As of this writing, we continue our efforts to mentor and train Afghan forces while drawing down our combat forces in-theater. Though there is speculation that some US forces will remain in Afghanistan in a supporting role beyond the 2014 withdrawal date, the vast majority of forces are expected to be redeployed by the end of that year.
If we are to maintain our commitment to Afghanistan in order to maintain the gains we’ve achieved in increasing the effectiveness of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) while reducing the cost of doing so in this new era of austerity, I recommend that we convince the Afghan government to raise a limited number of Afghan units led by US Soldiers. While this may be a highly unusual idea, if the British experience in India is any indication, it will ultimately leave Afghanistan with a capable military and security force that is viewed as legitimate, competent, and effective, at least enough so for Afghanistan.
Our advisory teams have been working with Afghan forces since 2003 coaching, teaching, and mentoring their nascent security organizations. Progress has been made, with the Afghan National Army (ANA) proving to be relatively effective and being held in fairly high regard by the Afghan people. Positive efforts with the Afghan police are also being made, but at a slower pace. In both organizations, the advisors are limited in what they can do because we are there to "advise". If the Afghan commander wishes, he can, and does, ignore our advice, which can impede the ability of that unit to improve its operational capabilities. Additionally, Afghan culture routinely allows for those with the "right" family and/ or tribal connections to get into leadership positions, lowering the morale of those who ought to be placed in command based on merit and proven ability. Clearly this hampers the combat capability of the unit, and can lead to disaster when fighting commences.
If we were to adopt a limited program of US leaders commanding Afghan units, it might allow for a more rapid development of Afghan forces and capabilities. We could lead by example (our strong point), allowing them to see a meritocracy in action, and US leaders who volunteer for such an assignment would develop capabilities (cultural, linguistic) that many in the DoD are claiming our up-and-coming leaders require as we look to the asymmetric conflicts of the future.
In order to get the Afghan government to agree to allow some of their soldiers to be under the authority of US leaders, even if they are to be volunteers, we may have to accept some financial costs, specifically logistics support and soldier pay (though since Afghanistan was identified in 2012 as a major non-NATO US ally funding for this may not be a significant issue since such a status allows for various types of financial support). At approximately 120-150 dollars a month, the Afghan soldier is far less costly than a US one, who is making over $2000 a month with combat zone benefits. To borrow from Kipling...”the odds are on the cheaper man”.
Of course, there are some potential problems:
- US troops don't know the languages of Afghanistan, making communications with their indigenous forces difficult to say the least. But given the readily available computer programs for language development, and the fact that most US Soldiers (particularly leaders) have access to computers, often for professional development purposes, some of this can be mitigated. Once in country with their indigenous unit, cultural and linguistic immersion, as well as necessity, will allow for further refinement in language skills.
- Some might say that we would be viewed as a "colonial" force, attempting to take over Afghan security and sovereignty. But this wouldn't wash as this proposal would allow for a reduction in the actual number of US troops, since troop strength would eventually be limited to those placed in charge of Afghan units. With this proposal, I am looking at starting with one Afghan battalion (kandak), led by US troops, requiring two field grade officers...commander & executive officer, four company commanders, a command sergeant major, and four first sergeants...a total of 11 US troops. An initial boost in Afghan interpreters will likely be required until language skills improve. Expanding to four Afghan battalions with US leaders would mean 44 Soldiers. These 44 US Soldiers in four battalion-sized units would be able to execute operations that currently require approximately 3500 US Soldiers in security force assistance brigades (SFAB) or roughly 500 Soldiers organized into security force advise and assist teams (SFAATs).
- What about support and logistics requirements? The current Afghan logistics system, such as it is, is still too rudimentary to provide necessary support so, initially, US logistics systems would have to be used. But as many Afghan units live off of the economy, our US leaders could supplement the official logistics system in the same way, using an adjusted version of CERP funds (I think this might constitute something of an "emergency" project), which would also help the local Afghan economy while keeping the US-supported elements supplied.
- “Green-on-Blue” attacks, where ANSF attacks and/ or kills US and coalition members, is a glaring concern given the recent increase spate of such attacks. But by immersing ourselves in their culture and learning about them and how they operate vs. attempting to reshape them in our image, we may very well reduce such attacks since our leaders, immersed in their units, would have a better understanding of the soldiers in their charge. Furthermore, Afghans, like many non-western cultures, respond to strong leadership, especially strong leaders who demonstrate personal bravery as well as respect and understanding of those they lead. Those US officers and NCOs selected for this type of mission ought to have experience advising foreign forces, whether on MTTs or security cooperation missions like those in Saudi Arabia, successful tours in leadership positions, and demonstrated familiarity and understanding of the forces and culture they will be working with.
- A final concern: we might be hard-pressed to find volunteers among the many officers and NCOs who've already spent many years away from family and home. This plan would mean living in harsh, even squalid environments, under constant threat, possibly in near-constant combat conditions. But as the need for such leaders would be less than what we are asking now of our forces, I think we can manage given that those who volunteer would understand what they’re getting into. The initial deployment of these US-embed leaders would require less than 15 since I envision starting with one Afghan kandak. Where would this kandak come from? We would request that the ANA to ask for volunteers. I suspect the most we might initially get (based on ANA/ MoD approval) would be roughly 500 to 1000 men, approximately a battalion-sized force. It was my impression during my tour as an ETT that Afghan soldiers looked forward to the opportunity to work along side their US counter-parts. Not all, but many. This would offer those who are motivated enough to do so.
By bringing together volunteers from both sides, we could generate an effective Afghan fighting element that understands and utilizes some of the more beneficial aspects of US leadership knowledge, including the use of NCOs, benefits of a meritocracy, and a create a cadre of uniquely educated US officers and NCOs who will be able to share their knowledge and experience in operating in such a setting, which many of our leaders expect to be the norm for our forces in the 21st Century (security force assistance/ SFA and building partner capacity/ BPC). If successful, we could, in conjunction with Afghan leaders, work to extend the program to other Afghan units and to the police forces as well. A proposal that will demand long-term patience to be certain, but one that has proven itself with the British experience in India, and to a lesser degree, through the Marine Combined Action Platoon program during the Vietnam War, where a Marine squad partnered with Vietnamese local irregular security forces.
Many would say that this is the purview of our Special Forces community and that they are already doing this. I agree that the Special Forces were designed with such duties in mind. But they seem best suited to irregular and unconventional warfare, and to training irregular forces. What I recommend involves the training and leading of conventional Afghan forces in order to develop a standing regular army, and eventually police force. The special operators can focus on the irregular and commando-type units, while our general purpose forces (GPF) concentrate on the Afghan equivalent.
Given the difficulties we currently find ourselves in regarding Afghanistan, coupled with the likelihood that we will engage in such low-intensity conflicts in the future despite wishes to the contrary, the idea of US leaders running select Afghan units may be worth considering. We would get knowledgeable local soldiers who know the language, terrain, customs, and people. Hopefully, these veterans would eventually return to civilian life, armed with their US-shaped education and contribute to improving their communities. We would also develop a highly skilled cadre of US leaders that can apply their experiences as we continue our transformation from a "Cold War" focused military to one that focuses on regionally aligned "full spectrum operations" in ambiguous environments, under rapidly shifting conditions. If "thinking outside the box" is what we are asking for as we transform, then I think this is well outside that box, and worth considering.
Morgan Smiley retired from the US Army in 2013. His previous assignments include advisory tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. He currently works as a civilian mentor to Afghan forces.