A stronger Taliban lies low, hoping the U.S. will leave Afghanistan
For the 18,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the appearance of victory could be a recipe for defeat. American commanders in Afghanistan say they are in a high-stakes race against time. Their challenge is to subdue the resurgent Taliban long enough to build up Afghan security forces so they can stand on their own.
It seems simple, but there’s a catch. The Taliban forces are playing a clever waiting game. According to U.S. Special Forces (SF) officers, whenever possible, the insurgents are lying low, avoiding high-profile attacks on U.S. and coalition forces. Their aim, the SF officers say, is to convince U.S. commanders and their political masters that the Taliban no longer poses a major threat to stability in Afghanistan and that it’s time to withdraw U.S. forces from the country. If that happens before Afghan government forces are ready to assume full responsibility for the country’s security, the officers say, a war that all commanders claim they are winning could still be lost.
Already, Special Forces officers have had to beat back a proposal to reduce the size of their contingent in Afghanistan, according to an Army officer. That proposal, which surfaced last fall, would have cut the Special Forces presence in Afghanistan in half.
“Right now that’s not going to happen,” said the officer, who spoke on the condition that he not be named because the topic was considered “so politically sensitive.” “That has been completely reconsidered.”
Brig. Gen. (P) Frank Kearney, commander of U.S. Central Command’s special operations component, confirmed that a drawdown of Special Forces in Afghanistan had been considered. “Initially we felt we had some excess capability,” he wrote in response to an e-mailed question. However, after further analysis by the relevant headquarters in Afghanistan, the chance of a sharp cut in Special Forces strength here has receded. “If there is a reduction it will be small, but it is just as likely force numbers will remain the same,” Kearney wrote.
Some officers also were worried that the Special Forces role would be limited to training the Afghan military rather than conducting the sort of combat missions that have killed several hundred Taliban fighters this year. But Kearney appeared to lay these fears to rest. He said the priority for Special Forces in Afghanistan would be “foreign internal defense,” which, he said, included not only training Afghan troops, but also conducting operations with them.
However, the rapid expansion of the Afghan National Army (ANA) means that even with no reduction, Special Forces will be spread a little more thinly across Afghanistan. Already, SF A-teams have been sent to northern and western Afghanistan, which had been devoid of U.S. special operations troops, to train new ANA units stationed there, according to Kearney.
Any changes in SF structure in southern Afghanistan will be implemented at roughly the same time that NATO forces from Canada, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands assume the conventional missions in southern Afghanistan now being conducted by a U.S. airborne brigade.
The handoff of Regional Command South to NATO is due to occur this year, on a date yet to be determined. But already some U.S. officers fear that the NATO troops will not pursue the Taliban as aggressively as the Americans do, and that cutting or eliminating the Special Forces role in the Taliban’s strongholds in the south would only compound the error.
“Many of us thought that would be a mistake,” said the Army officer who declined to be named.
Indeed, the Taliban’s resurgence this year is a direct result of coalition complacency, a complacency born out of an overestimation of the coalition’s success against the insurgency. That, at least, is the prevalent view in Task Force 31, headquartered at Kandahar Airfield and built around 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group.
Task Force 31 is part of a combined joint special operations task force that includes 3rd SF Group’s 2nd Battalion, which operates in eastern Afghanistan. A larger conventional force — Task Force Bayonet — organized around the 173rd Airborne Brigade, is also based at Kandahar and has the same area of operations as TF 31.
‘NETWORK OF NETWORKS’
Led by Lt. Col. Don Bolduc, TF 31 arrived at this the airfield in June for its third six- to nine-month tour in the Taliban’s southern Afghanistan heartland in a little over three years. The Desert Eagles, as they are known, found numerous improvements had been made to the region’s infrastructure and democratic systems in the year that the battalion had been gone. But TF 31’s soldiers also found much to worry them.
“Among the most troubling changes was the state of the insurgency in southern Afghanistan,” states an unclassified TF 31 “memorandum for record” dated Oct. 7 and provided to Army TimesAFJ. “Exploiting the misconception that the insurgency was over, the enemy ? had expertly managed to reorganize, refit and prepare to conduct a more focused campaign against Afghan National Security Forces. Coalition forces, though more far reaching than 12 months earlier and occupying three additional fire bases in the most remote areas of southern Afghanistan, had limited themselves to locally focused operations, allowing the enemy to remain out of reach and unmolested for nearly six months.”
