Special Forces Suspend Training of Afghans in Program Petraeus Started

In happier days, David Petraeus was the face of Army recruiting in an ad on national television. Today, he is the face of a failed program that endangers the entire plan for withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan.

In the biggest fallout yet from the massive increase in green on blue deaths in Afghanistan, US Special Operations forces have suspended training of Afghan Local Police and Afghan special forces until all members of these forces have been re-evaluated from a security standpoint. There are several important points to be made about this development.

Training for the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, which are much larger forces, continues.  From the New York Times story on this development:

The move does not affect the vast majority of Afghan forces — more than 350,000 Afghan National Army soldiers and Afghan National Police members — who are still being trained and are still working in the field with American and NATO counterparts, military officials said.

The story first broke in the Washington Post, and their account describes a very difficult bit of reality setting in on the military as it assesses the rapid acceleration of green on blue attacks:

The move comes as NATO officials struggle to stem the tide of attacks on NATO forces by their Afghan colleagues. The attacks, which have killed 45 troops this year, have forced NATO officials to acknowledge a painful truth: Many of the incidents might have been prevented if existing security measures had been applied correctly.

But numerous military guidelines were not followed — by Afghans or Americans — because of concerns that they might slow the growth of the Afghan army and police, according to NATO officials.

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).

Note also that while there have been 45 deaths of NATO forces in green on blue killings this year alone, the Post tells us that there have only been three attacks in which Afghan Local Police turned their weapons on NATO personnel with whom they were working since the program to train ALP began in 2010.

Another key point to be made about this program of training Afghan Local Police and special forces by US Special Operations forces is that this program was a signature part of David Petraeus’ COIN strategy. The Post describes the program without mentioning Petraeus:

The local police initiative places Special Forces teams in remote villages where they work with Afghan elders and government officials to help villagers defend themselves against insurgent attacks and intimidation. U.S. officials have touted the program, which numbers about 16,000 Afghans, as a critical way to spread security and the influence of the Afghan government to remote areas of the country where the Taliban have found haven.

Likewise, the Times doesn’t mention Petraeus when it describes the program:

The Afghan Local Police program is a relatively new program that has sent American Special Operations forces into more rural areas to train Afghan recruits who are not part of the main Afghan army or police. These police forces, while comparatively small in number, are regarded as an important stopgap to secure remote corners of Afghanistan as international troops withdraw.

Reuters, however, makes the daring move of actually tying Petraeus’ name to this program that is in such a failed state:

The ALP is a militia, set up two years ago by U.S. Forces, in villages where the national police force — a separate body trained by NATO — is weak. The ALP has been beset by allegations of abuse and widespread corruption.


The ALP is a flagship project of U.S. General David Petraeus, who was replaced last year by U.S. General John Allen as commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan.

The final key point to come out of the Post article is that there now seems to be a push to separate NATO and Afghan forces at times when they are not actually on duty, rather than encouraging the troops to get to know one another better:

Troops are now being advised to stay away from Afghan soldiers and police officers during vulnerable moments, such as when they are sleeping, bathing or exercising, according to a directive from NATO leaders.

“We need to reduce risks by reducing certain interactions with the Afghans. We don’t need to sleep or shower next to them, because that’s when we’re most vulnerable,” said a NATO official who has been charged with making security recommendations. “It’s about force protection without endangering the relationship. It’s a true teeter-totter.”

The acknowledgement by US Special Operations that vetting of Afghan recruits has been poor enough that they are suspending training may become a significant watershed event. If there is not an accompanying suspension of training of the larger ANA and ANP, then the military risks sending the message to those who train these forces that they are less important than Special Operations personnel. But if training of the larger force is suspended, then look for the size of the overall Afghan security force to shrink dramatically. The rate of loss of forces is still very high, so if training is suspended then the force will begin to shrink immediately. Re-vetting such a huge force will be a huge problem, as the Post notes that even for many Afghan force members who have been vetted, they have never been issued identification badges.

In short, NATO faces the dilemma of choosing between telling those training the bulk of Afghan forces that they are not as important as Special Operations forces or suspending training for a security re-check and watching the Afghan force size fall below a level at which they will be comfortable handing over responsibility for security as NATO withdraws.

