Afghan Forces Good Enough

Afghan War Now More Dangerous Than Ever

The forces that are supposed to defend the Afghan people may be doing more harm than good.

If you’re part of the Noble Order of White Helpfulness, or you’re in Afghanistan as part of Uncle Same’s COINerific Interventiongasm, you have definite feelings about helicopters. They’re either your ride because you’re walking around under your own power and there’s no way anyone would let you drive on the roads here. Or they’re your ride because it’s 2015 and the US embassy won’t let its staff drive to the airport. Or they’re your ride because you drove on the roads here and you played “MRAP vs. IED” and lost. Or they’re about to bring all kind of high explosive hate to bear on those who are trying to shoot you in the face, and you feel pretty good about that.

Your feelings about rotary wing transport get a little more ambivalent if you live in Kabul. Since all the helicopters in this some seem intent on scraping the top ff the Kabul Star hotel, rattling the windows of the mere mortals who live under their flight paths. And if you’re an Afghan living outside of Kabul, where the insurgency still holds sway, you feel more strongly about helicopters.

That’s because the chances of one of them accidentally shooting you or your family instead of the bad guys are pretty good, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and their latest report on civilian casualties in the graveyard of counterinsurgencies. So if you’re unlucky enough to be at home when Afghan troops and insurgents mix it up, you’re likely to take rounds from an Afghan gunship.

Or have your living room remodeled by Afghan artillery. Or have your kitchen turned into an open air grilling experience by an errant drone strike. Or give French doctors a chance at pulling a bullet out of your kid’s head because the ANA are lousy shots.

From the video: French military medics have saved the life of a ten year old Afghan girl who was shot in the head following a battle with the Taliban. The incident happened at her home in Tagab, in Kapisa Province north of Kabul.

At :20 in the video, the translation reads: “The fight was between the Taliban and the Afghan Army in the next village.”

At :59, the French doctor pulls the bullet out, and says: “This was the bullet, a five, fifty-six caliber.”

Which is a standard round for an M-16. Which the Afghan army carries. So let’s be less excited about this. You saved a kid your allies shot.

What the UNAMA report points out in stark detail is that it’s getting less and less safe for Afghan civilians as the war drags on, that ever since the Afghans assumed responsibility for the country’s security, they’ve actually made it worse, not better. Which isn’t the best way to achieve long term stability.

We need an air force

There comes a time in every army’s life when all they want is more airpower. Once they discover that someone can drop high explosives on someone else on their behalf, they find it difficult to do anything but call in what’s known as close air support, or CAS. The Americans fight this way, and in their infinite wisdom, they taught their reliance on airpower to the Afghans. Which was fine, because the Afghans were getting an air force, too.

It was a simple plan, really: stay here long enough to rebuild both the Afghan Air Force (AAF) and Afghan ground forces, and make sure that both of them could fight off an insurgency that has so far refused to buy into NATO press releases that it’s on its last legs. By the time the Americans were ready to leave, they would have seen the rebirth of Afghan fighting forces, and there would be enough planes flying around with Aghan pilots that everything would be fine.

Except that getting planes for the Afghans turned into the kind of political football one comes to expect when there are American jobs and therefore American votes at stake. The planned airframe, a combat-proven product being built by a Brazilian company in the United States in partnership with an American defense contractor, was the Embraer A-29 Super Tucano. Even though it had been in use in multiple counterinsurgency (COIN) environments before, and was just what the Afghans needed to rebuild an air force that was mostly scattered around Shindand at the time, the contract award was contested.

That protest came from an American company, Beechcraft, that thought its own T-6 Texan trainer, which they were developing as an armed platform, should have won. So the contract went into dispute, went out for bid again, and the Tucano ended up winning the second time around. As a result, everything in the Tucano pipeline was delayed: building aircraft, training pilots to fly them, and then training those pilots how to avoid killing their own troops. Or Afghan civilians.

In Afghanistan in 2015, instead of 20 Tucanos ready to take the fight to the enemy, there are none, and the few that have been built are still in the United States, where Afghan pilots are being trained to fly an airframe that’s totally foreign to them. So the first actual deployment of Afghan A-29s in Afghanistan isn’t likely to occur until sometime next year.