As a result, the Taliban forces have emerged stronger than at any time since a combined U.S.-Northern Alliance force drove them from power in late 2001. Conventional and Special Forces officers say the Taliban has a functioning chain of command that stretches from senior leaders in Pakistan down to foot soldiers in the provinces.
“They’re not structured in the traditional insurgency model that you’d find in the Maoist doctrine of insurgency — that very rigid chain of command — but they are structured,” Bolduc said. “They know who the leader is in this particular geographic area, and that’s the guy that everybody goes to to get their marching orders. ? They’re a network of networks. They have cells, and each cell has a leader.”
Despite suffering heavy losses in a series of firefights with U.S. forces this last year, the Taliban continues to recruit from the Pashtun tribes of poverty-wracked southern Afghanistan, as well as from the madrassahs — Islamic schools — located across the border in Pakistan’s Pashtun-dominated tribal areas.
Lt. Col. Mark Stammer, commander of TF Bayonet’s 2nd Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment, related a conversation he had with a 19-year-old Taliban fighter captured by his men in May. Stammer asked the captive why he was fighting. “Because you’re going to steal my religion,” the young guerrilla answered.
“So there’s some charismatic leadership that these guys follow,” Stammer said. “And they follow out of fear, they follow out of ignorance, and they follow for money ? and we’re working on all three of those.” (Not all the enemy fighters are homegrown, however. Special Forces and Afghan National Army officers say they continue to encounter foreigners fighting for the Taliban. Col. Pat Higgins, commander of 3rd Special Forces Group, said his troops had fought against Arab, Uzbek and Chechen guerrillas in Afghanistan. “We’ve captured some of them, we’ve killed some of them,” he said.)
The coalition’s failure to establish a permanent security presence in any but the largest towns has allowed the Taliban to create what U.S. officers refer to as a “sanctuary” in Oruzgan, northern Helmand, northwest Zabul and northern Kandahar provinces. “In this sanctuary area ? they develop their leadership [and] they foster and promulgate their ideology,” said TF 31’s assistant operations officer, a captain who could not be named according to military ground rules.
But if the Taliban’s sanctuary is inside Afghanistan, its “safe haven,” as TF Bayonet commander Col. Kevin Owens described it, is across the border in Pakistan’s virtually lawless Pashtun tribal areas.
It is there, according to Bolduc, that the Taliban’s senior leadership resides, providing the core of what he calls a “shadow government.” The guerrillas also use Pakistan as a source of recruits and bomb-making materials, and as a place to train and rest during the winter, he said. And, of course, Pakistan is the presumed location of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
But at the insistence of the Pakistani government, Central Command prevents U.S. forces in Afghanistan from crossing the border to attack any of the Taliban and al-Qaida targets.
“We — coalition forces — cannot cross from Afghanistan into Pakistan without the express permission of the government of Pakistan, and the government of Pakistan will not give us that permission,” said Col. Barry Shapiro, the liaison officer to Pakistan for Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan, the highest U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan. “The presence of U.S. forces on Pakistani soil from a strategic standpoint would be extremely destabilizing to [Pakistani] President [Pervez] Musharraf’s administration, and we don’t need to add that problem to the mix.
“The fact of the matter is that the Pakistanis are in charge of their own territory, their tribal areas, and we have to be very careful to make sure that we’re not creating the perception that we are in control of Pakistani territory, or, for that matter, that the Pakistanis are taking direction from U.S. forces. ? Our forces on the ground have to reconcile the tactical advantage of being able to strike targets inside the [tribal areas] against the strategic disadvantages, which would be tremendous.”
The Taliban’s strategy of trying to lull the coalition into a false sense of security was most clearly evident during September’s elections for Afghanistan’s national assembly and provincial councils, according to Bolduc and his staff. Those elections passed off with very limited violence, a fact that Higgins, the 3rd Special Forces Group commander, identified as his “biggest success so far.”
