpse of how Afghan experts view the status of US efforts to train and arm Afghan defense forces:
Experts feel that due to lack of proper training and shortage of equipments the Security Forces are not able to fight the insurgents in an effective manner, leading to an increased casualty figures.
Several MPs also expressed their concerns over the increasing casualties within the Afghan police forces.
“Afghanistan’s government should work on a plan to reduce police force causalities. Several lives are lost due to lack of proper training and equipment,” said MP Sediq Ahmad Osmani.
Apart from the forces’ casualties, several residents had a different story to tell. They accused the Security Forces and Police of maltreatment and corruption. The residents said that the Security Forces and Police are equally responsible for the current situation in Afghanistan.
Over the past 11 years, one of the aims of the international community was to build a powerful and self-sufficient military force in Afghanistan. There are over 350,000 Afghan security personnel who will take charge of complete security responsibilities from the foreign troops by the end of 2014.
As other explanations of why the US must remain in Afghanistan have faded away, the mission to train and equip Afghan forces to take on responsibility for their own security has stood as the only remaining justification for several years. Despite all those years and all those billions of dollars squandered, the security situation is getting worse and not better. And the reason security is deteriorating is because despite all that training and equipping we claim to have done, Afghan forces remain too poorly trained and too poorly equipped to take on the job we have been preparing them to assume. Does the US really believe that with “just one more year” the deficiencies in training and equipping can be overcome?
The time to hit the zero option is now. There is no need to wait another year while the situation only gets worse.
Because I follow the issue of training Afghan forces very closely, I clicked on an article today from TOLONews on graduation of a new group of Afghan Special Forces soldiers. One tidbit in the article caught my eye (emphasis added):
About 200 soldiers on Thursday graduated to the special operations forces of the Afghan National Army, ready to be deployed to the frontlines of the war against insurgents, army official said.
Deputy Chief of Army Staff Gen Azal Aman said at a graduation ceremony for the new commandos that the soldiers had been professionally trained and people should trust them as they are now responsible for the security of major parts of the country.
The ANA soldiers received 12 weeks of intense training to graduate to do special operations.
Hmmm. To be in Afghan Special Forces, it only takes 12 weeks of training? Here is what it takes to be labelled Special Forces for the US:
Like all soldiers, SF candidates begin their career with nine weeks of Boot Camp. Upon completion of Basic Combat Training you will attend Advanced Individual Training. For Special Forces, you will go to Infantry School to learn to use small arms, anti-armor, and weapons like howitzers and heavy mortars. Basic Combat Training lasts 9 weeks, AIT lasts four weeks, and Airborne last 3 weeks. All take place at Fort Benning, Georgia.
After graduating AIT your training will continue with the following schools:
- Army Airborne School – 3 weeks in Ft Benning GA
- Special Operations Preparation Course (SOPC) – 4 weeks in Ft Bragg NC
- Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) – 3 weeks in Ft Bragg NC
- Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC) – 34 -76 weeks depending upon MOS Specialty
- Live Environment Training (LET) - Immersion Training in foreign countries – varies in time.
Depending upon your MOS within Special Forces Training, the process of completing these schools can take 14-18 months.
Okay then. Afghan Special Forces are so special that they can get the name after only 12 weeks of training but US soldiers need up to 18 months of training to be Special Forces. And yet, as we saw above, “people should trust them as they are now responsible for the security of major parts of the country”. That should work out just swell.
Before the outbreak of green on blue killings that eventually led to a significant interruption in the training of Afghan security forces last September, it was impossible to read a statement from the US military or NATO regarding future plans without encountering a reference to a required 352,000 force size for combined Afghan National Security Forces. It was our training of the ANSF that was touted as our primary reason for remaining in Afghanistan because we need those trained troops available to take over security responsibility as we withdraw. I have been insisting since the interruption that it will be impossible to continue to claim that a functional ANSF force size of 352,000 can be achieved, as the known high rate of attrition continued during the training interruption. No new troop size prediction has emerged, but it was significant to me that references to the 352,000 force size claim had seemed to disappear.
