Friday, 3 June 2011

Can The Afghan National Army Survive NATO Exit

In public, Nato commanders are quick to praise the progress made by the Afghan National Army (ANA), whose numbers and training have undoubtedly increased and improved in recent years.

This is thanks mainly to a renewed focus on the urgent need to produce Afghan security forces to take over and allow Nato's own combat troops to leave.

The UK has made clear its combat forces will be out by the end of 2014, albeit with a commitment to further training the ANA.

That there has been progress in that training is not in doubt, not least when compared with the kind of kit and training received by the gloriously named 1 Bang (1st Battalion the Afghan National Guard) back in the early days of 2002.

British and US commanders in Afghanistan are keen to describe most recent operations as "Afghan-led", while doing their best to play down the problems that remain.

However, in private, few working on the training mission underestimate the challenges of trying to produce a professional Afghan army that will survive Nato's departure, and be able to operate on its own, from planning and launching operations to providing logistical support.

Recruitment Targets
On the ground, it is clear that the soldiers and the officers of the ANA are a mixed bunch.

Out on patrol with British forces working alongside ANA units, there are indeed some committed, brave, decently trained and well-motivated young soldiers amongst the ANA, as well as some fearsome and hardened generals who have spent a lifetime fighting.

And the soldiers themselves are welcomed more warmly by Afghans in Helmand and Kandahar than their counterparts in the Afghan police, who are often still feared or hated as corrupt and lawless.

Recent progress has included recruiting some southern Pashtuns into the army. Last year, there were very few.

But despite efforts to ensure quality as well as quantity in the recruits, many working closely with the ANA admit that there are still some Afghan soldiers who are not up to the mark - young men who have signed up to eke out a basic living for themselves and their families, only to find themselves terrified or clueless in the midst of the fighting in southern Afghanistan.

Better mentoring and closer partnering between Nato and Afghan forces have had some impact over the past year, while better pay and training and a sharper Western focus on the problems within the ANA have also paid dividends.

But it is not yet clear whether that is enough for the central plank of Nato's exit strategy to work: producing Afghan national security forces able to shoulder the main burden of dealing with the insurgency and sustaining themselves by the end of 2014 without the massive Western back-up they currently receive both in training and on operations.

The targets set for the Afghan security forces are extremely ambitious.

The Afghan army is expected to grow at more than 2,800 soldiers a month to meet its October 2011 target of 171,600. The police are expected to reach 134,000 by then. The overall figure is expected to keep on increasing before Afghan forces assume combat responsibility in 2014.

Over the past year or so, ANA recruitment has doubled, giving the army a force level - in theory - of 150,000. At the main Kabul military training centre, where some 1,400 Afghan troops graduate every fortnight, the ratio of trainers to recruits is now some 1:20 compared with 1:70 last year.

'Absent without leave'
Attrition rates, literacy and leadership remain key problems for the ANA
However, the US commander in charge of Nato's training mission in Afghanistan, Lt Gen William Caldwell, told a recent press conference in Kabul that although 110,000 men had been recruited in 2010, attrition rates meant that the total increase in manpower was just 70,000.

And he admitted that despite improvements, the attrition rate (which includes those who go absent without leave, some travelling to give pay to families, or those who desert permanently) remained higher in the Afghan army than in the police, and was not the only problem.

Both literacy and leadership within the ANA remain major issues."We can build a soldier, train, develop and equip a soldier fairly rapidly - but to produce a leader takes longer," Gen Caldwell said.

Thanks to low literacy rates, those who can read have in the past been quickly promoted to non-commissioned officer (NCO) status, even if their leadership abilities do not always merit that, while solid and experienced senior NCOs, the backbone of any army, are in short supply.

A lack of leadership may also be one of the root causes of low morale in the army and the reason so many soldiers still go absent without leave, along with alleged ethnic tensions within some units.

Of those going absent without leave 98% are from field units, especially in areas of the most intense fighting.

Nonetheless, there has been a recent reduction in the army's desertion rate, which has dropped thanks to improvements in leave and pay, as well as some redress in the ethnic imbalance of the army.

Pay is now on a par with the Afghan police, starting with basic pay of about $165 (£102) per month, which rises to roughly $250 to $280 per month when longevity bonuses are taken into account, or extra pay for specialisation or serving in the most high-threat areas such as Helmand and Kandahar.

However, that pay is still below what a young recruit could earn by joining a private militia or security company. It is also below that offered by the insurgents, who pay $10 (about £6) a day - assuming a recruit worked every day.

Basic Skills
Other challenges include trying to offer higher-level training in crucial specialisations, such as for Afghan soldiers to become engineers.

Nato officers insist that they are producing better-quality Afghan soldiers than ever before, but say that careful mentoring at every level of command must continue if army units are to reach their full potential.

ANASF internal defense mission
The ANASF has been created to provide a special operations force capable of countering enemy efforts at the lowest level, the Afghan tribe and village. The ANASF brigade will accomplish this through the Village Stability Operations (VSO) program.

The VSO program is designed to help individual villages defend themselves against encroaching insurgency. Villages organize their own defense units, the Afghan Local Police. An ANASF brigade A-Team is assigned to each VSO village. The team's role is to support the village leadership to organize the overall project and mediate local disputes. They also train and advise the ALP. Up until now, US Special Operations Forces A-Teams have been running the VSO; however, the goal is to have ANASF replace the US SOF in this role. It is expected that the ANASF will be able to bring a better understanding of local cultural, economic, and political issues.

