KANDAHAR, Afghanistan | When nearly 60 tribal leaders gathered in a Taliban stronghold here recently to discuss mounting security challenges, U.S. military commanders and staff listened attentively, but there were no representatives from Afghan security forces.
“What government do we have?” asked Mohammed Nabi, a malik, or tribal leader, from the Kandahar region who acknowledged he was a Taliban sympathizer. “The only faces I see here are men from another country wearing uniforms like the Russians. We are left to fend for ourselves, protect ourselves, and there is no one here from Kabul who cares.”
President Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan relies heavily on increasing the quality and quantity of Afghanistan’s army and police. But eight years after the overthrow of the Taliban, the nearly 120,000-member Afghan National Security Forces remains a work in progress. Some U.S. troops are skeptical that the locals will ever be able to step up and defend the Afghan people by themselves.
• Afghanistan: Click to view chart of invasions (from 1500 B.C. to 2009), and breakdowns of ethnicity and religion.
During October, when a record 59 American troops were killed in Afghanistan, a reporter and photographer for The Washington Times visited southern Afghanistan and found no Afghan army units fighting alongside or otherwise aiding U.S. troops in the Maywand or Arghandab Valley regions. On several occasions, the Afghan army and police failed to show, forcing missions to be postponed because the Americans are required to have Afghan escorts before entering Afghan homes.
Some Afghan army personnel were observed training, however, at Kandahar airfield.
“Where are they?” asked a U.S. military official who spoke on the condition that he not be named because of the political sensitivity of the subject. “Were out here fighting, and there isnt one Afghan face in the mix fighting alongside us. All the Afghan people see is our face, and that doesnt give them much hope that their government is behind them in this fight. We need to put their face at the forefront.”
• TEXT: President Obama’s speech at West Point.
Army Spc. Brock McIntosh, an Illinois National Guard reservist who returned to the U.S. in August from a 10-month deployment in eastern Afghanistan, said that Afghan forces, even when they arrived, often “would just be following behind without actively participating” in missions.
“It’s important to have their face, the Afghan army face, in the fight,” he said. “It’s supposed to be their country, and the people need to see that. At the same time, we have a problem. I don’t think American troops will ever fully trust them or that they will ever fully trust us. That’s been a major problem.”
Occasional incidents in which Afghan soldiers or men wearing Afghan army uniforms have attacked U.S. and allied forces have not helped build that trust.
Col. Bjarne Michael Iverson, a former top aide to Central Command head Gen. David H. Petraeus, acknowledged the challenge of training the Afghans sufficiently to provide the exit strategy that Mr. Obama described in his speech Tuesday night.
“It’s going to be complex and difficult, and it’s going to take time,” said Col. Iverson, who is currently the Army fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
While Afghans “are known as good fighters,” he said, “what they don’t have is the structures you typically find in a military, such as battalions and command-and-control systems.”
In addition, the majority of the recruits are illiterate.
Asked whether it would be necessary to teach the Afghan troops how to read and write, Col. Iverson said they first need to “learn how to follow orders [and be] confident in their leaders. You start by teaching them the basics.”
Anthony Cordesman and Adam Mausner of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington wrote in a recent report about some improvements in training but said the Afghan army was still not capable of holding ground reclaimed from the Taliban.
“The key to success,” they wrote, “is not the quality of the training in training centers but the quality of partnering, mentoring, support and enablers once a unit enters service.”
They recommended that U.S. brigade combat teams be embedded “in each echelon of each [Afghan army] corps … to provide the expertise and enablers to carry out joint planning, intelligence, command-and-control capabilities, fire support [and] logistic expertise.”
Lt. Col. Jeffery French, a battalion commander in the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, based at Forward Operating Base Ramrod, told The Times that his battalion is working consistently with the Afghan army and police “through individual training [and] collective training, but combined operations are what we need.”
“It’s a very thinking enemy that adapts quickly to change,” he said. “They aren’t just a bunch of knuckleheads. What we need here is a consistent effort from the Afghan government as well. A strong presence of Afghan security forces in the region would be beneficial to the mission. We’re here, and that’s important as well. What we need is constant engagement and persistent security that includes the Afghans.”
A senior Pentagon official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named, said that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of the U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, is focusing on the need to “partner with the Afghan National Army and its commanders. Were all aware that there needs to be more focus on this and getting the Afghan people to see that their government is providing security for them as well. Otherwise, we may not be successful in stabilizing the country or stopping the extremists.”
Spc. McIntosh expressed doubt that Afghan security forces will be able to perform as the U.S. hopes in the foreseeable future.
“We have been in Afghanistan for eight years already,” he said. “There’s what, a little more than 100,000 [Afghan National Security Forces] members, and almost all still lack training and don’t do much. We cant get 100,000 to fight like us in eight years and now were going to get 400,000 to fight like us in less time than that? I just don’t think its going to happen.
“We think by putting more money and more troops is going to help,” he said. “I don’t believe that’s going to help at all.”
Barbara Slavin contributed to this report from Washington.