Last night, President Barack Obama announced in his State of the Union address that he intends to withdraw about half the troops now in Afghanistan within the next twelve months, but he made no direct reference ANSF force size. Here are the three short paragraphs on Afghanistan in the speech as found in the transcript of his address:
Tonight, we stand united in saluting the troops and civilians who sacrifice every day to protect us. Because of them, we can say with confidence that America will complete its mission in Afghanistan and achieve our objective of defeating the core of al Qaeda. (Applause.)
Already, we have brought home 33,000 of our brave servicemen and women. This spring, our forces will move into a support role, while Afghan security forces take the lead. Tonight, I can announce that over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan. This drawdown will continue and by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over. (Applause.)
Beyond 2014, America’s commitment to a unified and sovereign Afghanistan will endure, but the nature of our commitment will change. We’re negotiating an agreement with the Afghan government that focuses on two missions — training and equipping Afghan forces so that the country does not again slip into chaos, and counterterrorism efforts that allow us to pursue the remnants of al Qaeda and their affiliates.
Despite the specific force numbers cited with respect to US forces, Obama merely mentions “Afghan security forces” without telling us how many of them there will be. Resorting to the more detailed Afghanistan Fact Sheet released last night by the White House, however, shows that Obama still clings to the myth that there are 352,000 members of the ANSF. The Fact Sheet even goes to so far as to claim that this force level will be maintained for the next three years. I don’t believe I have seen this three year claim before: Continue reading
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is in Washington this week for a visit that culminates on Friday in a meeting with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He also meets with outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday. As I described in November, the US and Afghanistan are negotiating a Status of Forces Agreement that lays out the ground rules for any US troops that remain in Afghanistan beyond the planned withdrawal of combat troops by the end of 2014. As was the case with the SOFA for Iraq, the key sticking point will be whether US troops are given full criminal immunity. When Iraq refused to grant immunity, the US abruptly withdrew the forces that had been meant to stay behind.
Both the Washington Post and New York Times have prominently placed articles this morning couching the options on the number of troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014 in terms of strategy for achieving US “goals” there, but the options described now include the “zero option” of leaving no troops behind after 2014. Unlike the case in negotiating the SOFA with Iraq, it appears that at least some of the folks in Washington understand this time that the US is not likely to get full immunity for its troops with Afghanistan, and so there should be some planning for that outcome. Both articles openly discuss the real possibility of a zero option with no troops remaining in the country, although the Times actually suggests full withdrawal in the article’s title (“U.S. Is Open to Withdraw Afghan Force After 2014″) and the Post hangs onto hope of several thousand troops remaining with its title (“Some in administration push for only a few thousand U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014″).
After describing the possibility of a zero option, the Times article then suggests that it is merely a negotiating tool to be used on Karzai, failing to note anywhere in the article that the zero option would be driven by Afghanistan refusing to confer immunity:
While President Obama has made no secret of his desire to withdraw American troops as rapidly as possible, the plans for a postwar American presence in Afghanistan have generally envisioned a residual force of thousands of troops to carry out counterterrorism operations and to help train and equip Afghan soldiers.
In a conference call with reporters, the deputy national security adviser, Benjamin J. Rhodes, said that leaving no troops “would be an option that we would consider,” adding that “the president does not view these negotiations as having a goal of keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan.”
Military analysts have said it is difficult to conceive of how the United States might achieve even its limited post-2014 goals in Afghanistan without any kind of troop presence. That suggests the White House is staking out a negotiating position with both the Pentagon and with Mr. Karzai, as he and Mr. Obama begin to work out an agreement covering the post-2014 American role in Afghanistan.
That oblique reference to an “agreement covering the post-2014 American role in Afghanistan” is as close as the Times article gets to describing the SOFA as the true determinant of whether US troops remain past 2014. At least the Post understands this point and that it hinges on immunity: Continue reading
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
Yesterday, both Marcy and I discussed significant events that could have a tremendous impact on what lies ahead for the role of the US in Afghanistan. Marcy found that for the first time, the Treasury Department has named a Taliban figure in Afghanistan as a narcotics trafficking drug kingpin. That means, as Marcy points out, that “We’ve got the Global War on Drugs in Afghanistan now” and could have cover for staying on indefinitely in order to cut the flow of drugs. I pointed out that the negotiations have just begun on developing a Status of Forces Agreement which will define the conditions under which US troops could remain in Afghanistan beyond the scheduled handover of security responsibility to the Afghans at the end of 2014. The US wants to keep a number of troops in place, but only if full legal immunity can be conferred on them. The US failed to achieve an immunity agreement in Iraq and subsequently withdrew all troops. With two years remaining before the handoff deadline, look for the negotiations to go very slowly.