13 replies
  1. joanneleon says:

    I believe that there is a strong likelihood that this action to suspend training for the local militias is a direct response to the insider attacks on Australian troops last week (coinciding with other Austrailian casualties while Clinton was in the region) and a strong negative response from the Australian public and leaders who talked about an immediate withdrawal. I believe that New Zealand has already decided to pull their troops (but I might have the details wrong on that). I don’t know why this would appease the Aussies though because I think that attack was by someone in an Afghan army uniform. However, all of this strikes me as being politically motivated — some significant action was required so that the Australian leaders could tell their people that changes are being made to address the insider attack situation, and then the Australian leaders stop talking about withdrawing all of their forces immediately (something that would be very bad for the Obama campaign right now). And of course, some significant looking move has to be made for the American public too.

    Otherwise, the change doesn’t make much sense unless they also plan to pause the training of the other forces who are responsible for the majority of the insider attacks.

    And lo and behold, we have new news that the Aussies are going to stay the course:

    Australia won’t withdraw from Afghanistan earlier than planned after suffering the most casualties in a single day since the Vietnam War, Foreign Minister Bob Carr said, stressing its commitment as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits the Pacific region.

    [ … ]

    Hillary Clinton is visiting the Pacific region to underscore U.S. commitment to security and development, attending this year’s Pacific Islands Forum in Rarotonga, Cook Islands. Gillard left the forum early to return to Australia after the deaths of the soldiers. The government will fulfill its commitments in Afghanistan, she said last week.

    In comments directed to Gillard and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, Clinton expressed gratitude to both nations for the sacrifices of their soldiers and civilians who have served in the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan.
    Business Week

    I strongly believe that this is a token political move done primarily because Clinton was put in a very difficult spot and because the Aussies were talking immediate withdrawal and needed something to justify their decision to stay.

  2. Jim White says:

    @joanneleon: What I’m trying to say is that if they suspend training for the larger force, then the really high rate of attrition they have (over 25% a year, last time I looked) means that the total Afghan security force size may well drop below the level NATO thinks is needed in order to hand over security responsibility as NATO withdraws. But if they continue training without a suspension, then it looks like the military is saying that Special Forces troops are more important than those training the rest of Afghan forces because they stopped the work of Special Forces to do the re-evaluation of screening for the Afghans they work with.

    This is putting the military in a very tough spot. My guess is that Special Forces did this unilaterally without discussing with the rest of the military. And now they are in a real Catch-22.

  3. Jim White says:

    @emptywheel: Wow. Good for Politico for noting that Obama’s public claims of withdrawal don’t match reality. It would have been better, though, if they had brought out the Iraq example where Obama relied on semantics to declare the troops we left there to be “non-combat” even though their responsibilities didn’t change.

  4. joanneleon says:

    Obama speech at Fort Bliss:

    And that’s the progress that we’ve made, thanks to your incredible service. We’re winding down a decade of war. We’re destroying terrorist networks that attacked us. And we’ve restored American leadership. And today, every American can be proud that the United States is safer, the United States is stronger, and the United States is more respected in the world.


  5. Garrett says:

    The local police initiative places Special Forces teams in remote villages where they work with Afghan elders released Guantanamo prisoners and government officials their delisted Member of Parliament brothers to help villagers defend themselves against insurgent attacks and intimidation inflame tribal tensions in the area into all out war.

    The story is in HRW, Just Don’t Call It a Militia, page 43 and following.

    If poor vetting is the problem, then Special Operations, in this case, did indeed miss some stuff.

    Like, the documents in their file where they lobbied the State Department to tell the United Nations that their Member of Parliament guy needed delisted.

  6. Long Walk Home says:

    Afghanistan’s largely peaceful Bamiyan Province once was touted as a transition success story. Now it may become a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of winding down the war.

    In the summer of 2011, Bamiyan’s tranquil image was such that it was picked as the country’s first province for the transfer of fighting duties from Western forces to Afghan troops, a process that is to be replicated across Afghanistan in a prelude to the end of NATO’s combat role in 2014.

    In recent months, however, a province best known as the site of the giant Buddhas that were dynamited more than a decade ago by the Taliban has been making news of the most ominous kind, including the deaths of five soldiers from New Zealand this month. To put that loss in perspective, the fatalities represented half of that nation’s battle deaths for the entire war, including its first woman killed in conflict since 1966.