None of which is a real challenge, if the United States were looking at the Afghan conflict as a series of milestones, rather than dates on a calendar. But the Americans didn’t take that approach, and by such and such a date it would need to look like we were winning, so that Obama could declare that he (and his party) were in charge when the US ended two wars. Regardless of whether those wars were done, or whether the countries hosting those interventions were stable enough to continue without an American presence, or whether it was all just one big public relations wet dream, Afghanistan is going in the win column.

Where the Americans went wrong was putting enough airpower alternatives in place before turning the country’s security over to Afghan forces. Because you don’t need drones, helicopters, and jet fighters raining death from above on the enemy. You can do the same thing with mortars and towed artillery. It just won’t look as cool, and given the road conditions in much of the country, it’s going to be tougher to do, but it’s not impossible.

Mangum, P.I. Opening

Since waiting for the Tucanos to arrive is going to take too much time, the Americans have opted for another solution, and that’s arming the MD-530 helicopters the Afghans have used in pilot training. The MD-530 looks a lot like the helicopter T.C. flew in Magnum, P.I., and it’s essentially the same airframe. The only difference between that unarmed version and the interim aircraft the Afghans are getting is a bit more armor and some additional .50 caliber machine guns.

AAF takes delivery of armed Cayuse Warrior

Which means that an inexperienced air force that’s never really had to deal with the intricacies of firing on a ground target from the air is now going to be responsible for taking on targets in a counterinsurgency. And since insurgents aren’t terribly selective about where they fight, the civilian population is going to be at even greater risk than if the aerial fires were being delivered by a better trained, more experienced American pilot. Or at least an Afghan pilot who’s had a lot more practice at making sure the bullets go where they’re supposed to go.

April 2015, AAF Gunnery

This is an arrangement that’s a win-win-lose: it’s a win for the Americans, who supply the Afghans with more technical support for these upgraded helicopters. It’s a win for Afghan forces, who get the kind of airpower they’d like to have on the battlefield, and don’t have to wait years for the Tucanos to arrive. And it’s a great big lose for Afghan civilians, because inexperienced pilots who care a lot less about who they shoot don’t seem to care whether they hit the homes of Afghan non-combatants.

Don’t lead the houses so much

Which is what the United Nationa Assistance Mission Afghanistan (UNAMA) found in its most recent report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Released in August, overall the report is pretty dismal: more Afghans are being wounded and killed by the war than ever before. It’s a number that’s been on the rise for years, a trend that shows no signs of reversing itself. And it’s only gotten worse since the Afghans assumed full responsibility for security in the country.

What UNAMA found was that for the period from January to June of 2015, the number of casualties caused by air strikes was up 88% over the same period last year. For the first time those figures included casualties caused by the AAF, but casualties caused by foreign air forces were also up by 23%. Which means that even though the Americans are making far fewer flights over Afghanistan since the end of last year, civilians are still very much at risk from death from above.

Many of those airstrike casualties came from drone strikes against terrorist targets. Of course anytime a drone drops a Hellfire on someone’s head, the claim is going to be that said Hellfire only kills insurgents, and anyone else who happened to die as a result probably did something bad anyway, or was about to do something bad, or would one day grow up and start the Afghan version of Code Pink and hates freedom. There are times when drones are pressed into the close air support role, but most of the time they’re making a strike on their own. Against insurgents (or terrorists…I know, they all sound the same) in a location relatively far from Afghan troops.

So where are the other airstrike deaths coming from? When Afghan troops are fighting insurgents in what UNAMA terms “ground engagements,” which sounds like parts of the earth would like very much to get married. Or a hill is asking a dale over for a nice cup of tea. Instead of the bloodletting chaos that is the actual result of two opposing viewpoints being expressed through the liberal application of gunfire.

“Between 1 January and 30 June 2015, UNAMA documented 28 civilian casualties (five deaths and 23 injured) in 10 separate incidents of aerial operations carried out by the Afghan Air Force (AAF).”

