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How NATO Will Game the Numbers on Afghan National Security Force Size

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.” Read more

Panetta, DoD Use Semantic Games to Claim Joint Operations Nearly Normal Again in Afghanistan

Civilian casualty rates in Afghanistan updated through August of 2012, as obtained by Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room. Click on image for a larger view.

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“: Read more

How Many Ways Out of Afghanistan?

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): Read more

NATO Response to Taliban Attacks: Pump Up Image of Afghan Forces

Because it is clear that the Obama administration steadfastly refuses to address its rapidly failing Afghanistan strategy prior to November’s elections, NATO is forced to labor under the increasingly difficult prospect of handing over security responsibility to Afghan forces as the surge of NATO troops is drawn down this summer and then remaining combat troops are withdrawn over the next two years. In a desperate attempt to make that process less ludicrous, NATO chose to respond to this weekend’s coordinated attacks by the Taliban by burnishing the image of Afghan security forces. After suffering greatly from repeated “isolated incidents” of Afghan forces killing NATO forces and with the devastating reports of the ineptitude and duplicity of Afghan forces from Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, the tarnished image of Afghan forces threatens to derail the planned “victory” scenario of departing Afghanistan by handing over security to Afghan forces.

AP seems to be cooperating very well with the NATO narrative, as its article this morning on the attacks carries the headline “Afghan-led forces beat back brazen Taliban attack“. Yet, even their article makes it clear the Afghan forces are hardly operating on their own:

Some international forces could be seen taking part in operations to secure and retake buildings in the capital — NATO troops embedded in Afghan units as “trainers” or “mentors.” And two coalition helicopters were seen firing on the building in the center of Kabul.

That admission is meant to be overlooked, as it immediately follows praise for the Afghan forces:

U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, praised the Afghan security forces’ response to the attacks.

Ambassador Ryan Crocker added to the information operation, praising Afghan security forces even as he was pinned inside his Embassy by the violence. From the New York Times:

The American ambassador, Ryan C. Crocker, speaking to CNN from a locked-down American Embassy, praised the Afghan security forces as having “acquitted themselves very, very well, very professionally.”

Yup. Pay no attention to those embedded “mentors”, just keep saying the Afghan troops were the ones who repulsed these attacks. And Crocker didn’t stop there. He went on to say that all this training we’re doing is going so well, we just might need to extend it (so that its failure is never exposed?):

He added that attacks like this strengthened the case for Americans staying until the Afghans were fully ready to handle the situation on their own.

Oops, be careful there Mr. Ambassador. The current information operation is meant to build up the perceived capability of Afghan forces, not cast doubt on them.

The Washington Post also is helping NATO put out its story that Afghan forces primarily were responsible for repelling the Taliban attacks. The story there carries the headline “Afghan security forces kill 36 insurgents to quell spate of deadly attacks” and General Allen is allowed to present his spin in favor of the Afghans: Read more

In Rush to Transcribe Military’s Concern on Why We Can’t Leave Afghanistan, Did NY Times Fact-check “Classified” Report?

The "UNCLASSIFIED" stamp not found by New York Times fact-checkers. This stamp appears at the top and bottom of each of the 70 pages of the report that the Times said was classified.

Today’s New York Times carries a long article under the headline “Afghanistan’s Soldiers Step Up Killings of Allied Forces“. The story appears to me to be presented from the angle of military higher-ups who don’t want to withdraw from Afghanistan and point to the failed training of Afghan forces to support their argument that we must stay there:

The violence, and the failure by coalition commanders to address it, casts a harsh spotlight on the shortcomings of American efforts to build a functional Afghan Army, a pillar of the Obama administration’s strategy for extricating the United States from the war in Afghanistan, said the officers and experts who helped shape the strategy.

Not very thinly veiled, there, is it? It is the “officers and experts who helped shape the strategy” who say that we have “shortcomings” in our “efforts to build a functional Afghan Army”. And since that Afghan Army is “a pillar of the Obama’s administration’s strategy for exticating the United States from the war”, well, we just can’t possibly consider withdrawing yet if we have failed on such a central job, can we?

The Times article is based primarily on a study titled “A Crisis of Trust and Cultural Incompatibility” and the Times claims the report is classified:

The 70-page classified coalition report, titled “A Crisis of Trust and Cultural Incompatibility,” goes far beyond anecdotes. It was conducted by a behavioral scientist who surveyed 613 Afghan soldiers and police officers, 215 American soldiers and 30 Afghan interpreters who worked for the Americans.

