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Take every narrative about Afghanistan, including those that please you, with a shaker full of salt. Consider the claim that the Afghan National Army was a sham, really a source of American military career advancement and defense contractor enrichment. The ANA melting away, and the Taliban’s lightning victory, supports this narrative. Surely, after 20 years, the Afghan military should be able to defend its own country. Yet, a bit of reflection on what it takes to create an effective military complicates the narrative. This past week’s events were not inevitable.
Any effective army needs both teeth and tail. The aphorism goes “amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics.” Combat troops and logistics troops both need effective leadership, with commanders supported by competent staffs, and timely, actionable intelligence. Considering each of these in turn provides a matrix by which to organize inquiry into what happened in Afghanistan.
Building effective army units, from the ground up, is no easy task. Take an American infantry rifle platoon. Assume three 10 man squads in a platoon. You need three to five years to develop and select 2 sergeants per squad, team leaders, as the very first line of leaders. These young sergeants are the base of the pyramid of the non-commissioned officer corps, which our senior officers uniformly profess to be the backbone of the American military.
Now, take two or three years, at least, to season and test these most junior sergeants, picking the best as the new squad leaders, in charge of 9 other infantry soldiers, advancing them one rank. Carefully train, coach, and assess these squad leaders over several years, then advance one to platoon sergeant, responsible for three or four squads. Now you are over a decade into the project of growing a competent army.
You still need to develop these platoon sergeants, then select the best as first sergeants, responsible for all the soldiers in a company composed of several platoons. Then, you need to develop the first sergeants, selecting the best, after several years, to advance to sergeant major, the most senior non-commissioned officer rank, responsible for all the enlisted soldiers below them. The sergeants major start with battalions and advance by position through brigades, divisions, and corps.
Now add in officers, starting at the platoon level, and provide for their selection and training. Get officers and sergeants to work together effectively. You might just have competent military units, with maturing capabilities from the platoon to the battalion level.
But what about World War II? Surely we proved this timeline is greatly exaggerated. No, there was a small professional corps, a reserve corps, and the National Guard. These formed the matrix on which a vast, drafted wartime army could be rapidly formed. Further, we had a functionally literate and numerate population, not at all the basic human capital with which the Afghan military was to be built. The World Bank reports Afghan adult literacy at 18% in 1979, 31% in 2011, and 43% in 2018.
In the 1980s, the U.S. Army provided night school remedial courses to raise the basic reading, writing, and math skills of a cohort of sergeants and soldiers recruited at a lower basic skills standard in the 1970s. The Basic Skills Education Program (BSEP) remains to this day, helping compensate for the deplorable state of our public K-12 system. The military that won the Cold War and steamrolled the Iraqi army in Desert Storm was far more than a decade in the making.
In this context, Afghan National Army units should have been on track after 20 years of development. Leave aside the issues of short-term assignments of American training teams, basic pay issues, and literacy challenges. Rushing forward, over and over again, helped set up the basic Afghan army units for mediocrity at best, and rapid failure when faced with determined attackers. All of this might have been overcome with a bit more long-term thinking and assignments of U.S. training forces.
Remember, though, that professionals talk logistics. The U.S. military leadership took the easy way, and the way that put dollars in defense contracting companies’ pockets. They built an Afghan army and air force dependent on foreign contractors for supply and maintenance. Perhaps this was part of coercing our political leadership to keep the occupation going for decades. Perhaps it started as an expedient and became normal.
Regardless of intent, the results were snowballing failures, starting early this summer with a competent corps of Afghan pilots steadily taken out of the fight by grounded equipment. This left the highly effective and motivated Afghan National Commando Corps without essential air support. NBC News laid out this foreseeable disaster early in June:
Without the contractors’ help, Afghan forces will no longer be able to keep dozens of fighter planes, cargo aircraft, U.S.-made helicopters and drones flying for more than a few more months, according to military experts and a recent Defense Department inspector general’s report.
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction called out this issue in its April 2020 quarterly report to Congress:
On March 13, the commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, General Austin Scott Miller, warned that a U.S. withdrawal would leave the Afghan security forces without vital support, especially for its air force, which relies on contractors to maintain its planes and helicopters.
Suppose that we went a sustainable route, and built an Afghan force entirely equipped with Soviet-style equipment, with Russian and former Soviet state suppliers providing equipment and parts over the northern border, where the Pakistanis could not interdict on behalf of their foreign legion, the Taliban. Still, the Afghan military would need a competent, loyal system of staffs above small unit level, and organic intelligence service able to out collect and analyze actionable information on the Taliban faster than Pakistan’s ISI informs Taliban plans and operations.
Building effective staffs means developing teams able to process information about both their own forces and enemy forces, to provide commanders with timely, feasible recommendations. Without competent staffs, commanders can issue orders but cannot effectively control their units. Even in the U.S. military, this competency has been hard to achieve and sustain. Realistic recommendations, hard news, and agile planning run into zero-defect environments, blame avoidance, and centralized decision-making.
Growing a competent intelligence system in Afghanistan, without remote collection assets warning of moves starting in Pakistan, required assets in every province and town prepared to communicate securely with Kabul or with military headquarters in their region. The past month shows the most sophisticated intelligence community in the world can be fooled. Pakistan and the Taliban got intelligence operations right. We apparently left the Afghans dependent on U.S. agencies and assets.
Afghanistan was not foredoomed. Think carefully through claims, no matter the source, testing them against our own history. We must learn real lessons for the future, because war is still interested in us.Published in