Helmand-based Afghan soldiers largely abandon counterinsurgency patrols taught by coalition forces
CAMP SHORABAK, Afghanistan — Addressing more than 60 soldiers at the largest military base in volatile Helmand province, an Afghan commander preached classic counterinsurgency doctrine: patrol through a nearby village to constrict Taliban movements, assure citizens’ safety and gather intelligence.
It was the type of speech Western forces would give their Afghan trainees ahead of nominally Afghan-led joint patrols. The expectation of the NATO-led coalition, after more than a decade of fine-tuning the strategy in Afghanistan, was that Afghans would continue such operations after the foreigners withdrew.
The goal was to prevent the Taliban from regaining a hold in cleared areas, particularly Helmand, where more than 900 coalition troops —mostly U.S. Marines and British forces — were killed.
But seven months after the last Marines and British troops left Helmand, the similarities between counterinsurgency operations then and the Afghans’ take on them today ended with that pep talk. The entire mission that day would quickly turn out to be a photo-op.
The bread-and-butter counterinsurgency patrols, carried out daily during the coalition’s height, have apparently fallen out of favor amid mounting casualties suffered by the Afghan National Security Forces.
At Camp Shorabak, when Lt. Muhammad Azizullah, the Afghan commander, barked an order, his men sprinted toward 14 U.S.-supplied armored troop carriers and Humvees and clambered inside.
The turret gunners racked their 50-caliber machine guns before the convoy thundered down the highway past shuttered coalition bases toward the village of Gereshk, about 25 miles to the south.
On the town’s outskirts, they stopped on a desolate street and a handful of soldiers got out. They milled about their parking spot for about half an hour, then turned the vehicles around and began the return trip.
After repeated questioning as to why so many men and vehicles drove an hour to park and then return to base, Azizullah finally conceded, “It’s just for the pictures.”
Violence up, patrols down During a three-day Stars and Stripes visit to Camp Shorabak, contingents of Afghan soldiers who left the base were either running supply convoys or conducting bare perimeter sweeps, officials said, essentially patrolling the remnants of the bases the Western soldiers used to occupy.
The ANA boasts an estimated 180,000 men, about 40,000 more than the coalition had during the height of its combat involvement in the war, but Afghan military officials say that’s not enough.
“The Americans and British had helicopters flying every day, and what they were doing — going out to the villages and holding shuras — was fantastic, but we do not have the same equipment and facilities,” said Col. Mohammad Zazay, an ANA spokesman at Shorabak. “If there isn’t a battle going on, we don’t need to patrol around and meet with locals. It’s all quiet here.“
Only it wasn’t. In early April, Gereshk, destination of the photo-op patrol, was the scene of a complicated surprise Taliban attack that involved digging secret tunnels and ultimately killing the area police chief while leveling a checkpoint. It was precisely the type of attack counterinsurgency operations are designed to prevent, or at least anticipate.
But the Afghans may have other concerns.
“A way to avoid your men being killed is to stop patrolling, stop creating targets of opportunity for the Taliban,” said Matthew Henman, managing editor at the London-based IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre. “But then the whole counterinsurgency mission is fundamentally undermined.”
The consequences can be dire. On May 25, the Taliban laid siege to the Now Zad district police headquarters, some 40 miles north of Shorabak, killing 19 police and seven soldiers, according to The Associated Press.
Unwillingness to patrol also was seen on the highway the Shorabak soldiers convoyed down, which was dotted with ANA checkpoints. Although some checkpoints had recently taken fire from villages visible from the road, officials said the soldiers manning them rarely ventured into those villages. Instead, they reinforced sandbag defenses around the checkpoints.
Despite the checkpoints, the road itself is not safe. An Afghan intelligence officer at Shorabak, who appeared to have been drinking, recommended traveling only during the busier morning hours to avoid pop-up Taliban checkpoints and improvised explosive devices.
