It’s springtime in Afghanistan, which means the pundits have awakened from their winter slumber and the Taliban are in full bloom. It also means that the 101st Airborne Division has decided that the balmy weather is the perfect time to conduct a Combined Arms Live Fire Exercise (CALFEX). With their unarmed Afghan partners in the bleachers.
A small crowd of Afghan officers from the 201st Afghan National Army Corps joined the leaders of the Train, Advise, Assist, Command-East to observe the exercise from a hilltop.
Check out the gallery on the Tumblr (yeah, I’m bringing it back…I’ve missed it): tell me if you can find more than one Afghan soldier on the ground with the US troops. And what did the Americans hope to teach the Afghans by having them observe?
“Today we had a progression training timeline for the Afghans for them to actually see the exercises that we went through to prepare for this event. It is possible to go out and train during fighting season.”
Of course it’s possible, provided if:
- You’re not the force facing the Taliban every day
- You’re not facing unsustainable casualties
- You have more than enough air support for your forces on the ground
It’s less possible if well, you’re the Afghan Army. And the guardian angel looming right over the general’s shoulder is just icing on the COINerific cake. But it won’t always be like this.
Wednesday’s exercise is the first step in integrating ANA counterparts into the combined arms training. Future planning will allow the Afghan Soldiers to plan and conduct progressive training in preparation to conduct a partnered evolution.
“We’re gonna restart the training cycle and start it with the ANA, including every step to get to that point,” said Delosreyes.
It’s two thousand and fifteen. If we’re still at the point where the Afghans are incapable of conducting these kind of exercises on their own, or in coordination with their American partners, we’ve gone about this all wrong. Which we know, but sometimes it smarts a little to see it right in front of you like this.
I do see the value in this, though: it’s all about managing expectations. Making sure that training is sustainable. Which, based on the photo, the day’s training plan was probably, “Proper Use of Binoculars: Instruction and Practical Exercise.”
Instead of the photo op the Americans planned, what the article and gallery underscores is two things:
- Complete lack of preparedness by the Afghans to take on the Taliban alone
- After more than a decade of US/Afghan partnering, we don’t trust them around us with guns
I’m not saying that latter point isn’t a valid concern. So called “insider attacks” or “green on blue” incidents have decreased over the years both because there are fewer Americans working with Afghan security forces and the US has taken great pains to enact measures to counter that kind of thing.
Those attacks speak to significant infiltration of Afghan forces either by Taliban agents or by lone actors sympathetic to the Taliban cause. Either way, if you can’t win the hearts and minds of the force you’re pouring money into on a daily basis, it’s no wonder the rest of the population isn’t exactly thrilled with what the Americans are leaving behind.
For those of you reading this who think a CALFEX is something you’d rather not look up in the urban dictionary, or if you can get it over the counter, it’s generally the kind of thing you do to show off to the assorted gathered dignitaries. Because you’re combining a lot of moving parts (helicopters, troops, vehicles, machine guns) in a live fire, they’re pretty cool, and so they usually get an audience. If this were in the Philippines, that looks something like this. I picked this mainly so you can see US Marine officers desperately trying to avoid being seen standing under an umbrella to get out of the sun.
That’s what a CALFEX with a trusted partner looks like. I know, I know: the Philippines aren’t exactly a shining moment in American history, either.
To force information from a Filipino mayor believed to have been covertly helping insurgents, American soldiers resort to what they call the “water cure.” After tying the mayor’s hands behind his back and forcing him to lie beneath a large water tank, they pry his mouth open, hold it in place with a stick and then turn on the spigot. When his stomach is full to bursting, the soldiers begin pounding on it with their fists, stopping only after the water, now mixed with gastric juices, has poured from his mouth and nose. Then they turn on the spigot again. The technique, which was perfected during the Spanish Inquisition, produced in its victims the “simultaneous sensations of drowning and of being burned or cut as internal organs stretched and convulsed.”
So we did that. Which helps explain some of what is happening in Afghanistan in general and in particular in this CALFEX. International relations where an insurgency is involved take a long time to evolve. Growing a military capable of battling that insurgency on its own? Also takes a long time.
Now that it’s the 21st century, the Philippines once again faces an active insurgency. And once again American forces are involved in trying to help the government stamp that insurgency out. The difference is that this time we’re (hopefully) not torturing as many people, and we’re treating Manila as a partner, and not a second class citizen.
I am nothing if not an optimist.
Part of what’s infuriating about American involvement in Afghanistan is the amount of money that was pumped into this place so quickly. If we’d taken a longer view, saw Afghanistan as a 20-to-30 year problem in say, 1988 (off the top of my head), chances are pretty good this CALFEX would look a lot different. There’d be more Afghans involved, for one. And they’d probably be armed.
Even if we’d taken a similar long view post 9/11, gave thought to what we actually wanted to accomplish besides wack all the bad guys, things would look different. The Afghans would probably be at the same stage they are now, observing a CALFEX and trying to figure out how to do it during the Taliban’s latest spring offensive.
But they’d be at that stage knowing that the Americans were going to be willing and able to provide more support to counter that same offensive. They’d be at that stage with the confidence that comes with the might of the US military behind you. Instead they’re at that stage as the Americans are rapidly winding down Operation Ready or Not, also know as the transition of Afghanistan to Afghan control.
At least they know how to use binoculars.
Also published on Medium.