Last November, when I first started blogging, I published a two part post titled Afghan Security Forces: The Weak Link in NATO’s Exit Strategy. As I contemplated what to write in response to this week’s news out of Lisbon it struck me that NATO has done virtually nothing to address the fundamental flaw in the Afghan exit plan it first conceived of a year ago. So I’m republishing my original critique because sadly, the points I raised then are just as applicable now.
Afghan Security Forces: The Weak Link in NATO’s Exit Strategy. Part I (first published 12 November 2009)
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 M16 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 M16 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 and other locations around Afghanistan 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.
Afghan Security Forces: The Weak Link in NATO’s Exit Strategy. Part II
(first published 19 November 2009).
Rapidly accelerating the expansion of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police is understandably attractive to western military and political leaders sick fed up with explaining mounting war causalities to an increasingly skeptical public. But what looks good on paper has already proved tragically short-sighted in practice.
In Part I of this series, I explained how poor recruit-to-mentor ratios severely diminish the efficacy of ANA training packages. But of all the deficiencies surrounding the development of Afghanistan’s security forces, none has more far reaching consequences in my view than the failure to adequately vet recruits. The importance of due diligence on ANA and ANP recruits cannot be overstated. Without proper checks, Taliban and al-Qaeda sympathizers and other undesirables can infiltrate training programs, gain valuable intelligence and even target coalition troops directly.
You only have to look at ANA training schedules to see that politics is taking precedent over military best practice when it comes to ramping up Afghanistan’s security forces. ANA recruits are given ten weeks of basic or ‘warrior’ training. NATO is quick to point out that this is the same amount given to US infantry soldiers in Fort Benning, GA, USA. The comparison is highly misleading in my opinion. Unlike the majority of US military recruits, the vast majority of Afghan security trainees are illiterate and do not speak the same language as the NATO mentors overseeing their instruction. As a seasoned commercial security trainer in hostile environments and former military instructor, I’ve seen forty minute lessons stretch into two hour marathons when a translator is thrown into the mix. NATO’s training schedules make no allowances for this; otherwise ANA warrior training would be well over ten weeks.
Politics would also appear to be trumping best practice in NATO’s ANP policies. Afghan National Police are often assigned to serve in their own communities. This is not the case with ANA soldiers who are deployed outside their home provinces far from the reach of tribal affiliations. In fact, tribal links are viewed as so insurmountable that the ANA doesn’t recruit soldiers from Taliban strongholds such as Helmund and Kandahar provinces. Yet NATO is content to recruit police from Taliban areas.
Beyond the immediate threat posed by possible Taliban infiltration of NATO mentored training programs is the disturbing question of what will happen when coalition forces do finally pull back from frontline operations. How many dodgy Afghan recruits will transfer their NATO taught skills, not to mention a good deal of NATO weapons and equipment to the Taliban and/or al-Qaeda? Rather than attempt to step up training schedules, NATO would be wise to take a step back and examine the potential fallout of its current Afghan policies.