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Shared in accordance with the "fair dealing" provisions, Section 29, of the Copyright Act.

 

Army woefully unready, Afghans say

Paul Koring, Globe & Mail, 16 Nov 06

Article Link

 

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — The Afghan National Army, linchpin of the nation's hopes of eventually defeating the Taliban insurgency and defending its fragile democracy, remains woefully unready, according to the nation's leaders, its own officers and foreign soldiers currently spearheading the fight.

 

While the ANA gets qualified good reviews -- it is, for instance, the least-corrupt of Afghanistan's security forces and its soldiers have acquitted themselves ably in limited combat encounters -- the glimmers of hope are vastly overshadowed by darker realities.

 

Any long-term prospect of winning the war against a resurgent Taliban in southern Afghanistan depends ultimately on large numbers of "boots on the grounds," meaning a viable and continuing presence of Afghan soldiers and police throughout the region. Currently, the ANA has too few boots and most of them are on the wrong places.

 

In more than a score of interviews with Canadian and Afghan officials, both military and civilian, a disquieting picture emerges.

 

Despite five years of effort and money to build a loyal and professional force, the Afghan army remains too small and too ill-equipped to fight alone. Its effective strength is likely smaller, perhaps by as much as a third, than its claimed 35,000 soldiers. While there are grand plans for the army to reach 70,000 in the next four years, it may actually be shrinking as waves of three-year contract soldiers complete their obligations and decline to re-enlist because of miserable pay, grim conditions and long periods away from families.

 

"We have got to find a way to keep these soldiers in the ANA," said Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Marc Lanthier, who heads Canada's liaison effort with the ANA. Part of the solution, he suggests, is building bases and facilities for units deployed far from home, as is the case with most ANA troops. Even if the ambitious target of 70,000 is reached by 2010, that will be less than one-quarter the size of Iraq's still-growing security forces. Yet Afghanistan is bigger, poorer and more populous than Iraq, and, while the Taliban insurgency has yet to reach the scale of Iraq's civil war, it poses the same sort of long-term threat to the nation's viability as a functioning civil state.

 

Some mostly peaceful regions, meanwhile, have large ANA contingents jealously guarded by governors loath to allow them to be redeployed to places where the fighting is fiercest and the ANA is thinnest.

 

For instance, in Kandahar province, the heartland of the Taliban considered by many to be the crucial battleground, there is just a single, under-strength battalion of about 450 Afghan soldiers. Nominally, an Afghan infantry battalion has 611 soldiers. The reality is "closer to 65 per cent" of that number, said Col. Lanthier. Canada has twice that number of soldiers deployed outside of bases in Kandahar province. In terms of war-fighting capacity, the ratio is more like 10-to-1.

 

But the real need is for large numbers of Afghan police and soldiers to be able to sustain a security presence throughout the areas contested by the Taliban. "There's a real need for redistribution of ANA within the country," Canadian Colonel Fred Lewis said with some understatement.

 

"If you have more foreign troops here than you have indigenous troops, then there is a real problem," said Col. Lewis, the deputy commander of the Canadian contingent and a key architect of the counter-insurgency strategy.

 

There are more contract employees serving food and fixing toilets for the 10,000 NATO personnel living on the sprawling Kandahar air base than there are Afghan soldiers stationed in the entire province -- a vast, rugged swath of land the size of Nova Scotia with roughly the same population.

 

"In Kandahar, we do not have any effective police. As for the ANA, they are there but not enough of them to be effective," a senior Afghan official acknowledged with unusual candour, although he did ask that his name not be used. Similar assessments are made by Canadian military officers.

 

ANA soldiers get high marks from Canadians embedded with them for their bravery and their willingness to fight. "They are good fighters, but they are not yet good soldiers," said Warrant Officer Dominique Sauvé, part of a unit known as an OMLT, or Observer Mentor Liaison Team, embedded with the sole Afghan battalion in Kandahar province. WO Sauvé has no illusions. The ANA needs vast improvement, especially in leadership, before it is capable. Still, even ill-trained, ill-equipped, ill-paid, ill-treated and ill-led, its soldiers have significant advantages in some areas over even elite foreign troops.

 

"They know the language and they know the country," WO Sauvé said.

 

But ANA units still cannot operate on their own. They need NATO for communications, air support, logistics and transport, and to take a secondary role in any operation larger than a simple cordoning off of a compound and searching it.

 

Often, as many as a third of the soldiers in a battalion are absent. Frequently, they have simply gone home, as far away as the other side of Afghanistan, to deliver pay packets to their families. Soldiers who sign up for three years rarely get official leave, meaning many of them simply disappear from time to time.

 

"Some of them see little reason to re-enlist" at the end of their three-year contract, said Canadian Major Adam Barsby, who teaches at the Afghan Army Training Centre near Kabul. Although the Afghan government issues no official figures, the estimate of foreign trainers is that two-thirds of the new recruits are being sent to fill holes in existing battalions caused by soldiers deserting or finishing their contracts.

 

Estimates of how many trained, experienced, reliable and uncorrupt Afghan army and police might be needed to suppress the Taliban insurgency and maintain reasonable security in a province like Kandahar vary widely. But both Afghan and NATO officers suggested many thousands, not a few hundred, before the load shifts away from foreign forces.


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