But Bolduc and his assistant operations officer said the absence of significant violence around the elections was part of the Taliban’s strategy, not simply the result of effective security work on the part of the coalition.
The Taliban has to conserve its resources for the time when the Americans are gone, the assistant operations officer said. “That’s why we had a theory prior to the national assembly and provincial council elections that they would not throw significant resources against those elections. And the low incidence of violence and low incidence of disruption to the election we feel bore out that theory, and backed up what we’re saying about the state of the insurgency,” he said. “They will use those elections to their advantage to sort of dupe the world into a false sense of victory, by showing us that the elections went off, they were a strategic victory [for the coalition] and off we can go.
“They have to allow the world to believe that the elections were a strategic defeat from the [Taliban’s] point of view, because if people believe that, then that will allow them to leave earlier, and then [the Taliban] will face that weakened Afghan national security force sooner rather than later.”
The Taliban forces didn’t just ignore the elections, they participated in them. The TF 31 assistant operations officer said the task force had cross-referenced the list of election candidates with the U.S. military’s target list and found several matches in Oruzgan province alone.
“There were guys on the candidate list that we knew had loose affiliations with the [Taliban] or were facilitators or were in some other way soiled with the stain of the [Taliban] or were on our target list in some way, shape or form,” the assistant operations officer said. “That demonstrated to us that these guys will attempt to build some kind of shadow government through the legitimate elections so that they can have people in place to take over those positions of responsibility, if and when their way of life and their way of government is reinstitutionalized by collapsing the legitimate government.”
The Taliban fighters are also taking advantage of the Afghan government’s amnesty program to come down from the mountains and rejoin civil society, while secretly retaining their loyalty to the Taliban, TF 31 officers said. “If you believe this theory, that they’re waiting, that time is on their side, then it makes perfect sense for them to come out and say, ‘Hey, I’m a good guy,’ [because] the more guys that are converted in that way, then the quicker we’ll leave them alone,” the assistant operations officer said. “And that keeps the heat off them for a long time, too.”
The view that the Taliban are attempting to establish a shadow government extends far beyond TF 31’s headquarters in Kandahar. Sitting at a wooden table in the small chow hall of his team’s firebase in Oruzgan, a bearded Special Forces A-team leader spelled out his enemy’s strategy. “There’s a large portion of them saying ‘Let’s just chill out, relax, wait the Americans out, make it look real peaceful, and try to get as many people of ours in the government, and then once the Americans leave we can do the old switcheroo and go ahead and take over the government again,” he said.
But if the Taliban is trying to create the impression in the coalition’s minds that they are finished as a threat to Afghan stability, that raises the question of why all indices of violence in southern Afghanistan — in particular, the number of firefights and the number of U.S. casualties — appear to be on the rise. (Twenty U.S. troops were killed in action in each of 2003 and 2004. The figure for 2005 was 66.)
The consensus among Special Forces and conventional U.S. officers in Afghanistan is that there has been more fighting because the units that arrived in the spring of 2005 have pursued the enemy far more aggressively than those they replaced. In seeking to confront the Taliban forces in their sanctuary, U.S. forces have provoked them into fights the Taliban would otherwise have avoided, U.S. officers say. “By moving into his neighborhood, we have forced him to attack us in certain cases, because he was losing his credibility,” Stammer said.
“We went out and were much more aggressive about where we looked for these guys,” said the TF 31 assistant operations officer. “We went to places where we knew they usually were, we went to places that were very inaccessible, we did it by vehicle and by foot.”
Hence, the main battles of the past six months have been far from the beaten path. “They’re not hitting us on main lines of communication,” the assistant operations officer said. “They’re hitting us ? in really remote areas where we have to go and get ’em, because we know that that’s where they’re hiding and waiting.”
When TF Bayonet and TF 31 troops do encounter the Taliban, the results are always the same. “We invariably come out on top,” Higgins said. “We’ve had a number of set battles with these guys where we’ve killed 40 or 50.”
