Thursday, October 14, 2010

Afghanistan: The Problems With Partnering

PASHMUL, Afghanistan – From inside the outpost, the sounds of a gunfight were unmistakable. First the clatter of assault rifles and machine guns, then the sound of rocket-propelled grenades exploding a few hundred yards away. Finally, the report of an 82mm recoilless rifle firing off one big shell, then another, then a third.

The American soldiers manning Combat Outpost J.F.M., in the Pashmul area of Kandahar’s volatile Zhari district, were unconcerned. All but a tiny fraction of the fire was “outgoing” – insurgents had attacked an Afghan army convoy just north of the base, and now the base’s small contingent of Afghan soldiers was responding with everything at its disposal.

From a guard tower, it was clear that the Afghans manning the base’s ramparts were firing into the same field that their own soldiers were moving into. And the recoilless rifle, the heaviest weapon in the Afghan troops’ arsenal, was being fired at nothing at all, 90 degrees away from the fighting.

“You either send in dismounts from the convoy or you put down fire from the C.O.P., but you don’t do both,” explained a frustrated Second Lt. Charles Ragland of Company B, First Battalion, 502nd Infantry.

The shooting died down; a few minutes later, with no apparent prompt, it started up again. “Once they start shooting that thing, good luck trying to get them to stop,” said Sgt. Tim Davis of the recoilless rifle.

As C.J. Chivers reports in his NYT story, Gains in Afghan Training But Struggles in War, training centers near Kabul and around Afghanistan are churning out as many as two or three new Afghan army battalions (or kandaks) each month. After the current influx of American and other NATO ground forces begins to depart, more of the work here will fall on the rapidly expanding Afghan army.

More immediately, the new Afghan units are an essential part of the strategy that NATO calls “embedded partnering.” If allied units patrol, fight, and live with Afghan soldiers and police, the thinking goes, the allies will benefit from better intelligence and cultural acumen, and the Afghans will gain tactical proficiency.

In his August “tactical directive,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, wrote: “It is essential that all operations be partnered with an [Afghan] unit. . . . I expect every operation and patrol to be partnered.”

Few allied units have taken the partnering rules more seriously than the 101st Airborne Division’s Second Brigade, which deployed to this contested region of southern Afghanistan at the beginning of the summer as part of the second wave of “surge” reinforcements.

First Battalion’s morning briefings are delivered in two languages and all of its outposts have contingents from either Afghan police or the Afghan army.
“Besides being a rule, it makes sense for us not to go out without them,” said Capt. Jeffrey Mackinnon, whose Company B was manning two outposts in Zhari’s Pashmul area in August. “They interact with the people far better than we do.”

But partnering with Afghan troops in all matters great and small has its drawbacks.
Some of these difficulties were on display during a visit to First Battalion’s area of eastern Zhari last August, during what the military called “shaping operations” for a more aggressive push now underway in the district.

Eastern Zhari has been a challenging battlefield even for First Battalion, a unit that spent nearly three years fighting in Iraq. For the brand-new Afghan troops, the district has proved a rough training ground.

“In Zhari, it’s 90 percent either contested or flat-out Taliban controlled,” Brig. Gen. Frederick Hodges, director of operations for the NATO headquarters in Kandahar, said before the new offensive.

Heavy vegetation makes some areas impenetrable to the cameras of drones and helicopters, allowing insurgents to settle in. “If you walk down in there, it is like walking into a jungle,” said Lt. Col. Johnny K. Davis, First Battalion’s commander. “Once you get down in there, you see fighting positions, tunnels.”

Six soldiers from First Battalion have been killed since May, and in early August two special operations soldiers died on a mission in the area. Sixth Kandak, Third Brigade, 205th Corps, has taken losses too; one Afghan soldier died in a booby-trapped house.

On his last deployment Captain Mackinnon was an adviser to an Iraqi army battalion. The Afghan troops, he said, had a long way to go before they could compare to that Iraqi unit.

“They got thrown into the fire without a whole lot of collective training,” he said. “We’re going over basic soldiering skills. Learning while at the same time doing combat operations is very tough.”

Some of the problems are cultural and perhaps unavoidable. In Pashmul, the Afghan troops’ observance of Ramadan in August and September slowed the pace of operations for Company B, which cannot patrol without them. During Ramadan, most Afghans fast and do not work during the day.

The Afghan police at Combat Outpost FitzPatrick would not patrol during the day during Ramadan, but were willing to go out with Company B in the evening and early morning. The army troops at Combat Outpost J.F.M., though, would only go out at night –- when few locals are awake.

Some Americans at both outposts grumbled about the Afghan troops’ motives. While many were undoubtedly observing the holiday, others could be seen sneaking food, or, some Company B soldiers said, smoking hash.

“It has slowed things down,” Colonel Davis, First Battalion’s commander, said during Ramadan of the Afghan troops’ decreased willingness to patrol. “During the day, as a battalion we used to do 25 to 30 patrols every day. That’s decreased to maybe 16 or 17.”

“Each kandak has different guidance about Ramadan, about when they patrol, how long they patrol,” added he colonel, who was wounded this summer when his vehicle was struck by two bombs and a rocket-propelled grenade. “Some document needs to say, ‘This is how we’ll operate during Ramadan.’ From our standpoint, the enemy’s still attacking.”

The Americans in Zhari describe some of these problems as “growing pains.” Others appear to have deeper roots, though –- as deep as the basic structure of Afghan army units. For one, all Afghan army kandaks are light on officers and lighter on N.C.Os (non-commissioned officers), the leaders who form the nucleus of a military unit.

In Sixth Kandak, a unit at almost full strength, “You may have 13 officers, 20 N.C.O.s, and 600 brand-new soldiers who just came out of training,” said Colonel Davis. “In my battalion, I have 56 officers and 150 N.C.O.s.”

“In an American sense, it’s going slower than I personally would like,” acknowledged the American brigade commander in the area, Col. Arthur A. Kandarian. “But if you look at it from an Afghan standpoint, they are moving with great speed, or they perceive that they are. That’s a difference in cultures.” New York Times

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