Yesterday also saw the confirmation hearing for General Joseph Dunford, who has been nominated to replace General John Allen in charge of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan. The hearing had been scheduled jointly for Allen’s promotion as head of NATO, but his involvement in an email scandal with Jill Kelley has put that hearing on hold. I was unable to watch the hearing and the video archive of the hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee website has not yet gone live. (I’ve also been unable to find a transcript. If anyone runs across one, please post the link in comments.)
One key issue revolves around what the recommendation will be for how fast troops should be drawn down leading up to the handoff of security responsibility at the end of 2014. Of course, as mentioned above, the not-yet-negotiated SOFA will dictate whether and how many troops will remain beyond that date, but there still is the strategic question of how quickly combat operations will be drawn down and whether that includes actual troop withdrawals.
Perhaps because Dunford was not nominated for the position until early October, we learned in the hearing that he has not been present during any meetings at which General Allen has been preparing his recommendation for the drawdown plan:
Gen. Joseph Dunford, President Obama’s pick to take command of the Afghanistan war within months, revealed in Senate testimony on Thursday that he has not been included in Gen. John Allen’s highly-anticipated war recommendations currently being deliberated in the White House and Pentagon.
Dunford, under pointed questioning by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he has been kept in the dark, during his confirmation hearing before the Armed Services Committee.
“Do you know what those recommendations are?” McCain asked. Continue reading
From the time that training of Afghan forces first became disrupted by the security measures put in place in response to the spiraling rate of green on blue killings, I’ve been convinced that at some point NATO is going to be forced to give up on the concept of a target size of 350,000 Afghan security forces to be in place as NATO withdraws from the country. Despite the simple math that says any slowdown on feeding new recruits into a system that has such a high rate of loss means the overall size must decrease, it has appeared so far that NATO has been planning to game the numbers while adhering to the 350,000 force size.
On Saturday, a very long article was published by the Washington Post outlining a long litany of the problems associated with how the ANSF was expanded so rapidly and to such a large force size. Only by reading to the very end, though, do we get to what I think is the most important news in the article:
That now appears to be the direction U.S. commanders are heading. The White House and Pentagon have decided that the 352,000 will only be a “surge force” that will eventually be reduced to 228,500. The decision has prompted unease among senior U.S. commanders and protests from Levin, McCain and other congressional supporters of a large Afghan army. The Obama administration has billed it as a cost-saving move, but some U.S. officials see another motivation.
“Now we can start concentrating on quality,” said the senior U.S. official involved in Afghanistan policy.
But the planned cutback, which will not begin until 2016, already is fueling a new round of concern because the U.S. and Afghan governments have not started to develop a program to systematically demobilize soldiers and policemen by providing them alternative employment. If not, thousands of men with at least nominal military training will find themselves jobless the very moment the country’s economy will be struggling to cope with a drastic reduction in foreign spending resulting from the departure of most NATO troops.
Those who worry about “dismantling” ANSF to reach the lower number have nothing to worry about. The high rate of attrition says that any lowering of force size can be achieved rapidly merely by slowing input into the system. Afghanistan already is awash in thousands who were “trained” and then deserted the security forces, so the fears of releasing more are too late. Also, my prediction is that the projection that the cutback will not start until 2016 is merely a way to get agreement first on the smaller force size. Once the smaller size is a familiar concept, then I expect the timing for it to be changed dramatically to coincide with the actual withdrawal of NATO forces. Look for the withdrawal timing also to be accelerated greatly once the US election has taken place. By mid-December, I expect the plan to be for a withdrawal of the bulk of NATO troops within a twelve month timespan with a target ANSF size of 228,500 by the end of withdrawal.