But despite the losses suffered by the Taliban, Special Forces soldiers say their enemy has improved markedly in several areas over the last couple of years. The Taliban forces have demonstrated a better ability to mass and then react quickly, using hand-held ICOM radios to command and control formations of more than 100 fighters. The guerrillas are also more resolute than TF 31 soldiers had experienced on previous rotations.
For instance, during a July 24 battle at Qaleh Ye Gaz in Helmand province, “we dropped 2,000-pound bombs on them,” TF 31’s assistant operations officer said. “They did not break contact. Instead they fell into a compound and continued to fight from that compound. It wasn’t until we dropped 2,000-pound bombs into that compound that we were able to finally end this contact.”
The July 24 battle began when a combined TF 31/Afghan National Army convoy ran into the 10- to 15-man security detail of a Taliban area commander. The bodyguards alerted other nearby Taliban troops who joined the fight. They then fought a skillful delaying action, so that even though the area commander was wounded, his men were able to evacuate him all the way to Pakistan, according to Bolduc.
The enemy’s improved tactical prowess could be traced to the respite the coalition had allowed them, according to TF 31 officials. “They’ve had time to get organized,” the assistant operations officer said.
HEARTS AND MINDS
Both conventional and Special Forces units combine these “kinetic” missions to kill or capture the enemy, with “nonkinetic” operations aimed at countering the Taliban’s ideology, which Bolduc says is his enemy’s “center of gravity.”
Much of the “hearts and minds” work is done by civil affairs units and provincial reconstruction teams, who are building roads, schools and wells across southern Afghanistan. Their role is vital. “Civil affairs — they’re the real heroes of this war,” Higgins said.
Bolduc’s A-teams also conduct civil works projects, but on a more modest scale than the Provincial Reconstruction Teams. “The A-team’s not going to be able to build a road,” he said. The A-teams also make their community projects in the sanctuary areas “conditional,” the TF 31 commander said. “In other words, we’ll help you, but you have to help us” is the message they give the villagers. “If we don’t have a guarantee that you’re going to help us with the security in this area against the enemy, then we’re not going to do this for you, because what we end up with is well-hydrated, well-fed, healthy Taliban.”
This approach has paid off, according to Bolduc. “Once the people get the message that we’re there to help them and [see] what we can bring to them and the quality-of-life improvement, they’re all over us, they will support us on the conditional basis,” he said.
Each TF 31 firebase hosts a medical clinic six days a week for locals. With decent health care all but nonexistent for Afghans, the clinics “fill a huge vacuum” and by mid-October had treated about 7,300 patients, the assistant operations officer said.
The clinics have a twofold benefit for TF 31. Not only are they a potent weapon in gaining the Afghans’ support, but the provision of medical services helps the SF soldiers build individual relationships with locals that can pay great dividends down the line, Bolduc said.
The Americans’ immediate goal in southern Afghanistan is to make the winter as unprofitable as possible for the Taliban, most of whom are expected to cross into Pakistan or otherwise go to ground until the snows melt in the spring. “Our object now is to confront them in transit,” Higgins said. “We’re planning on staying pretty effective.”
One of Bolduc’s targets will be what he calls “the underground auxiliary” — those Taliban fighters who stay behind after “the exodus” of their comrades to Pakistan. “Based on what we have planned [for the winter], I do not anticipate a stronger insurgency in the springtime,” Bolduc said. “I do not think that they’re going to come back to the same infrastructure that they relied on in the past.”
In the longer run, TF 31’s objective is to create an infrastructure suited to the needs of the Afghan National Army when the Americans depart. For instance, because the ANA has no aviation assets to speak of, TF 31 plans to leave it a road-based logistics apparatus in southern Afghanistan.
Indeed, one of the task force’s challenges is politely resisting moves from the Afghan Ministry of Defense to pull the ANA units out of the firebases they currently occupy with TF 31’s A-teams and consolidate them on larger installations farther from the Taliban sanctuary.
Such a move would be a grave mistake, according to Bolduc and his assistant ops officer. “They have to be in the sanctuary areas or you’re going to concede those areas to the enemy,” Bolduc said.
Before the A-teams had opened the firebases, “it was very difficult for us to project up there,” the assistant ops officer said. “It’s even harder for the ANA to do that. We’re really lobbying very hard to allow these guys to keep these things.”
