Designed Disaster: US Military Model Afghan Army

 

LogisticsTake 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 Military
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  1. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    What would it have taken for the withdrawal not to have been doomed?  Twenty years of training Afghani logistics and maintenance officers?  Leaving the US-paid contractors in?  Funding the ANA in perpetuity? 

    • #1
  2. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    I have a post I’m working on, the gist of which is that we either spent 19 years too many for one mission, or 80 years too few for another.  As it is, we spent 20 years on no mission.

    • #2
  3. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    Flicker (View Comment):

    What would it have taken for the withdrawal not to have been doomed? Twenty years of training Afghani logistics and maintenance officers? Leaving the US-paid contractors in? Funding the ANA in perpetuity?

    None of the above. This will become a separate post, but we willfully blindly misdesigned the force. They needed something like a 1940/1950s dismounted infantry National Guard, with the elite commando force backed by Soviet design HINDs, for which there was apparently some native maintainence expertise, and for which parts and major assemblies could be purchased and moved over the northern border, free from Pakistan/ Taliban interference.

    • #3
  4. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):

    Flicker (View Comment):

    What would it have taken for the withdrawal not to have been doomed? Twenty years of training Afghani logistics and maintenance officers? Leaving the US-paid contractors in? Funding the ANA in perpetuity?

    None of the above. This will become a separate post, but we willfully blindly misdesigned the force. They needed something like a 1940/1950s dismounted infantry National Guard, with the elite commando force backed by Soviet design HINDs, for which there was apparently some native maintainence expertise, and for which parts and major assemblies could be purchased and moved over the northern border, free from Pakistan/ Taliban interference.

    So it was doomed from the start.

    • #4
  5. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    Flicker (View Comment):

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):

    Flicker (View Comment):

    What would it have taken for the withdrawal not to have been doomed? Twenty years of training Afghani logistics and maintenance officers? Leaving the US-paid contractors in? Funding the ANA in perpetuity?

    None of the above. This will become a separate post, but we willfully blindly misdesigned the force. They needed something like a 1940/1950s dismounted infantry National Guard, with the elite commando force backed by Soviet design HINDs, for which there was apparently some native maintainence expertise, and for which parts and major assemblies could be purchased and moved over the northern border, free from Pakistan/ Taliban interference.

    So it was doomed from the start.

    No. Unless we concede our national security apparatus, presidents, and Congress are incapable of resisting pork barrel spending in the false name of national security.

    • #5
  6. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):

    Flicker (View Comment):

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):

    Flicker (View Comment):

    What would it have taken for the withdrawal not to have been doomed? Twenty years of training Afghani logistics and maintenance officers? Leaving the US-paid contractors in? Funding the ANA in perpetuity?

    None of the above. This will become a separate post, but we willfully blindly misdesigned the force. They needed something like a 1940/1950s dismounted infantry National Guard, with the elite commando force backed by Soviet design HINDs, for which there was apparently some native maintainence expertise, and for which parts and major assemblies could be purchased and moved over the northern border, free from Pakistan/ Taliban interference.

    So it was doomed from the start.

    No. Unless we concede our national security apparatus, presidents, and Congress are incapable of resisting pork barrel spending in the false name of national security.

    Not to take away from your future post, but would this have been a cooperative effort with Russia?

    • #6
  7. Ekosj Member
    Ekosj
    @Ekosj

    So…why have the alleged professionals in the US ever attacked the Taliban’s logistical tail?   Nobody learned the lessons of Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh trail?

    • #7
  8. DaveSchmidt Coolidge
    DaveSchmidt
    @DaveSchmidt

    BDB (View Comment):

    I have a post I’m working on, the gist of which is that we either spent 19 years too many for one mission, or 80 years too few for another. As it is, we spent 20 years on no mission.

    Really looking forward to what you have to say.  The thesis is very intriguing.  

    • #8
  9. navyjag Coolidge
    navyjag
    @navyjag

    Ekosj (View Comment):

    So…why have the alleged professionals in the US ever attacked the Taliban’s logistical tail? Nobody learned the lessons of Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh trail?