When Afghan troops and insurgents fight, civilians are more likely to be killed or wounded by their own soldiers than the enemy they’re fighting. In ground engagements, UNAMA found that 37% of the time Afghan troops killed or wounded civilians, compared with 32% of the time for insurgents. Which is close, but it still means your troops are more dangerous than the enemy. And things don’t improve when looking at the use of what the Afghans termed “heavy weapons, either.

Afghan national security forces continued to use indirect weapons (mortars, rockets, grenades, artillery) resulting in significant harm to civilians. The counter-offensives launched by Afghan national security forces relied on the use of mortars, rockets, grenades, artillery, and armed helicopters, often resulting in significant numbers of civilian casualties.

Granted, when extrapolated outside of ground engagements, insurgent groups are more likely to wound or kill an Afghan civilian than are Afghan troops. That’s taking into account the improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the most common of which are detonated via pressure plate. That means that there isn’t someone watch that IED waiting for a target and then setting it off with a cellphone or other triggering device. That means whoever drives over it or steps on it is going to suffer the consequences of a terribly poor life choice, and as such they are fairly indiscriminatory. [footnote]”Although civilian casualties from IEDs decreased overall, Anti-Government Elements increasingly used illegal pressure-plate IEDs as a defensive weapon to slow or prevent the advancement of Afghan national security forces before, during, and after ground engagements, driving an increase in civilian casualties from this type of IED.”[/footnote]

And since foreign forces predominantly travel in well-armored vehicles on those rare occasions when they do venture out onto Afghan roadways, the most likely victims of an IED are either going to be Afghan civilians, or Afghan security forces driving non-armored pickup trucks. So a pressure plate IED is nothing more than a weapon of terror.

Arguing that the insurgents still kill more people than Afghan forces ignores the fact that Afghan troops are there, ostensibly, to protect the Afghan people. That Afghan civilians should reasonably expect that when those troops take on the Taliban and their ilk, that the utmost care would be taken to ensure their health and safety. But that’s not the case.

Standards are overrated

Part of that stems from the pace of Operation Ready or Not, aka Operation Enduring Freedom, which was meant to leave behind a well-trained, well-equipped, professional fighting force. But due to constraints put in place by political considerations to end the American involvement completely by 2016, the military that’s currently fighting on behalf of the graveyard of measurable milestones can barely hold its own against an active and aggressive enemy. And so it takes less care than it should with the lives of their fellow Afghans.

It’s easy enough to write that off to a lack of training and experience, but part of the reason is also a cultural one: for a Tajik fighting Pashtuns in Nangarhar, he’s not battling for his homeland. He’s hoping to get back home to whatever part of Afghanistan he’s from where being Tajik is super cool. Instead of being in whatever hellhole he finds himself, where he can’t speak the language, and the local dude he’s supposed to protect when the bullets start flying don’t speak his language either.

While the Western viewpoint is of nationalistic fervor, a concept fueled by American public affairs soundbites from the Afghan army, the reality is that differing ethnic groups are intentionally assigned to places where they’re not from to ensure that they’ll take the fight to the enemy. That’s less true of the police forces, particularly the Afghan Uniformed Police (AUP), which tends to be local and therefore less prone to shooting people they know are neighbors.

As a result, the finer points of Afghan unity are going to be lost on a soldier fighting for people he doesn’t understand for reasons no one explained to him, and he’s going to be less concerned with how much damage he’s going to do once he fires off that artillery round. Which according to UNAMA is one of the main causes for civilian casualties during ground engagements. Weapons like the 122mm D-30 howitzer can be terribly accurate. If they’re aimed properly. And you’re the sort of person who knows that you might have level that compound while leaving the school next to it intact.

What’s unfortunate is that trying to minimize casualties is not something that’s institutionalized at the highest levels of Afghan army leadership. In June, the Afghan Chief of Army Staff, Qadam Shah Shaheem, had this to say:

“There is no more restriction on you to use artilleries against the enemies. You are no longer prevented from conducting night raids. And you will no longer be punished and prosecuted for your sacrifices.”

That’s not the kind of thing one says to troops if one cares at all about making sure no one’s blowing up houses unduly. And is probably one of the motivations (along with the UNAMA report) behind Ghani’s telling the military that they needed to work on not killing so many civilians.