Special operators and conventional infantry officers alike are convinced their strategy is working. By late November, TF 31 had killed approximately 400 enemy personnel, including several midlevel commanders. They had also captured 278 enemy fighters, 66 of whom, including several leaders, became “long-term detainees,” according to charts provided to AFJ.
The Taliban will fight harder to protect leaders than to protect materiel, Bolduc said. “They don’t care about materiel,” he said. “It’s just that individual leader, because they are so hard to replace.”
He gave the example of Pai Mohammed, a Taliban area commander TF 31 killed in a battle Aug. 23 at Shomali Shin Ghar, 30 kilometers west of Tarin Kowt in Oruzgan. “To this day they’re having problems replacing him, and as a result the enemy is so much less effective because they don’t have a leader to mass around and to take instructions from,” Bolduc said.
Since being driven from power in late 2001, Taliban forces has been following the classic three-stage insurgency model, according to Bolduc and his staff. They have passed through the first stage, known as the latent and incipient phase, in which they gain an influence over the target population, and are now poised on the brink of the second phase — organized guerrilla warfare with the formation of a shadow government in the sanctuary area.
The third phase would consist of a “war of movement” against the Afghan government. However, Bolduc believes the Taliban has stalled and is no longer progressing along the insurgency continuum.
But he and his men also know the war is far from over. To achieve victory, they must “separate the insurgent either physically or psychologically from the populace,” Bolduc said.
The most effective way to do that would be to establish a presence in the form of some kind of professional security force — U.S. or other coalition military, or, preferably, the ANA or Afghan National Police (ANP) — in every village. It is the failure to establish that presence that allows the Taliban to rule those villages through fear. One of Bolduc’s A-team leaders explained the dynamic he was up against.
“If we go into an area and we tell [them] we’re here to help them, we look at their animals or their kids and treat them medically, we might provide them with some food, they really enjoy that and they really like that and they think that that’s very good,” the captain said. “But then you have the Taliban that might come in a couple of nights later, and they say, ‘If you support the Americans or the government we’re gonna kill you,’ and they follow up on it by slitting somebody’s throat or kidnapping someone. That’s very hard to counteract. There’s a lot of psychological operations that we can employ to try and influence people to see things our way, but the bottom line is, if you have people that have the will to go around killing innocent people, that’s very hard to counteract.”
U.S. commanders are careful to avoid calling for more U.S. troops. They know that none are available. In fact, Central Command cut a battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division from the current yearlong rotation, according to Maj. Gen. Jason Kamiya, who heads up Combined Joint Task Force-76, which includes all U.S. and coalition conventional ground forces in eastern and southern Afghanistan.
But the shortage of friendly boots on the ground means that every day, U.S. commanders at all levels must wrestle with the challenges posed by the Taliban’s ability to intimidate rural Afghans into not helping the security forces. “There’s a hesitancy to support the ANA, support the coalition, support the ANP, at times, because we’re not just quite to the point where we can be everywhere all the time,” Stammer said.
The obvious — but by no means easy — answer is to build up the numbers and capability of the ANA and ANP. “The long-term solutions are a sustained and competent ANP/ANA presence in there, a sustained and competent district leadership in there,” Owens said. “A qualitative change in the ANA and ANP would radically start changing the dynamics here.”
SECURING THE FUTURE
If the Afghan government is ever to defeat the Taliban insurgency, much will depend on men like Col. Shren Shah Kohbandi.
The swarthy 40-year-old officer commands the 2nd Battalion of the Afghan National Army’s 1st Brigade, 205th Corps, headquartered on the edge of the Kandahar air base, and he embodies Afghanistan’s need to accommodate its difficult past in order to secure the future.
A 1985 university graduate, Kohbandi commanded a brigade in the communist Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) army that fought the mujahidin in the 1980s. But he belongs to the tiny Pashai ethnic group, which he said always sides with the Tajiks in Afghanistan’s ethnic conflicts; throughout the war, he maintained links to legendary Tajik mujahidin commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, so that when the mujahidin finally unseated the DRA regime in the early 1990s, he switched sides and received command of a regiment. When the Taliban, a force composed of Pashtuns (the Tajiks’ traditional enemies), swept to power in 1996, Kohbandi fled to Massoud’s stronghold in the Panjshir valley northeast of Kabul.