    Even before the recent spasm of violence, there had been other danger signs for Bamiyan: the deaths of nine Afghan policemen in two bombing attacks in July, and the abduction and decapitation last year of Bamiyan’s popular provincial council leader as he traveled to the capital, Kabul.


  7. Call For Illumination says:

    Afghans Protest Vengeful Militias

    Afghan villagers and officials say reprisal killings are being carried out by pro-government militiamen for a Taliban assassination of a member of their militia.

    It was the second time in a month that one of the controversial militia groups, known as arbakai, had carried out reprisal killings of people believed to be Taliban sympathizers.

    In both cases, residents complained that the groups received support and protection from American Special Operations forces, which the United States military has denied. The Special Operations units train arbakai militiamen only when they are enrolled in official programs for recruits of the Afghan Local Police, American officials insist.


  8. joanneleon says:

    I wasn’t familiar with the meaning of the term “reprisal killing”. I guesss that international humanitarian law and the Geneva Convention are all too quaint for today’s wars.

    Reprisal is a legal term in international humanitarian law (IHL) describing a particular kind of retaliation. To be a reprisal, it must be undertaken for the purpose of forcing, or inducing, enemy forces to cease their own violation of IHL. It is a self-enforcement of the laws of war, for reprisal is undertaken not in retaliation or punishment, but rather to force the other side to stop its violation. For this reason, a reprisal is technically an action that, if done on its own, would constitute a violation of IHL. When, however, it is done for the purpose of forcing an adverse party to cease violating IHL, it may become a legal act, providing all the legal criteria are met. Moreover, an act of reprisal, to be a reprisal and not mere retaliation, must be proportionate to the violation of IHL committed by the other side.

    Today, reprisal has almost entirely disappeared from the canon of IHL. Even assuming that the German position on the legality of FFI combatants was wrong, the 1929 Geneva Convention specifically outlawed precisely this kind of reprisal using prisoners of war. Each successive revision of IHL treaties has put additional categories of combatants and civilians beyond the reach of reprisal actions. The 1949 Geneva Conventions extend the prohibition from prisoners of war to those civilians protected by the Fourth Geneva Convention, and Additional Protocol I of 1977 specifically extends the protection to civilians of any kind as well as to “civilian objects.” Perhaps the only circumstance in which IHL today still permits reprisal actions, if at all, is as a response to the use of illegal methods or weapons against combatants. The trend, clearly, is to outlaw reprisal under all circumstances.

  9. Garrett says:

    @Call For Illumination:

    The attack on Sunday prompted a prominent arbakai commander in Kunduz, Mir Alam, to publicly repudiate the militia commanders Qaderak and Faizak in telephone calls to reporters. “These are not my men anymore,” he said. “They are trying to defame me. The government can arrest and punish them anyway they want.”


    Here’s AAN about the politically ambitious Daud brother in law, quoted washing his hands here.

    Mir Alam Khan, the only senior Kunduz commander who stayed with Shura-ye Nazar in June 1997, has been the most influential non-Pastun [Tajik] power broker in Kunduz province during the past ten years apart from General Daud Daud. He commanded the 54th Division of General Daud’s 6th Corps of the Afghan Militia Forces until the unit was disarmed in 2003. Throughout 2005 and 2006, Mir Alam briefly served as chief of police of Baghlan province. Mir Alam Khan partly controls the money market of Kunduz, is said to be heavily involved in drug-trafficking and operates an extensive network of informants and supporters who are mainly former companions. He makes no pretence of his ambitions to become chief of police in Kunduz province and the reach of his influence was clearly manifested when he thwarted the appointment of [HIG-affiliated] Juma Khan Hamard as governor of Kunduz province in 2007. Since 2009 he has been one of the main militia commanders in Kunduz province, a position that was additionally backed by his brother in law, General Daud, until the later was assassinated in May 2011.

    The Networks of Kunduz, p. 41

    It’s hard to tell just by name, but the quoted provincial deputy police chief might have a profile as well. “switched sides between Shura-ye Nazar and the Taliban three times in one month, is currently serving as the mayor of Kunduz.”

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