Spend enough time watching the Afghan National Army (ANA), and you learn that they’re good at a few things. On that list:
- Letting the Taliban steal their Humvees
- Not showing up for work
- Keeping imaginary soldiers on the books
What they’re not good at? Defending checkpoints. And trying to defend every last bit of territory in a country the size of Texas is a losing strategy. Which Afghan leadership would know, if they read their Frederick the Great, who said, “He who defends everything, defends nothing.” And if they picked up on Sun Tzu once in awhile, they’d know that “preparedness everywhere means lack everywhere.”
The Afghans are huge fans of keeping troops and cops on the checkpoints, because checkpoints are symbols of power. Or at least they are for local leaders, who see them as a sign to the populace that they’ve got some clout because look…troops. Except this strategy’s been one of the main causes for the high casualty rates suffered by the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) in 2015.
And the Americans pointed that out to Congress last December. The checkpoints were noted as a symptom of the Afghan focus on a defensive strategy: “In particular, the ANDSF reliance on static checkpoints detracts from their ability to resource a more offensive approach with sufficient manpower.” That was part of a larger critique that Afghan forces needed to focus on offensive versus defensive operations in order to be successful against the Taliban. Which was highlighted in a February report, when NATO spokesman Brigadier-General Wilson Shoffner went full Frederick Tzu, telling Reuters: “There’s an old military saying that if you defend everywhere you defend nowhere, and it’s very much true for them (Afghan security forces).”
Part of the problem with the checkpoints is the PR vortex that opens whenever it’s reported that one of them is overrun. Because your average reader of war journo panic porn doesn’t know the difference between a checkpoint and a FOB, there’s the tendency to think the Afghan forces are getting their asses handed to them. In reality a checkpoint’s manned by a handful of soldiers, and because they’re static as hell, they don’t have the option to run away.
At least in theory.
The Taliban, on the other hand, have the luxury of being able to attack in force with little fear of Afghan forces getting reinforcements. Because the ANDSF do not have the logistical wherewithal to provide enough support to all the checkpoints they’ve set up across the country. Add some Afghan Local Police (ALP) checkpoints into the mix, and it’s a nightmare of command and control.
Now it seems the ANDSF decided to give themselves a nice Nawroz present for the new year: they’re going to cut back on the number of checkpoints they defend. And mass their forces. And maybe go on the offensive now and then.
“We want to concentrate on our reserved forces who are able to carry out major offensives and attacks. In case we distribute these forces to checkpoints or deploy ten or fifteen of them in every checkpoint, this would be a morsel for the enemy. Such a tactic commonly underestimates troops ability to continue their education and training or going home or to act more aggressive against the enemy.”
That’s Dawlat Waziri, a defense ministry spokesman, who got those talking points from the Americans just before he opened that presser. Or at least that’s what I’m guessing. Because that sounds a lot like what Brig. Gen. Shoffner said a month ago.
Despite their issues with personnel accountability, keeping track of their equipment, and keeping troops on the job, the ANA have the manpower and firepower they need to beat the Taliban on the battlefield. It’s an army equipped with M16s and Humvees, fighting dudes in flip flops and knock-off AKs.
That means the chances of Afghan forces taking the fight to the enemy in 2016 and achieving something like a decisive victory are pretty good. Provided their leadership continues to employ an offensive mindset and not get bogged down in the checkpoint/bunker mentality again. Which is still a possible outcome.
Local actors are responsible for the checkpoints in the first place, and those folks haven’t gone anywhere. What’s tragic is the number of Afghan lives lost in the service of some sub-national power grab. So onward the ANA goes, toward a checkpoint-free fighting season.
Also published on Medium.