Now he is back in uniform, serving in yet another Afghan army. Kohbandi’s was one of the first battalions established in the ANA, and over the last three years it has fought the Taliban across much of Afghanistan alongside U.S. forces. But the ANA is a significantly different force from others that have waged war across this battle-scarred land for the past quarter century. Kohbandi’s troops are all volunteers, unlike the DRA army of the 1980s. And unlike the Taliban, which is a Pashtun militia, or the Northern Alliance, which was dominated by Tajiks and Uzbeks, the ANA draws soldiers from all provinces and ethnic groups. Kohbandi’s operations officer is a Tajik, his assistant operations officer is an Uzbek, and three of his company commanders are Pashtuns.
The ANA’s multi-ethnic character is a boon for U.S. troops trying to promote allegiance to the national government and its institutions in a country where tribe and ethnic group have traditionally had first claim on the average person’s loyalty. This is one reason why TF 31 places so much priority on ensuring the ANA operates deep in the Taliban heartland.
“One of the things we’ve tried to do is create presence in an area where nationalism and positive Afghan government role models are nonexistent,” said TF 31’s assistant operations officer. “By putting a permanent Afghan National Army presence in these areas we allow for a conduit through which we can pass this notion of nationalism over tribalism.”
The Karzai government and its allies are expanding the ANA as quickly as possible. In November 2004, the Army had 15,523 troops. A year later, the force had 26,188 soldiers divided into 40 battalions. At academies and training grounds, the new Army is being schooled by a mixture of U.S. and other coalition troops, as well as private contractors. The process is paying off, U.S. officers say. “We only had one ‘kandak’ here a year ago,” the assistant operations officer said, using the Dari word for battalion. “Now we have four.”
The Americans in southern Afghanistan are making the most of their new allies. No combat mission is considered complete without ANA participation. However, U.S. officers are in complete agreement on one key point: Neither the ANA nor any other element of the Afghan government’s security structure is ready to handle the Taliban on its own. “If we left tomorrow, this place would implode rather quickly,” Bolduc said.
Kohbandi’s battalion faces challenges typical of those slowing the progress of the ANA as a whole. It suffers from shortages of men, money and supplies. The unit’s authorized strength is 604 soldiers, but the number of troops present for duty averages around 385, said Maj. Mikal Dyke, a Kentucky National Guard officer who is assigned as a trainer with Kohbandi’s unit.
ANA units operate on a three-year life-cycle system, meaning that most troops sign up for a three-year hitch in a unit, then are free to return to civilian life or to sign up for another three years. Kohbandi worried that he was about to lose many of his battle-hardened soldiers. “A critical problem is the salaries of the soldiers are not enough,” he said. “They cannot support their families.”
Unsurprisingly, given the infantry-centric nature of counterinsurgency operations, the ANA’s command, control and logistics capabilities have not kept pace with the expansion of its infantry forces. “I like the ANA; I think it’s the best answer for Afghanistan,” said Staff Sgt. Michael Gabel, a squad leader in Stammer’s B Company. “I just wish we could get their supply line up and running, so they didn’t have to be chained to us anymore.”
The ANA’s coalition advisers are working hard to help the Afghans overcome these problems. Stammer noted that his staff had been working alongside the ANA brigade staff, teaching them about operational planning. “Every paratrooper’s got to be a trainer, otherwise we’re wasting our time here,” he said.
Despite the challenges involved in standing up an army from scratch while fighting a war, U.S. officers are cautiously optimistic about the ANA’s future. “At the small-unit level, there’s nothing wrong with these guys,” Higgins said. “They’re tough, they’re brave, sometimes they’re too brave [and] reining them in is the problem. ? Around this country, the ANA has a lot of credibility.”
Indeed, the ANA forces are climbing their learning curve far faster than their U.S. counterparts had expected. When TF 31 arrived in June, its goal was to have its partner ANA units capable of company-level operations within a year. But by September, the ANA was conducting battalion-level missions, Bolduc said.