    Good question Ek.  As an old carrier guy I asked myself, did the USAF run out of napalm?

    • #9
  10. cdor Member
    cdor
    @cdor

    Thanks for the education, Clifford. From our (the USA) perspective, one very large problem is also what makes us who we are, it’s in our DNA, it’s our Democratic Republic, and it’s called politics and elections. It seems that we no longer have unlimited time to build another nation’s army. We needed to be way smarter. But even more, I believe, we needed a way more motivated student. It’s really difficult for me to wrap my head around the uneducated population when I see us training them to fight an equally uneducated population that seems quite capable of fighting like banshees. Our side of Afghanistan can’t do surveillance and reconnaissance but the other side of Afghanistan does that very capably.  

    I don’t know, Clifford. I am still asking myself “WHY?” Our hubris has bitten us in the backside and the haters amongst us are exposing the teeth marks to the world…and loving it!

    • #10
  11. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    When plans can’t contain politically unacceptible elements and when senior commanders are selected on the basis of their willingness to conform to political winds the result will be somewhere between the rout at first Bull Run and the Bay of Pigs. I think the current top bunch leans more to the latter.

    And no one will be fired because POTUS is the worst of the bunch and has no standing to hold anyone else accountable. 

    • #11
  12. ToryWarWriter Thatcher
    ToryWarWriter
    @ToryWarWriter

    But building such an army wouldnt let the corrupt steal.  So we never could do that.

    I agree building an army based on native lines was necessary.

    But we had an army that one officer said, if you got rid of all the druggies, you would lose 85 percent of the army.

    • #12
  13. Rodin Member
    Rodin
    @Rodin

    I will be interested in the follow-on post. You build an army to meet first a generalized threat and then a set of specific threats. The generalized threat is your neighbors or anyone capable of invading you. But building an army to fight China or Russia (or maybe even Pakistan or Iran)  in a fixed formation sort of way was never in the cards. So the basic goal needed to be the Taliban. As I understand it, the Taliban fought in a fairly predictable “war season” and thus there was plenty of time to prepare. Laura Logan makes a point that the Taliban leadership would retreat to Pakistan outside of “war season” an enjoy ISI protection. I wonder what tactics an Afghani military could have developed to punish the ISI for their protection? The US could have but chose not to. Laura Logan suggests that the Deep State has its own reasons which really should be the analysis of the Afghanistan conflict.

    • #13
  14. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):
    This will become a separate post, but we willfully blindly misdesigned the force. They needed something like a 1940/1950s dismounted infantry National Guard, with the elite commando force backed by Soviet design HINDs, for which there was apparently some native maintainence expertise, and for which parts and major assemblies could be purchased and moved over the northern border, free from Pakistan/ Taliban interference.

    First, I would not also forget that we gave/sold them light attack aircraft – designed for the role of close air support and well within the technological capabilities of Afghanistan to maintain and fly.

    Addressing the Col’s point about the force being misdesigned – It doesn’t matter how well the force is designed if the upper leadership (field grade and above) are corrupt and use the military as a way to enrich themselves. The ghost soldier problem, stealing and selling equipment and supplies (including soldier food and pay) have plagued Afghanistan for years. That problem steals present-day readiness and rots the morale of the force and there is no overcoming it.

    • #14
  15. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    Instugator (View Comment):

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):
    This will become a separate post, but we willfully blindly misdesigned the force. They needed something like a 1940/1950s dismounted infantry National Guard, with the elite commando force backed by Soviet design HINDs, for which there was apparently some native maintainence expertise, and for which parts and major assemblies could be purchased and moved over the northern border, free from Pakistan/ Taliban interference.

    First, I would not also forget that we gave/sold them light attack aircraft – designed for the role of close air support and well within the technological capabilities of Afghanistan to maintain and fly.

    Sadly, attack aircraft maintenance is not well within the technological capabilities of Afghanistan:

     The nascent service still relies heavily on U.S.-provided contractor logistics support, including a complete reliance for parts supply and technical support. One hundred percent of C-130 and UH-60A maintenance is done by contractors, along with 80 percent for the MD-530 fleet and 70 percent for the A-29 fleet.