A few days after the faux patrol, just beyond Gereshk, a Humvee blocked the road and a pair of Afghan soldiers frantically signaled traffic to back off. Moments later, an enormous blast briefly obscured the sun and rained rocks and dirt on stopped vehicles. One of the soldiers fired off a couple of bursts toward a man he thought was acting as a spotter. It was not clear if the insurgents or the ANA had set off the bomb, which was placed nearly equidistant from two ANA checkpoints only a 20-minute drive apart.
Cognizant of the danger, civilian traffic blazed along the motorway at speeds approaching 90 mph in the belief, locals said, that they might be able to outrun an IED’s blast.
Having so many checkpoints may actually work against the ANA by “tying down” the force, reducing its mobility and demanding it hold more ground than it can handle, said Kabul-based conflict analyst Graeme Smith.
Clear, hold, build American counterinsurgency doctrine of the last several years involves three steps: clear, hold and build. The goal is to remove insurgents, then earn the support and trust of residents, key to learning if militants are attempting to return. To that end, soldiers would regularly patrol through former hotbeds, not unlike city cops walking a beat in a tough neighborhood.
These operations made up the bulk of coalition efforts in Helmand as Western soldiers struggled to overcome deep-seated mistrust of foreigners.
Though they may be fellow Afghans, ANA soldiers face similar barriers to winning over local populations because of ethnic differences. The ANA is mostly made up of northern Afghan ethnic groups, while Helmand is home to Pashtun, who have different customs, language and a strained history with the northerners.
The challenge for the ANA, said Henman, is convincing the locals it’s the government that will provide long-term support and deserves their allegiance, not the Taliban, who are also largely Pashtun.
The Afghans celebrated their ability to clear an area earlier this year, when three Army corps chased the Taliban out of portions of the Sangin valley in northern Helmand in Operation Zulfiqar.
“Hundreds of insurgents got killed and wounded [during Zulfiqar], so if I have to compare the security in the province of last year to now, I’d say it’s much better now,” said Gen. Dadan Lawang, commander of the Shobarak-based 215 Corps.
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Mike Murray, deputy commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan- Support, also praised the combat prowess the ANA demonstrated during Zulfiqar, noting Afghan forces conducted operations almost completely on their own while handling complex tasks such as helicopter medevacs and artillery coordination. But, he cautioned it’s still too early to celebrate.
“I think the long-term success of [Operation Zulfiqar] will really be determined by how well they connected with the population and the long-term security in that area and that has yet to be seen,” he said at Bagram Air Field. “I don’t think we’ll know the true success of Zulfiqar for months to come.”
Meanwhile, the Taliban in Sangin have managed to re-enter cleared areas.
At Shorabak’s surgical clinic, Sangin is a touchy subject. An Army officer stopped a surgeon from discussing the influx of casualties he’d recently seen from the area, but a medical technician later estimated that casualties have jumped 50 percent over the same period last year.
Sgt. Shir Ali, a patient at the clinic, described the battle in which a rocket-propelled grenade struck his Humvee May 11 and severed a comrade’s legs.
“We destroyed many houses, but some were still standing,” Ali said. “And now the Taliban use these local people’s houses as a shelter and fire on us.”
Sangin, long a Taliban hotbed, is only one of an increasing number of fronts straining the ANA nationwide.
“It’s obvious that some of these massive clearance operations are not leaving behind lingering stability,” Smith said. “The job of the ANSF is not to win this war, their job is to find a line that they can hold and then hold it.”
Meanwhile the ANA is losing men and money. Analysts and military leaders have warned their mounting casualty rate is unsustainable, and their U.S.-funded operating budget has been roughly halved over recent years.
But the soldiers at Shorabak don’t seem to be losing any sleep over such concerns. In one vehicle during the convoy’s return from Gereshk’s faux patrol, only the driver remained awake while the others slept. The turret gunner — who should have been scanning for threats — was snoring softly.