America failed in training Afghan security forces – Europe might do better

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Fifteen years ago, while serving as Department of Defense civilian coordinator for Afghanistan, I joined Zal Khalilzad, our ambassador there, to witness a training session for the recently reorganized Afghan Army. It was an eye-opener. On the one hand, it was heartening to witness mixed units of Pashtu, Uzbek and Tajik soldiers. On the other hand, it was clear that the trainers faced a daunting challenge; some soldiers could not even keep their helmets on while crawling on the ground under simulated rifle fire.

The trainers we met were not military; they were contractors, most if not all of whom were veterans.

{mosads}A decade and a half later, the Afghan Army still is in dire need of intensive training. It continues to lose ground to the Taliban: it still suffers from an unacceptable level of desertions. And, worst of all, it has lost well more than 10,000 personnel in what seems to be an endless war. The training of Afghanistan’s other security forces, the police, has not produced any better results; tens of thousands of police have been killed as well. Moreover, the numbers of those being killed are accelerating rather than decreasing. 

Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff and nominee for commander of the U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in a Dec. 4 hearing that the Afghan security forces’ casualty levels were “unsustainable.”

The United States still has 14,000 troops in Afghanistan. Although President Trump initially ordered that American force levels be cut in half in the near future, that reduction now appears likely to be considerably lower. Nevertheless, the president is determined ultimately to withdraw the vast majority of American troops from the country; the prospects for the Afghan Army would only worsen as a result of any such decision.

It appears that, while the White House will not immediately cut back on the military’s current mission-set in the country, President Trump still envisages ultimately restricting the role of a truncated American force to counterterrorism missions. There is some speculation that training would be handed over to other countries, most probably forces from European states. There is much to be said for this approach.

One has to wonder why the more than $75 billion that the United States has poured into training the Afghan security forces have not produced a level of performance that would have resulted in reverses for the far more poorly equipped Taliban. That the Taliban operates from bases in Pakistan does not explain its success when it confronts the Afghan security forces in the field. Nor does the fact that many Afghan military and police casualties resulted from Taliban attacks in remote areas of the country; the security forces have sustained losses in all parts of the country.

Put bluntly, American efforts to train a capable Afghan Army have not been a resounding success. Two factors may explain why.

First, Afghan fighters, renowned for their military prowess, operate very differently from western forces. As Winston Churchill pointed out in his account of British operations in Afghanistan, “The Story of Malakand Field Force,” Afghans are most effective as mountain-based guerrilla raiders. Nothing has changed since his book appeared in 1898. The Taliban’s tactics are not significantly different from those of the Afghan insurgents of a century ago. And the Taliban is winning.

Second, a significant portion of American training has continued to be undertaken by contractors. Their incentives are not necessarily congruent with Washington’s policy objectives. Contractors are primarily concerned with ensuring a positive bottom line, and with growing their backlog. That calls for extending the highly profitable Afghan training mission for as long as is feasible. Were it not profitable, contractors would not have continued to bid for contract extensions and renewals. But that business strategy runs counter to the objective of speedily transforming the Afghan military into a self-sustaining modern fighting force.

Washington’s primary concern is to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a springboard for international terrorism. Maintaining a relatively small cadre of Special Operating Forces, backed by air forces operating from the sprawling Bagram Air Base, should ensure that Afghanistan no longer will be a friendly host for terrorists. Washington also could continue to equip the Afghan security forces, though experience has shown that doing so will not necessarily ensure success in holding back the Taliban.

Training, on the other hand, should no longer be an American mission, either for the military or for contractors. The Europeans may well be more successful in that regard; they could do no worse.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Afghan Armed Forces Afghanistan–United States relations Donald Trump Taliban War in Afghanistan

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