    The only airframe the Afghan force does a majority of the maintenance on is the Russian-made Mi-17, with 95 percent of the wrench-turning done by Afghans. The AAF, however, has no ability to do a full overhaul of the aircraft, which is required every 2,000 hours, so the service is flying off the remaining hours as they transition to UH-60s, the report states.

     

    • #15
  16. ToryWarWriter Thatcher
    ToryWarWriter
    @ToryWarWriter

    Instugator (View Comment):

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):
    This will become a separate post, but we willfully blindly misdesigned the force. They needed something like a 1940/1950s dismounted infantry National Guard, with the elite commando force backed by Soviet design HINDs, for which there was apparently some native maintainence expertise, and for which parts and major assemblies could be purchased and moved over the northern border, free from Pakistan/ Taliban interference.

    First, I would not also forget that we gave/sold them light attack aircraft – designed for the role of close air support and well within the technological capabilities of Afghanistan to maintain and fly.

    Addressing the Col’s point about the force being misdesigned – It doesn’t matter how well the force is designed if the upper leadership (field grade and above) are corrupt and use the military as a way to enrich themselves. The ghost soldier problem, stealing and selling equipment and supplies (including soldier food and pay) have plagued Afghanistan for years. That problem steals present-day readiness and rots the morale of the force and there is no overcoming it.

    I was listening to an army officer talk about how at division HQ the Americans would go armed, but the Afghans were not.  Cause they couldnt trust the NA troops from mutinying and killing the division commanders.  This was DIVISION HQ.

    • #16
  17. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    ToryWarWriter (View Comment):
    I was listening to an army officer talk about how at division HQ the Americans would go armed, but the Afghans were not.  Cause they couldnt trust the NA troops from mutinying and killing the division commanders.  This was DIVISION HQ.

    It was called “Sudden Jihad Syndrome” and reported in the US as a Green on Blue incident. They were unarmed because we couldn’t trust them.

    • #17
  18. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Flicker (View Comment):
    What would it have taken for the withdrawal not to have been doomed?

    @Flicker, the answer to your question is that we should never have tried to build them up at all.  They deserve nothing but punishment and we should have only punished them quite severely and then left.

    If we were to stay in Afghanistan, the only purpose would be to stage an attack, either threatened or real, on Iran.

    In the end, even now, Afghans lose the war because they stay in Afghanistan.  Everyone who tries defeats them, and then leaves because there is no reason for human beings to live there.  The losers have to stay there and live a barely human existence.

    Fully half of my battalion was tasked with training the Afghan police and military.  The recruits, or conscripts, did not know how to wear boots, or tie shoes, and most had never been in a truck before and we had to train some of them to be truck drivers.  Anyone thinking that such an army could ever be effective needs their heads examined.

    • #18
  19. cdor Member
    cdor
    @cdor

    Rodin (View Comment):

    I will be interested in the follow-on post. You build an army to meet first a generalized threat and then a set of specific threats. The generalized threat is your neighbors or anyone capable of invading you. But building an army to fight China or Russia (or maybe even Pakistan or Iran) in a fixed formation sort of way was never in the cards. So the basic goal needed to be the Taliban. As I understand it, the Taliban fought in a fairly predictable “war season” and thus there was plenty of time to prepare. Laura Logan makes a point that the Taliban leadership would retreat to Pakistan outside of “war season” an enjoy ISI protection. I wonder what tactics an Afghani military could have developed to punish the ISI for their protection? The US could have but chose not to. Laura Logan suggests that the Deep State has its own reasons which really should be the analysis of the Afghanistan conflict.

    I understand that Pakistan has nuclear weapons. But they are supposed to be our ally. We have, in the past, fed billions of dollars to them. I believe Trump either cut it off or put the flow of cash on pause. So the Pakistanis take money from us and turn around and support, with arms and protection, our enemy, the Taliban. This makes perfect sense if you are an inbred bureaucrat in the State Department.