“And they are truly Afghan led-operations,” Bolduc’s assistant operations officer said. “They choose where they want to go, they choose how they’re going to do it. We fill in the gaps with communications and transportation because that’s the last piece of the puzzle that we have to fill in with these guys.”
“As they develop a logistical support system to accompany their operational capability, it’ll get better,” Bolduc said. “But this’ll take time.”
In the meantime, the ANA does not have the strength to secure the rural villages under the sway of the Taliban. That job, say both ANA and U.S. Army officers, should really be done by the ANP.
Unlike the nationally recruited ANA units, the ANP in each government district is locally recruited. In theory, therefore, the police’s local knowledge should give them the edge over the ANA when it comes to rooting out insurgents.
But the guarded optimism that pervades discussion of the ANA disappears when the subject changes to the ANP, which is viewed by all as weak, poorly trained and equipped, and, in many cases, hopelessly corrupt.
“Security for the towns and villages depends on the national police,” Kohbandi said. However, he said, the ANP spends the daytime acting as policemen and the nighttime committing crimes. “One hundred percent of the police are thieves,” he said. “I’ve studied this. I know.”
American officers use more diplomatic language, but they willingly acknowledge the ANP’s difficulties. “The ANA is a much more capable force right now than the ANP,” Owens said. “It has a much more formalized structure and much better-resourced training regimen ? than the ANP does.”
The ANP’s weakness leaves a gaping hole in Afghanistan’s security structure. Kamiya acknowledged that the ANP forces were “the first line of resistance” against not only the Taliban but the drug cartels and other organized criminal gangs that plague Afghanistan, and that he and his boss, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the commander of Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan, or “CFC-Alpha,” were very aware of the ANP’s problems. “General Eikenberry and CFC-Alpha clearly recognize that it’s a gap for us, a big vulnerability,” Kamiya said.
As a result of the ANP’s inability to handle local security matters, the lines between the roles and missions of the ANA and the ANP have blurred, as the ANA takes up the local security tasks traditionally handled by an armed police force in a counterinsurgency.
For now, the ANP’s local ties are “a double-edged sword,” according to Owens. “In many of the districts, the ANP is as much a representative of the local bad-ass as it is the population that they’re there to ostensibly serve and protect,” he said. “What gives the ANA legitimacy in many areas is that they are so broadly recruited that they’re perceived as being maybe above tribal bias and tribal politics that often plague the ANP.”
Money, or the lack of it, is at the root of many of the ANP’s problems, according to Afghan and U.S. sources. “The major difference that you’re going to see between the ANA and the police is their ability to be paid,” said one of Bolduc’s A-team leaders. “The ANA, we’ve set up their pay system under U.S. or coalition oversight, and the ANA get paid, every month. It’s not a lot, but it’s regular and they have something that they can count on, and that money goes right to their families and they have a decent job.
“Now the ANP, their pay system is set up through the Afghani government. It goes from the central government to their provincial police chiefs; the provincial police chiefs have someone under them that is supposed to send the money out to the district police chiefs, and then in turn they pay their guys. Well, when you have a country that’s as poor as Afghanistan, that money, as it comes down the chain, is being taken apart.”
With so little money reaching the bottom rung of the police ladder, many cops turn to petty crime to support themselves. “These are people who want to help their government,” the A-team leader said. But they either leave the police force temporarily for a better-paying job, or else they become corrupt and set up illegal checkpoints or accept bribes, he said.
The dynamic by which money intended for local police stations is skimmed off at every level means the ANP is also critically short of vehicles, weapons and even uniforms. (On a recent one-month trip to Afghanistan that included visits to two ANP stations, this writer did not see a single ANP uniform.)
The Afghan government’s failure to equip its own police force has resulted in U.S. officers taking matters into their own hands. “Our No. 1 resupply system for the police is taking it from the enemy and giving it to the police,” Stammer said. “Everything we take from the enemy we give to either the army or the police.”
The Special Forces troops would like to lend a helping hand to the police chiefs near their firebases, but that would be illegal, they said. “Our own laws prohibit us from training the police,” Bolduc said. He agreed with Kohbandi, who said that the ANP “have to have good mentors, to support them and to lead them.”