This is what happens when you politicize a war, when the agendas of elected officials trump the objectives of the profession of arms. You end up with an army that’s not read to fight on its own, and very much not ready to do that fighting while taking into account the health and safety of the civilian population. And it’s not ready to think about itself as a national force, so much as a group of differing ethnic groups thrown together to protect a country most of them barely understand.

That’s not true for its senior officers and enlisted personnel, some of whom have been trained at foreign military academies, and understand national interests quite well. But the soldiers who are dying and going AWOL in record numbers, those troops are barely literate if they can read at all, and what they understand is that they’re being asked to protect people they can’t even talk to.

Nationalism: ‘murcan as hell

A Tajik farm kid faced with a Pashtun farm kid is just as foreign as an American in that situation. True, when it comes down to it, the Tajik and the Pashtun will unite against a common enemy, but it’s not like the Taliban aren’t from around here. They’re a lot more local than that Tajik in Nangarhar.

It’s 1, 2, 3, what are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Mehtar Lam!

My apologies to Country Joe and the Fish.

It’s an underlying philosophical challenge that the Americans deal with very poorly: rather than accepting intra-national realities and aligning fighting forces accordingly, the US and other coalition nations worked very hard to make sure that all ethnic groups were proportionately represented within the Afghan security forces. In 2011 then Maj. Gen. William Caldwell’s NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan (NTM-A) command went so far as to designate some groups as being Pashtun to improve that recruiting demographic. Even though those particular tribal groups hadn’t been anywhere near the heart of the insurgency for decades. Which was the point: to show that southern Pashtuns were joining the army. They were not.

Rather than enforcing the artificial mixing of different groups in tribal desegregation efforts, what NATO and the Americans should have done is align regional Afghan commands along ethnic lines. While this runs the risk of those groups rising up and taking over parts of the country for themselves, that’s going to happen no matter what the foreigners do, if people like Atta Noor, Ismail Khan, Rashid Dostum, and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf are so inclined.

The most likely outcome? Afghan forces making treaties with their Taliban counterparts, as reportedly happened in the Pech valley as soon as the Americans left. And that’s with Afghan troops still operating under the current artificial desegregation model. Rather than being forced to pursue the objectives of a centralized government that’s out of touch with just about everything outside the Emerald City, local actors on both sides of the conflict would have come to agreements much more quickly.

Because at that point it’s your neighbors you’re shooting. Granted, there’s going to be those foreign fighters from Pakistan and elsewhere to contend with, but uniformed Afghan troops are going to be much more careful about what they’re firing on if they know the people that live there. That’s not something that’s going to happen when the army speaks Dari and the locals speak Pashto.

It’s a simplified approach that runs the risk of going full Gant and getting all tribal and shit, but what’s worked in the past in this country is activity that’s focused at the local level. Pragmatism trumps ideology whenever the bosses are back in Quetta or Kabul, and it’s just a couple of farm boys trying to figure out how to not die.

That doesn’t mean that peace is going to break out just because both dudes happen to be from the same backwater in Kandahar. What it does mean is that maybe a few less Afghan civilians die because before you fire that round out of that D-30, you know whose house might get leveled as a result. Or before you pull the trigger on those .50 caliber gun pods, you know the farmers in the next field over that might get shot as a result. And maybe that’s good enough to make your part of the war a little safer for all those Afghans that just want to be left alone.

Instead of citing how many people have cellphones, or have access to electricity, how about we look at reducing the number of civilians being killed by Afghan troops? Seems like a reasonable starting point. And instead of an ethereal rebuilding effort, we look at expanding what few secure zones exist in the country Regionalize the fighting forces. Build up the air force with foreign troops instead of inexperienced trigger happy Afghan pilots.

What the UNAMA report underscores is that Afghan forces aren’t ready to defend this country on their own. The solution isn’t more airpower, because with what they have they’re already more dangerous to their fellow Afghans than the insurgents. The answer is a long term commitment to the continued professionalization of the force. A commitment not based on a timeline, but with clear milestones that mean things are actually better. Then maybe we can all come in for the big win.


Also published on Medium.