13 Jul 2010

Afghan army plan is 'deeply compromised'

Nick Paton Walsh blogs on the reality of training the Afghan National Army

The Afghan National Army – or ANA as they’re known here – have been put fore and centre of NATO’s new strategy here.

The thinking is simple: train and equip a loyal and local force that can take over from you as quickly as possible, whilst having the Afghan knowledge to get close to the population and gather intelligence – a similar strategy that helped expedite the “end” of the Iraq war.

That’s the plan. But the reality is deeply compromised.

NATO soldiers have to show respect and decency to their Afghan colleagues because of their strategic importance, but are privately scathing about them.

Theft from NATO soldiers; drug abuse on the job; the mistaken firing of weapons; the careless firing of weapons; absenteeism; theft from locals. These are all things I have witnessed or heard repeated reports of.

Concerns at the lack of the Afghan Army’s professionalism were clear to the White House during its last big policy review. The focus adopted by ex-NATO commander Stanley McChrystal was to wisely concentrate on the quality of ANA recruits, not their quantity.

In the past, the race to create a 100,000 strong army from scratch had meant the type of soldier was laughable. At one outpost I visited in Nurestan, a NATO soldier training the ANA told me the unit he had was created in a hurry: the army told their units to give up ten per cent of their men. So they did, gladly shedding the worst tenth.

The ANA are a very crude machine. That would be fine were they not tasked with assisting one of the most complicated counterinsurgency strategies in history. Take one simple example:

The ANA don’t have the same rules of engagement as NATO troops. NATO have to painstakingly identify targets and check civilians are not there even when they’re attacked. It’s called courageous restraint and it meant to reduce the civilian casualties that are removing any chance of NATO winning over the Afghan population.

But the ANA have very different rules. At the first shot from the insurgency, they open fire madly. One Afghan sergeant at a base I recently visited had apparently had his firing pin removed from his weapon to try and stop him shooting so indiscriminately. However courageously restrained NATO are, these Afghan errors can often appear like their mistakes.

And however hard the NATO command pushes for unity with the ANA and its troops, incidents like today, and the other mass killing in November, can only damage this relationship and the exit strategy.