ANASF A-Team training
The first two classes of ANASF candidates were recruited exclusively from the Commando battalions. (Note: This necessitated a pause in the creation of new Commando battalions in order to free up resources to create the ANASF. The Commandos will be capped at nine battalions, with the formation of the 10th, 11th and 12th battalions postponed.) Because the ANASF candidates were already trained in direct action, the US trainers focused on the skills required for internal defense and SOF reconnaissance. This allowed the length of the first two classes to be reduced to 10 weeks. Future classes, recruited from across the ANA, will be larger, consisting of about 300 soldiers compared to 80 in each of the first two classes, and will take 15 weeks.

The first class started training in March 2010 and completed it in May; they were then grouped into four A-teams, one of which will be held back to form an Afghan cadre to help train the next class. At this point the teams were considered" mission-capable", but were not considered "Special Forces qualified" until they completed 26 weeks of "on-the- job training" during which each ANA A-team was partnered with a US SOF A-team.

The first A-Team was deployed to Khakrez district, northwest of Kandahar City, in May 2010. By March 2011, a total of 14 A-teams had completed training. All 72 A-Teams are expected to be fielded by 2014.

ANA development priorities
In 2010, the overall ANA priority was to grow an infantry-centric force that could immediately participate in counterinsurgency operations. Most of the effort was directed toward fielding additional infantry units.

The priority for 2011 has been to continue to grow the force but also to begin building the support functions necessary for self-sufficiency. This includes leadership, specialized technical expertise, and literacy training.

Leadership training
There is currently a significant shortage of both officers and NCOs within the ANA. In November 2010 there were 18,191 officers where 22,646 are required; and there were only 37,336 NCOs where 49,044 are required. To address the officer shortage, training capacity has been increased. Two additional Officer Candidate School companies opened in December 2010, and two more are to have opened by April 2011. The additional capacity is expected to reduce, but not entirely eliminate, the shortage by October 2012. For NCOs, training capacity is also being increased. The Regional Training Center in Darulaman has been converted from Basic Training to NCO training. Additionally, NCOs are being trained in the United Arab Emirates.The shortfall is expected to be eliminated by October 2012.

Specialized technical skills
In 2010, the ANA began setting up training institutions to teach the specialized skills needed to make it self-sufficient. Twelve "Branch Schools" are being set up:

  • Artillery
  • Human Resources
  • Signals
  • Infantry
  • Engineering
  • Legal
  • Military Police
  • Logistics
  • Religious and Cultural affairs
  • Intelligence
  • Finance

Eleven of these 12 branch schools have reached initial operating capability (IOC). The last school (Military Police) will reach IOC by June 2011. None, however, have reached full capacity due to limitation in facilites and ISAF trainers.

Logistics support development includes the establishment of Army Support Command. This will control six new Regional Support Commands (RLSCs), one for each of ANA's six corps. These units will provide medical, equipment maintenance, and logistics distribution capability. In addition, a National Depot Operation and National Vehicle Maintenance Facility will also be stood up in 2011.

Literacy training
About 86% of ANA enlisted recruits are illiterate. This constitutes a significant obstacle in the development of a competent army. An illiterate soldier cannot read a map, a training manual, or the serial number of his rifle. Furthermore, specialized fields such as medicine, logistics, and communications cannot be taught to an illiterate person.

The problem is being addressed by the establishment of an extensive literacy training program. Starting in March 2010, mandatory basic literacy and numeracy training was instituted for all ANSF enlisted personnel, both ANA and ANP. The goal is to train every member of the ANSF to at least a third-grade level. The curriculum is the equivalent of 312 hours of training. (Note: This program applies to enlisted and NCOs, since over 90% of officers are literate.)

For the ANA, literacy training begins in Basic Training. Each recruit is brought in two weeks early and taught basic reading and writing so he can at least write his name and read the serial number on his weapon. Literacy training continues through Basic Training, adding up to a total of 64 hours. Additional training occurs during seven weeks of unit training. When the recruits go to the field, or for troops already in the field, the program provides for continued training on the order of one to two hours per day over seven to eight months. For a soldier selected for specialty training in a Branch School, additional training is provided up to the sixth-grade level. By March 2011 there were 60,000 ANA soldiers and ANP police receiving literacy training.

Meanwhile, paying for the Afghan security forces is also likely to become an issue.

In the US, Congress has budgeted $12.8bn to support the Afghan national security forces for 2012, but Defence Secretary Robert Gates has said that level cannot be sustained for many years, meaning that much depends on a successful transition to the Afghans themselves.

And at the moment, the Afghan government raises few national taxes to pay for its security force, despite its own ambitious plan to expand the final number of security forces by a quarter.

Those on the front lines in Afghanistan working closely with the recruits of the ANA are all too aware that it is one thing to train and equip an army but another to lead and sustain it, which is the ultimate aim in a very short time-frame indeed.

Without effective logistics, close air support and better leadership, the Afghan army is likely to have an extremely tough time facing down the insurgency without the kind of Western support it currently enjoys.

At the moment it is far from clear whether the Afghan army now being built up by Nato can survive as an effective force long after 2014.

Building up an army

  • Afghan army has current force level - in theory - of 150,000
  • Recruitment doubled in 2010
  • Expected to grow at 2,800 per month to reach target of 171,600 by October
  • US has budgeted $12.8bn to support Afghan security forces in 2012