But don’t expect Obama to admit that reality at tonight’s debate. He will steadfastly maintain that all 352,000 members of the ANSF are properly vetted (they aren’t) and trained (they aren’t) and stand ready (they aren’t) to take over as we leave by the end of 2014 instead of 2013. Look for Romney to hint that he wouldn’t really favor withdrawal, especially on a “timetable”. In other words, neither Obama nor Romney will say much of anything about Afghanistan that will align with how events will unfold after the election.
Last month, when the combination of rising green on blue killings and anger over the anti-Islam film finally shut down most joint operations between NATO and Afghan forces, I predicted that this would lead quickly to Afghan National Security Forces falling below the level of 350,000 that NATO has stated to be the goal when security responsibility for the country shifts to Afghan control as NATO withdraws. The prediction was based on already knowing that Afghan forces suffer from huge attrition losses and knowing that the most important aspect of training for Afghan troops occurs during joint patrols that are carried out at the platoon level where only a handful of troops from each side are present. The shutdown of joint operations was for everything below the battalion level, so it seemed to me that with the most important level of training ended, ongoing attrition would decimate the force size.
While reading today’s New York Times article in which the Times has finally realized what a huge problem the high attrition rate poses, I finally deciphered how NATO will be gaming the numbers on ANSF size in order to claim that the original plan for withdrawal can be followed without significant changes. The Times tells us:
Now at its biggest size yet, 195,000 soldiers, the Afghan Army is so plagued with desertions and low re-enlistment rates that it has to replace a third of its entire force every year, officials say.
The attrition strikes at the core of America’s exit strategy in Afghanistan: to build an Afghan National Army that can take over the war and allow the United States and NATO forces to withdraw by the end of 2014. The urgency of that deadline has only grown as the pace of the troop pullout has become an issue in the American presidential campaign.
The reality is that although NATO has set a goal for ANSF size to allow withdrawal, it has completely given up on the idea of those Afghan forces being fully functional. My error when I predicted that cessation (now followed by a resumption that Panetta claims is “nearly normal”) of joint patrols would reduce force size was to think that ANSF size would be at all affected by a decreased level of training and experience gained on joint patrol.
NATO will continue to claim that ANSF size is at the goal for withdrawal because, as we see in the Times article, recruitment will continue at the rate needed to make up for the high attrition rate. Recruitment is all that matters for maintaining force size, as the Times noted:
Colonel Stanikzai, a senior official at the army’s National Recruiting Center, is on the front line of that effort; in the six months through September, he and his team of 17 interviewers have rejected 962 applicants, he said.
“There are drug traffickers who want to use our units for their business, enemy infiltrators who want to raise problems, jailbirds who can’t find any other job,” he said. During the same period, however, 30,000 applicants were approved.
“Recruitment, it’s like a machine,” he said. “If you stopped, it would collapse.” Continue reading
Late Thursday, Leon Panetta contributed even further to his diminishing credibility by trying to claim that joint missions between US and Afghan troops are returning nearly to normal levels. From the Washington Post:
Most U.S. and NATO combat troops have resumed joint operations with Afghan forces, the Pentagon said Thursday, although U.S. officials said they remain worried about the threat of fratricidal “insider attacks.”
U.S. commanders had substantially scaled back the joint operations 10 days ago in an urgent effort to reduce the vulnerability of U.S. and NATO troops.
At a news conference, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said “most” U.S. and NATO units had “returned to their normal partnered operations” with their Afghan allies. But he offered few details, and other Pentagon officials offered conflicting accounts of how many missions were still being conducted separately.
The new information was also found to be unclear by the New York Times:
In a significant restriction on a core element of the Western exit strategy from Afghanistan, the American-led military coalition said last week that all joint operations with Afghan forces conducted below the battalion level had to first go through a formal approval process — an effort to stem attacks by members of the Afghan security forces that have killed 51 American or allied service members this year. Officials now say those approvals were being handled efficiently enough that the number of partnered operations was returning to normal. . . . The number is now climbing again, said officials, who declined to offer specifics.
Spencer Ackerman is having none of this ploy, though, and the title of his piece from Thursday evening tells us all we need to know: “Whatever Pentagon Says, U.S. Patrols With Afghans Aren’t ‘Normal’ Yet“: Continue reading