“The ANP don’t have a Special Forces A-team working with them, or an infantry squad, platoon or company working with them, mentoring them, showing them the right way to do it and then letting them do it themselves with a level of supervision to make sure that things go right,” Bolduc said. “That’s what’s lacking with the ANP.”
Help is on the way. The State Department is in the process of establishing a mentorship program for the ANP with U.S. police officers being assigned to the provincial reconstruction teams. Meanwhile, DynCorp, a U.S. defense contractor, will establish regional training centers in larger towns such as Kandahar, Herat and Jalalabad. The length of time a trainee spends at a training center will depend on his degree of literacy, Kamiya said. At the highest level, the German government has established an academy to train police officers in Kabul.
Better-trained policemen should help the security situation, but, as in the case of the ANA, the government in Kabul will need to find the money to attract and retain the right people. “At some point in time the Afghan government is going to have to pay their security forces more than they’re paying them,” Bolduc said. “That’s just the reality of the situation.”
The best-paid, best-trained, best-equipped and most highly motivated Afghan troops fighting the Taliban are to be found in neither the ANA nor the ANP. They go by the name of the Afghan Security Forces, or ASF, and they work exclusively for, and are paid by, the Special Forces A-teams.
The organizational descendents of the militia forces hired by the Central Intelligence Agency and trained by SF troops in late 2001 and early 2002, the ASF function as the security force for the A-teams at their firebases and on some combat missions. Bolduc said that he was not permitted to reveal the exact number of ASF men employed by TF 31, but he is authorized to contract for up to 100 per firebase. At one firebase visited by Army Times, there were between 40 and 50 ASF fighters and an equal number of ANA soldiers.
But the ASF troops are better paid than the ANA troops they fight beside when on missions with the A-teams. The average ASF fighter makes between $125 and $150 per month, whereas a junior enlisted ANA soldier makes between $62 and $70 per month, plus $2 extra for every day he is deployed away from his home base. Because ASF troops are essentially U.S. military employees, they don’t have to share the worries of their ANP counterparts about their pay being skimmed off at each level of bureaucracy.
And unlike the ANA forces at each firebase, who hail from all over Afghanistan, many ASF troops are locally recruited and therefore have a better feel for the region’s people and geography.
But because the ASF represent the most lucrative option for any adventurous young Afghan man looking to earn a living with an assault rifle, the force is a drag on recruitment for the Afghan government’s principal security forces: the ANA and the ANP, as well as the smaller highway police and border police forces. For that reason, plans are in place to demobilize the ASF in 2006, giving each ASF fighter a parachute payment and the option of joining one of the Afghan government security forces. Ninety percent of the ASF are projected to take up that option, Bolduc said.
But not all SF soldiers are happy to be waving goodbye to their private armies. “Right now, I don’t think that should happen,” an A-team leader said. “They’re doing a good job right where they’re at.”
Fixing the Afghan government’s forces before higher authorities call time on their mission here has become the central focus of U.S. commanders, who miss no opportunity to impress upon a visitor the message that any attempt at a quick fix that leaves Afghanistan defended by native forces who are less than fully prepared is likely to lead to disaster. “A lot of people expect quick results from military action,” Higgins said. But, he added. “Counterinsurgency is slow and messy and drawn out.”
Owens said he was hesitant to predict when the ANA would be capable of independent action, but he acknowledged the strategic dilemma facing the Americans.
“The United States Army doesn’t have any staying power here,” he said. “We have enormous mobility, enormous firepower, a lot of resources and wherewithal, but we can’t just stay here and do their job. We can serve as a bridge. We can set ideal conditions of security and infrastructure, but the long-term staying power has to be performed by the ANP and ANA, or we’re doomed to failure.”
It was that lack of staying power that concerned Bolduc, too.
“The Afghan national security forces are getting better and better every day, but they’re not capable of taking over the counterinsurgency fight at this point in time,” he said. “I am constantly thinking about what the enemy’s going to do next. He’s waiting to see what we’re going to do next. He’s got time on his side. I don’t.”
Sean Naylor is a staff writer for the Military Times Newspapers.