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.
Oh my. Did not know ANA was that poor. I think all in all Afghanistan is in a bit of a mess still. Maybe time to just move out?
I think it is definitely time for a change of thinking on how to fight the war in Afghanistan. The country has not been stable for over 30 years, so “nation building” does not seem to be the answer. If I were in charge, I would minimize the number of conventional forces and increase the Special Operations presence in the country. They would do a great job hunting down Al Qaeda/Taliban cells that pop up.
Curious, Kevin – I know it’s very subjective but how much “national pride” do you think there is within the local forces of Afghanistan? People fight for a lot of reasons, I just wonder how much they believe they’re fighting for a country (or the idea of one) vs. just doing a “job” trying to keep themselves and others safe?
During my time there, I saw almost no national pride. Iraq is generally split along Sunni/Shiite lines. Afghanistan is split along tribal or ethnic lines. On more than one occasion, I walked over to the Afghan camp and saw the soldiers in a circle cheering on two guys from different ethnic groups who were fighting.
Serving in the ANA was definitely just a job for the soldiers I worked with. They showed up for work only for the paycheck. When it was time to go out and fight, we’d have maybe 100 soldiers to choose from. On payday, all 350 guys materialized and were in line for their paychecks.
Thank you for the reply, Kevin (and of course your service). The only perspective I have that may relate is from a business culture perspective, and I know there if all you have are “paycheck players”, risk is high and at some point you lose the company. Of course that’s only dollars, here we’re talking lives but from my armchair (haha) it seemed to be that there was much more sense of national pride by Iraqis, for instance, as compared to Afghani’s, I wonder if this gets addressed, or if so to what degree, in the “national building” projects.
Thanks for this well-informed and detailed post. Looking forward to reading more of your contributions here.
I think efgd asks the important overall question: what is our goal in Afghanistan?
I happened across an old interview with Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down recently. He pointed out that we have to do everything we can to avoid collateral damage, because folks living in places like Somalia often have very little idea of American intentions. So after a few folks are killed by outside forces, it’s easy for everyone to come together to resist the hated occupier–even if we’re acting against a dictator or warlord most of them resisted beforehand.
The same’s true for us. We lack perfect information about what motivates folks in Afghanistan.
Obviously fighting in Afghanistan, which gave safe haven to al Qaeda, is a far cry from the Bush-Clinton-era mission in Somalia. But it was one thing to pick sides in an ongoing dispute, supporting the Northern Alliance against the Taliban; I’m not sure that we ever had the knowledge & resources to occupy that country until it had a stable parliamentary democracy and a growing economy. No matter our intentions, many will regard us as an outside force. And in wars, bad things happen. Not everyone is going to want to give us the benefit of the doubt.
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the larger meaning here. Were we mistaken, in your view, to pull back from Afghanistan in order to invade Iraq, to define our mission too broadly, some combination, or other factors?
I can speak for experience on how the Iraq War took away much needed resources from the fight in Afghanistan. When I was there, there were only around 20,000 American troops in Afghanistan. At the same time I was in Afghanistan, the surge in Iraq had over 150,000 troops in that country. I have heard the comparison to the Whack-A-Mole game to describe the type of operations we were forced to conduct. We would retake a town that was overrun by the Taliban, then be forced to leave when they retook another town. A few weeks later, we were back in the original town because the Taliban overran that town again. It was very frustrating because we did not have enough US troops to hold ground for an extended period of time.
Very interesting article, Kevin. I’ve always thought that Afghanistan was a dicey proposition for the long term. It is proving to be just that. Thanks to the insight into Advise and Assist. Sounds to me like it won’t work and will get some of our marvelous soldiers killed in the process.
Very informative article, Kevin – thank you! Great to have insight on what really goes on there from someone who’s actually been in the middle of it all.
(Great find, Sean! A welcome addition to your blog.)
Great article Kevin. I’m sure I was around there somewhere.
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Very good article! It’s a shame that professional soldiers like yourself who not only have in depth experience but good, clear analyzation skills who have clear “muddy boots on the ground” knowledge are not assigned to the Pentagon who lately have seemed totally out of touch with the situation in Afghanistan. As of today, Karzai has asked that all American troops pull out of the villages and rural areas. He has also personally requested to SOD Leone Panetta to have the ANA take over by 2013..a year earlier than planned.(Reported today in the News)
Having the ANA take over immediately is the only way they will build that confidence and Esprit De Corps because if the enemy is targeting them…at that point..they will realize that they will have to depend on each other and not have the false sense of security of having American troops around.
The objective in this country was reached when OBL was killed…The U.S. could claim victory and it provided a strong message that if terrorist attack us, we will find them anywhere in the world and destroy them. Just that message along would have been a long lasting message of American Power to last for decades.
But at this juncture, with Marines urinating on the dead, Soldiers burning the Koran, and the latest news of a Soldier going through 3 different villages killing innocent women and children…the Train/Advise Assist process is null, void and lacks credibility because it’s hard to follow a mentor when you have no respect, resentment and total contempt due to the latest acts of American Soldiers. This is definitely an “Abort Mission” situation and as a result, it would save billions of taxpayers money to pull back NOW!
I also agree that sending conventional inexperienced soldiers to perform the job of Special Operations Forces Sodiers is , in fact, a decision that will result in more malice and resentment among our already deployment tired troops who are not trained in political and tactical tactics that SOF troops are experts at performing. Tired and weary TAA team memebers whom many have shown signs of PTSD, war fatigue after numerous deployments, not realizing and understanding the clear meaning of the mission and frustration with the lack of discipline of the ANA is a bad recipe that will serve as counterproductive to the “Winning Hearts and Mind” strategy that at this point has been totally dissolved with the latest events.
My solution would be:
-Increase the Army/ Navy/ Marine Special Forces billets by 40% and have them Train/Assist/Advise…which is in fact, what they are trained to do.
-Increase funding for drones and spy planes that can keep the Pakistanian border in check
-Take Conventional Army Troops off the patrol path and station them on the large Aghan Bases to supplement SOF with a support role in artillery, air , supply, administration and planning support.
-Bring in the Top Brass who still have influence due to their rank and have them travel to training areas of the ANA/Police Top Brass on how to “Rally the Troops”…how to lead and motivate with speeches and “talking points” to let the ANA/Police know that they will be facing missions that will require discipline, Esprit De Corps, and a desire to fight, defend and maintian the AFGHN government that is in place once American Troops leave. This message must be inbedded at the “Grass Roots” of the ANA/Police NOW! Over 300,000 ANA/Police have been trained over the last 10 years…Speeches and motivational rallying is what’s needed at this point to develope the Psyche of the AFGHN forces. We must leave the “Crawl” stage…they should be ready to walk at this point!
Letting American troops babysit and keeping these guys feeding on the “niple” will prove to be more harm than good.
As we know, a Revolution and struggle for power must occur in AFGHNSTN once American presence draws down. Karzai has stated that his ANA and police can now do the job.
Let HIM take the lead and get his people in gear so they can prepare….American interference only prolongs the inevitable. With American and AFGHN Special Forces, CIA and State Department working close together, we can still get this job done and reach our objective of stabalizing this area and controlling forces that threaten the local government.