Hmmm. This Wall Street Journal article from June 17, 2011 references a report with the same title and even has a link purporting to be for the report. That link is now broken and gives a “404 Not Found” response, but searching on the title gives this link, which goes to a 70 page pdf plainly stamped “UNCLASSIFIED” in green at the top and bottom of every page, as seen in the partial screencap above. In addition to not having Truth Vigilantes, it appears that the New York Times has now given up on using fact-checkers, because their claim that the report is classified is in error unless both the classified and unclassified versions of the report just happen to have 70 pages each.

Anyway, if we dive into this report, the executive summary gives us the list of reasons cited by Afghan troops for why they become upset with US troops. Reading this list brings up the question of whether training of US troops is just as much a failure as our training of Afghan troops (quotations here are my transcriptions, the pdf was saved in a form preventing copying): Read more

Afghanistan Exit Strategy: “Fight, Talk, Build” Working (for Fight, Anyway)

Training exercise in Kandahar using helicopter from Afghan Air Force, September 17, 2011. (Army photo)

As the US stumbles around, trying to find its way out of a country it has occupied for over ten years, the path “forward” remains as murky as ever.  Just under two weeks ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was chosen as the point person for introducing the new US catchphrase “fight, talk, build” that is meant to describe US strategy in the region.  As I noted at the time, the US seemed to completely miss the irony of using the country’s chief diplomat to introduce a new strategy that is based on the concept of shoot first and ask questions later.

We learn in this morning’s Washington Post that the US strategy of attacking the Haqqani network on both sides of the Pakistan border before starting serious efforts to hold talks with them has only increased the frequency of attacks from them.  As the remarkable passage from the Post below illustrates, the US had to endure no fewer than five large, high profile attacks from the Haqqani network before considering the possibility that the attacks could be a return of “fight” for “fight” and an attempt to improve the Haqqani position for later negotiations rather than the laughable early suggestion from the US that by resorting to more spectacular attacks, the Haqqanis were demonstrating that they had been weakened significantly:

This official and others acknowledged that the success of the strategy, which Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has described as “fight, talk and build,” depends on a positive outcome for several variables that currently appear headed in the wrong direction.

On Saturday, insurgents staged a suicide bomb attack in Kabul that killed at least 12 Americans, a Canadian and four Afghans. A similar truck bomb attack Monday left three United Nations employees dead in the southern city of Kandahar.

The attacks were the latest in a series of spectacular insurgent strikes that have made reconciliation seem remote. In September, the Pentagon blamed the Haqqani network for a truck bombing of a combat outpost west of Kabul that wounded 77 U.S. troops and for an assault by gunmen on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

A week after the embassy strike, a suicide bomber killed Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, which is in charge of reconciliation negotiations for the government.

U.S. officials have said they were unsure whether the attacks were a reflection of insurgent military weakness, a rejection of talks or a burst of aggression designed to improve the militants’ negotiating position — similar to the escalation of U.S. attacks on the Haqqani network.

That bit at the beginning should not be overlooked: the success of the “fight, talk, build” strategy “depends on a positive outcome for several variables that currently appear headed in the wrong direction.”  Mechanisms for reversing the current direction of these variables are not presented in the article.

Meanwhile, the first in a series of “conferences” has gotten underway in Turkey, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai meeting directly with Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari. Parallel meetings between the two countries’ top military officers are also taking place. Clinton had been scheduled to join the conference tomorrow, but her trip was canceled yesterday, apparently because of her mother’s ill health (Update: there are reports on Twitter that Dorothy Rodham has died).  It looks as though the US feels talking can wait, as no replacement for Clinton at the conference has been announced.

While the Obama administration begins to think about preparing to maybe get the Pentagon perhaps to agree to withdraw a few more troops out of Afghanistan,  we see the terrain being softened a bit more for the eventual realization that all of the US efforts  and investments in “training” Afghan forces are destined for failure.  It appears from this article that David Petraeus, who is touted in the press as responsible for training when it is described as being successful, will escape blame for the failure in Afghanistan because William Caldwell is described in the article as having “overseen all NATO training in Afghanistan for the past two years”.  In true Petraeus fashion, the slate for the previous eight years is not just wiped clean, but ceases to exist.  Petreaus’ name does not appear in the article.

There is one truly refreshing bit of honesty that breaks through into the Reuters piece on training of Afghan troops:

But senior U.S. military officials admit that money has not always been spent in the wisest ways.

“We have received an awful lot of money from the U.S. government. We need to use it differently now,” said U.S. Army Major General Peter Fuller, deputy commander for programs and resources within the NATO training mission.

Another U.S. official in Kabul, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the mission was buying up high-tech equipment to satisfy Washington, while more basic needs were ignored.

Yup.  “Training” Afghan forces turns out to be nothing more than an exercise in further lining the pockets of military contractors and the lawmakers who benefit from their lobbying.  With that driving force in mind, efforts to achieve a true exit from Afghanistan will face fierce resistance in Washington.