Training the Afghan Army

Most accounts I’ve read of the Afghan security forces have made the distinction between the Afghan army, usually described as needing a lot of improvement but competent and on the right track, and the Afghan police, always described as a disastrous combination of incompetence and corruption. That was at least partly reassuring, since the transfer of security operations to indigenous Afghan forces is a major component of both U.S. COIN doctrine and most optimistic assessments of a long-term (read: politically palatable) U.S. nation-building mission in Afghanistan.

Recently, there’s been a bit of online discussion about why training the Afghan army has taken so long, given that the Northern Alliance was able to run the Taliban out of Afghanistan on their own with what amounted to U.S. air support and targeting assistance, and whether the very ambitious goals of growing the Afghan army are realistic and/or sustainable. Matthew Yglesias, for one, has been asking very pertinent questions in this regard and linking to informative answers when they arise.

All of which brings me to Bruce Rolston’s post on the subject, responding to another line of inquiry raised by Canadian Lt. Col. JJ Malevich, namely, why the Afghan army doesn’t operate as an irregular force, essentially re-symmetricizing the war against the Taliban. Rolston explains that we’ve trained the Afghan army to be a lesser version of ourselves, instead of a better version of themselves. The whole post is worth reading, but this excerpt gives a good idea of the dynamic:

Because the Afghan army holds no ground by itself, because our troopsare interspersed with theirs, we always need to know where they are.Which means we always need to be with them. Which means their forceshave to operate to the same levels of force protection as ours, toprotect those mentors or partnered troops. Which means all those kindsof tactics that good irregular troops can do, and which in othercontexts Afghans can excel at, are not on the table.

This kind of approach made sense in Iraq, a country with a recent political and military history of operating a modern, Western-style military. But in Afghanistan, instead of gradually decreasing dependence on the U.S. military, just the opposite seems likely.

Remember, Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee, was mentioning an accelerated ramping up of the Afghan army as an alternative to increasing U.S. troops as recently as Friday. Rolston’s account seems to suggest this is far from a near-term solution.

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