    • #19
  20. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    cdor (View Comment):

    Rodin (View Comment):

    I will be interested in the follow-on post. You build an army to meet first a generalized threat and then a set of specific threats. The generalized threat is your neighbors or anyone capable of invading you. But building an army to fight China or Russia (or maybe even Pakistan or Iran) in a fixed formation sort of way was never in the cards. So the basic goal needed to be the Taliban. As I understand it, the Taliban fought in a fairly predictable “war season” and thus there was plenty of time to prepare. Laura Logan makes a point that the Taliban leadership would retreat to Pakistan outside of “war season” an enjoy ISI protection. I wonder what tactics an Afghani military could have developed to punish the ISI for their protection? The US could have but chose not to. Laura Logan suggests that the Deep State has its own reasons which really should be the analysis of the Afghanistan conflict.

    I understand that Pakistan has nuclear weapons. But they are supposed to be our ally. We have, in the past, fed billions of dollars to them. I believe Trump either cut it off or put the flow of cash on pause. So the Pakistanis take money from us and turn around and support, with arms and protection, our enemy, the Taliban. This makes perfect sense if you are an inbred bureaucrat in the State Department.

    I suspect this is not the case, but I don’t have any official word.  Pakistan government lost control of the north of their country to the Taliban and Al Qaeda 15 years ago.  The official government has nominal control of only about a third of their supposed country.

     

    • #20
  21. cdor Member
    cdor
    @cdor

    Skyler (View Comment):

    cdor (View Comment):

    Rodin (View Comment):

    I will be interested in the follow-on post. You build an army to meet first a generalized threat and then a set of specific threats. The generalized threat is your neighbors or anyone capable of invading you. But building an army to fight China or Russia (or maybe even Pakistan or Iran) in a fixed formation sort of way was never in the cards. So the basic goal needed to be the Taliban. As I understand it, the Taliban fought in a fairly predictable “war season” and thus there was plenty of time to prepare. Laura Logan makes a point that the Taliban leadership would retreat to Pakistan outside of “war season” an enjoy ISI protection. I wonder what tactics an Afghani military could have developed to punish the ISI for their protection? The US could have but chose not to. Laura Logan suggests that the Deep State has its own reasons which really should be the analysis of the Afghanistan conflict.

    I understand that Pakistan has nuclear weapons. But they are supposed to be our ally. We have, in the past, fed billions of dollars to them. I believe Trump either cut it off or put the flow of cash on pause. So the Pakistanis take money from us and turn around and support, with arms and protection, our enemy, the Taliban. This makes perfect sense if you are an inbred bureaucrat in the State Department.

    I suspect this is not the case, but I don’t have any official word. Pakistan government lost control of the north of their country to the Taliban and Al Qaeda 15 years ago. The official government has nominal control of only about a third of their supposed country.

     

    There’s always more to the story.

    • #21
  22. Quietpi Member
    Quietpi
    @Quietpi

    Ekosj (View Comment):

    So…why have the alleged professionals in the US ever attacked the Taliban’s logistical tail? Nobody learned the lessons of Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh trail?

    Well, they did, to some extent, where there were stockpiles of supplies, etc.  But a problem with a conventional army trying to fight a largely guerrilla army is that the latter have very little tail at all, and what there is, is difficult to detect and interdict.  When a normally guerrilla army decided to stand and fight conventionally, they will be decimated by an even mediocre conventional force.  That happens every time it’s tried.  

    • #22
  23. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    cdor (View Comment):
    I understand that Pakistan has nuclear weapons. But they are supposed to be our ally.

    We (those of us who do military planning stuff) only use the term “Ally” to denote those countries with which we have a treaty or other formal obligation to defend.

    Countries/ groups that we work with to achieve limited objectives and with whom we do not have such an obligation are known as a “Partner” and then only in the context of the shared objectives.

    Pakistan is not an ally and is a very unreliable partner. Pakistan and China are why we are cultivating a partnership with India.

    • #23
  24. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    Pakistan is a “Frenemy”.

    • #24