PART I: Afghan Security Forces: The Weak Link in NATO’s Exit Strategy

When NATO military officials meet in Brussels later this month, they will be asked to contribute more resources to accelerate the training and expansion of Afghan security forces.  In the first of this two part series, I’ll give my thoughts on the efficacy of NATO’s mentoring programs and what it means for western exit strategies.

Since 2004, I’ve had occasion to see Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police training programs in action. I’ve shared live fire ranges and training areas with ANA and ANP recruits and accompanied journalists doing stories on security sector reform.  What I’ve witnessed has convinced me that in its present form, NATO’s mentoring of Afghanistan’s security forces is at best woefully inadequate and at worst, dangerously short-sighted.

One problem which I’ve seen time and again with ANA training programs is poor instructor to student ratios. In order to achieve an effective training package, there should ideally be one seasoned instructor to every dozen recruits. In April this year, I watched a single NATO mentor give two hundred ANA trainees a lesson on how to strip and assemble an M 16 rifle.  The recruits were sat in semi-circular rows stretching the length of the Kabul Military Training Center parade square.  As some parts on the M 16 are tiny, it was clear to me that only the trainees positioned front and centre had a clue what they were being taught.  The rest were talking to each other or nodding off in the hot afternoon sun.  Over the years, I’ve seen identical lessons at the KMTC with the same distorted mentor/recruit ratio; the only difference was prior to 2009, the trainees worked with AK 47s.

Live fire exercises are another area where a scarcity of NATO mentors can render a lesson pointless. I’ve watched fifty ANA recruits lying in the prone position, firing at targets which most of them missed (I could see the rounds striking the ground in front and to the side of them). The recruits received virtually no coaching during the exercise. The few NATO mentors on hand were too busy trying to keep them from hurting themselves or each other.  The mentors didn’t check the targets at the end of the exercise because the tight training schedule didn’t allow it.  The recruits had to be rushed off the range to make way for another group of trainees. In my view, they learned nothing aside from how to convert live rounds into empty casings.

In light of such episodes, the idea that Afghan forces will be ready to take over from NATO troops in the next few years is nothing short of absurd. Yet it remains a cornerstone of western exit strategies from Afghanistan.  Next week, in Part II of this series, I’ll examine how the drive to step-up recruitment and training of ANA and ANP compromises the safety of coalition forces and risks undermining the justification for the war in Afghanistan; containing the threat from al-Qaeda.

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