Recently, the Pentagon announced plans to end combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of 2013. Instead of taking an active combat role, American forces will shift to an “advise and assist” mission according to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Within the last few days, the military has indicated that advisory teams will be heading to Afghanistan this year. This implies that additional advisory teams deploy to the region because Embedded Training Teams (ETTs) have been working with Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) units since shortly after the fall of the Taliban.
I served on an Embedded Training Team (ETT) from June of 2006 through June of 2007 as a member of the Oregon National Guard. My team of 12 was responsible for training a battalion of the Afghan National Army (ANA). As such, I have first-hand experience with the “assist and advise” role that American forces will be expected to perform when active combat operations end in 2013. I am sure the performance of the ANA has improved since my time as part of an ETT team, mainly because their performance could not possibly have gotten much worse.
During my time in Afghanistan, the ANA battalion in which I was embedded spent a significant amount of time conducting combat operations in Kandahar and Helmand Provinces. Time and again, the ANA disappointed me with their lack of interest, lack of effort, and lack of courage during combat operations. In addition, the ANA soldiers proved that they could not be relied upon to conduct even the most basic missions. Once the fighting started, our sole purpose was to win the fight and keep the ANA soldiers from inadvertently discharging their weapons in our direction. Furthermore, the ANA soldiers exhibited a disturbing tendency to run away or relax when the shooting started. Their sole concern was their own well-being, and they knew they could rely on the Americans to call in air support or other types of heavy firepower. If left to fight on their own, the ANA soldiers I worked with would not have ever won a fight.
By replacing combat troops with soldiers who merely “advise and assist,” politicians are attempting to appease those voters who do not support the war effort in Afghanistan. After 11 years of war, support for the war in Afghanistan continues to erode. Therefore, it is an astute political move to shift the focus of the war from combat to “advise and assist.”
By focusing on the idea of “advise and assist,” politicians put American soldiers in an extremely difficult, and often dangerous, situation. “Advise and assist” often means going into combat as a small team, which works for Special Operations forces. However, many advisory teams are not made up of Special Operations forces. Once an American advisory team leaves the safety of a base, team members can only rely on themselves when engaged by enemy forces. In most cases, the ANA provides very minimal assistance in fighting the enemy. In fact, in my experience, they were more of a detriment than an asset during combat. Even worse, the advisory teams must be cognizant of the ANA soldiers who may turn their weapons on their American advisers. It is not fair for our government to put American soldiers in such an untenable position. American soldiers always have each other’s backs. They should not be forced to rely on a group of ragtag ANA soldiers to keep them safe during combat.
The only way for the ANA to be able to operate independently is for American forces to move away from the “advise and assist” role. After ten years of attempting to “advise and assist” the ANA, it is time to cut the cord and force them to conduct missions on their own without relying on American forces to get them out of trouble. American soldiers should remain on the base and teach the ANA basic soldiering skills. The time has come for the ANA to figure out how what it means to be a professional fighting force.