When an explosion rocked Kabul in late May, attention again was drawn to the state of the Afghan security forces. Spring ushers in the fighting season, and the Afghan National Army (ANA) has been losing ground; this is particularly true of the Pakistan border areas where the Pashtun tribal culture is strongest; it was the cradle of the Taliban and remains Taliban’s primary sanctuary. While the urban terror of the Kabul blast remains primarily a police responsibility, the army’s struggles remain a mystery to many Americans who wonder why the American trained ANA has trouble taking and holding ground against a poorly equipped non-state actor such as the Taliban after 15 years of American mentoring. The answer is logistics, or lack of it. We have failed to build a self-sustaining Afghan army.
It is true that the ANA has some deep institutional problems of leadership, including corruption and nepotism, but it is not the drug-addled mob that is depicted in the recent Brad Pitt movie “War Machine.” The Taliban have the same problems; that is why they are having such a hard time stemming ISIS incursions into some traditional Taliban strongholds.
We failed to build a logistics structure based around helicopter resupply in a country that has some of the most militarily challenging terrain in the world. Most resupply for Afghan troops comes from the major cities. Roads are poor to nonexistent and the only efficient way to resupply remote garrisons and operations is by air. We failed to build an Afghan air force capable of resupplying its army. There is an old military maxim that amateurs talk tactics while professionals talk logistics.
I saw this firsthand in Afghanistan in 2012. I was a civilian adviser to a remote district in the northwest that had a Taliban presence. Bala Murghab is one of the most remote spots in Afghanistan. The only reliable form of travel between our district and the provincial capital was by helicopter.
For four years the Italian army and U.S. Marine Corps special operations teams had worked hard to help the local ANA battalion and police to clear Taliban from the Murghab valley, and by the spring of 2012, we had comfortable security bubble where the civilians of our interagency District Support Team could try to help reform the local police and judiciary as well as to improve the district’s appalling 80 percent illiteracy rate.
We even had hopes of getting electricity in the district. We figured that, with two more years of work, we would be able to hand security over to total Afghan control. Then, disaster struck. In June 2012, we were informed that security of the district would be handed over to the Afghans in accordance with the Obama drawdown by September. No one in the local U.S. contingent had ever suggested that the district was ready for transition, but there was no appeal.
In a meeting of the District Security Council, the senior coalition military and civilian leaders with our Afghan partners reviewed the potential post-coalition military situation; it was bleak. We carefully estimated the Afghan battalion’s military and police logistic needs as opposed to the Afghan helicopter lift available. The numbers didn’t add up. Despite appeals for delays, we transitioned as ordered by the end of August. The result was predictable. Without the ability to supply their remote outposts, the Afghan army and police security bubble collapsed to the immediate perimeter of the district capital. This has happened exponentially in the rest of the country since 2012.
The current administration is contemplating a mini-surge in Afghanistan; it will probably be a mix of counterterrorism troops and trainers, but I would suggest that the trainers not be infantry advisers; in their own way, the Afghan soldiers know how to fight. The Afghans need people to train their mechanics and logistics personnel to keep their equipment running, and the need more helicopters. Our district’s pessimistic logistics estimate in 2012 was based on the assumption that the Afghans could keep their helicopters running at 60 percent availability this was inadequate. Actual helicopter readiness fell well short of even that modest goal.
We need to double the size of the Afghan helicopter fleet and improve its maintenance and logistics capability by an order of magnitude if the Afghan security forces are to be expected to hold territory or expand government control outside of the cities. We built an Afghan army that looked like ours without building a logistics capability to sustain it. We should rectify that mistake.
• Gary Anderson, a retired Marine Corps colonel, was a State Department civilian adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan.