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Mowing the grass

The similarities between Washington, D.C. and Wanat, Nuristan.

UK’s spokesperson for military operations in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Gordon Messenger was at a New America Foundation sponsored event in Washington, D.C., talking about COIN operations and Operation Moshtarak in Marja.  Since the invasion in 2001, COIN operations in Afghanistan  have assumed a “clear-hold-withdraw” pattern, where coalition forces mount operations against  insurgents, maintain momentary control, and either partially or entirely withdraw over a period of time.  This withdrawal invariably creates a power vacuum, which the Taliban return to fill — resulting in another series of coalition COIN operations.  “Mowing the grass, ” The New York Times calls this.

Gen. Messenger spoke at length about the pattern: (h/t nukesofhazardblog.com)

How exactly does one prevent merely mowing the grass?  It sounds simple enough: make sure an Afghan security force is in place to fill any potential security void upon the end of an operation.  Operations should be jointly planned and executed, all the way down to the lowest level, by both ISAF and the Afghan national forces.  Substantive partnering with Afghans will set the groundwork for a strong eventual US and NATO transition out of the country that is not conditions based, said Messenger.  Properly trained Afghan forces (ANP and ANA) gradually taking on an increasingly large percentage of operations planning and execution will allow for ISAF forces to confidently withdrawal and leave a solid security foundation.

Of course, joint operations with Afghan security forces seems theoretically sound and practically feasible.  There’s just one small problem – after spending eight years and billions of dollars, Afghan’s security forces remain staggeringly under-equipped and untrained.  The extent of the lack of operational readiness of indigenous forces is only now being understood by civilian leadership in Washington.  Mark Hosenball observes (h/t pragmatic_d):

[A]t a March 12 briefing in the White House Situation Room, President Obama asked his senior advisers if Afghan police will be ready for action by July 2011 when the scheduled draw down of American troops is supposed to begin. The answer, from Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the American officer in charge of building Afghanistan’s security forces, was not encouraging. “It’s inconceivable, but in fact for eight years we weren’t training the police,” Caldwell told the president and his assembled senior advisers, who included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Bob Gates, and top military, national security, and intelligence chiefs. “We just never trained them before. All we did was give them a uniform,” Caldwell said, according to a senior official who was in the room—and who asked for anonymity when speaking about sensitive information.

The president, said the official, looked stunned. “Eight years and we didn’t train police?” Obama said.  “It’s mind boggling.” The room went silent. [Newsweek]

This “mowing the grass” is being replicated on the field in Eastern Afghanistan as it is in Washington, D.C.  That Afghan security forces are untrained is known.  Desertion rates (25% each in the ANA and ANP ) are high and institutional corruption is pervasive.  Building a credible security forces under the circumstances is tough enough, without having to factor in shortages in available US and NATO trainers (currently numbering less than 2,000).  These are all long-standing issues which short-term, duct-tape fixes will not solve.  However, even after Mr. Obama’s major review of operations in Afghanistan in November, 2009, the same mistakes are still being committed.

If the goal is to train the 83,000 ANA and 90,000 ANP fast enough for them to be able to begin taking over from coalition forces in 2011, the US must elicit assistance from the pre-eminent military power in the region — India.  Even with Indian assistance, this is going to be a mad dash to the finish line.  For a country admired (and oftentimes disliked) for doggedly pursuing its national interests, even when they conflict with those of its allies, US reluctance in India’s involvement because of Pakistan’s “sensitivities” is inexplicable.

As things stand today, there is a 1:85 ratio of trainers to Afghan security personnel; the numbers just don’t add up.  This is a significant gap whose resolution requires a recognition of the enormity of the challenge, a change in mindset and a commitment to leave behind a stable, secure and functioning democracy in Afghanistan.

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