Sunday, February 21, 2010

How Full is the Glass?

This is the story I have been waiting for on the offensive in Helmand.  The two big questions for this effort are: how is the ANA (Afghan army) performing; and how well will the government, especially the police perform once the military offensive is over, more or less. 

At the squad level it [the ANA] has been a source of effective, if modestly skilled, manpower. Its soldiers have shown courage and a willingness to fight. Afghan soldiers have also proved, as they have for years, to be more proficient than Americans at searching Afghan homes and identifying potential Taliban members — two tasks difficult for outsiders to perform.
By all other important measures, though — from transporting troops, directing them in battle and coordinating fire support to arranging modern communications, logistics, aviation and medical support — the mission in Marja has been a Marine operation conducted in the presence of fledgling Afghan Army units, whose officers and soldiers follow behind the Americans and do what they are told.
So, is the glass half-full or half-empty?  Of course, the answer is yes.  Or both.  Getting the ANA to fight and fight reasonably well is a big accomplishment.  But leadership and all of the technical stuff is apparently lacking.  However, this does not kill the hope that transitions can begin in 2011 (or at least contemplated then), as a fighting force of Afghans with assistance in leadership, logisitics, intel, fire control, etc is not a bad future.  I have talked about OMLTs before (Observer, Mentor, Liaison Teams) that are small groups of outside military folks serving in Afghan battalions.  If we end up replacing large units of outside forces with Afghan units led or assisted by small units, that means lower costs and casualties and then more patient (or ignorant) publics. 

Also, one key challenge in COIN is the mantra--better to have the indigenous personnel do something adequately than the outsider do it better/perfectly.  But it is really hard for the Marines to stand aside and let stuff happen--they are actors, not watchers.  So, one key challenge in future operations will be for the outsiders to be patient and really let the Afghans run the show, even if that means it goes poorly.  Perhaps this operation is too important to let that happen, but future ones will have to become Afghan shows, for better or worse. 

There are building blocks:
“They are a lot better than the Iraqis,” said the sergeant, who served a combat tour in Iraq. “They understand all of our formations, they understand how to move. They know how to flank and they can recognize the bad guys a lot better than we can.”
And this latter skill is huge!  Plus, to say that we have been doing this for eight years is just silly.  Most of the serious effort is fairly recent.  Blaming the ANA for the failures of Rumsfeld and his gang is quite mistaken.  Still, we need to be clear where we see progress and where we do not, to build on the former and fix the latter.  The development of the ANA is one of the key pieces of the puzzle.  And it bears much watching.

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