Texas troops aiding effort to support, advise Afghan military
By MARTIN KUZ | San Antonio Express-News | Published: October 30, 2016
FORWARD OPERATING BASE GAMBERI, Afghanistan (Tribune News Service) — A dozen Afghan army officers sat at a conference table covered with maps showing the locations of troops and military bases across northeastern Afghanistan. One by one, the officers stood to address the brigadier general at the head of the table, Abdul Malik, who listened to their reports on various aspects of the day’s war effort.
When a logistics officer began recounting how a unit had failed to obtain enough bread for its soldiers, Malik cut him off, his voice commanding quiet in the room.
“You need to talk to your contractor, and you need to solve the problem tomorrow,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to feed our soldiers. If we don’t do that, what can we hope for?”
Sitting beside the Afghan officers were U.S. military advisers from the Army’s 3rd Cavalry Regiment based at Fort Hood. After the meeting one afternoon last month, Lt. Col. Todd Hook, who leads the adviser team, cast the discussion as evidence of the Afghan military’s evolution.
“As messy as the process looks, it’s good because they’re working to solve problems,” said Hook, one of the unit’s 1,000-plus soldiers who deployed to Afghanistan in late spring for a nine-month tour. “That’s progress.”
His appraisal, offered in the context of a general intervening in a matter as mundane as bread, illuminates the U.S. military’s lowered expectations for Afghan forces. Fifteen years after American troops invaded the country in October 2001 to topple the Taliban government, the mission to train the Afghan military amounts to a prolonged exercise in advanced hand-holding.
The scope of that mission, which has cost $65 billion to date, narrowed after President Barack Obama declared an end to major U.S. combat operations at the close of 2014. The emphasis switched from American ground troops training the Afghan infantry to senior U.S. officers acting as mentors to Afghan commanders, tutoring them on strategy, air support, logistics, medical care and the other elements of war.
The 3rd Cavalry accounts for more than 10 percent of the 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and much of the unit’s personnel deployed to the province of Laghman, some 90 miles east of the capital of Kabul. The soldiers share Forward Operating Base Gamberi with the Afghan National Army’s 201st Corps, whose area of operation stretches across seven provinces of the mountainous northeast.
A San Antonio Express-News reporter recently traveled to the region to observe the 3rd Cavalry’s work as part of Resolute Support, a NATO-led campaign to nurture the Afghan military that involves 15,000 troops from 39 nations.
Hook, who commands the regiment’s 3rd Squadron, oversees a crew of senior Army officers that spends long days “shadow tracking” the decision-making of leaders with the 201st Corps.
The U.S. advisers and their Afghan counterparts confer in a tactical operations center stocked with computers, TV screens and radio equipment to monitor ongoing missions. Under the pallid glow of fluorescent lights, their discussions range from upcoming patrols and potential artillery targets to removing roadside bombs and unclogging supply lines.
Hook joins his team for the operations meeting that the Afghan commanders hold each afternoon to review events of the past 24 hours. As recently as two years ago, Afghan officers seldom bothered with such gatherings, and he described the change as a step toward a self-sufficient army.
“I know it’s hard for the American public to hear that it takes time to train a military,” said Hook, who has served two prior tours in Afghanistan. “But it takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
The war’s length has obscured the reality that the Afghan army has resembled a modern fighting force only since 2002. Fortified by hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign aid, and after 12 years in a subordinate role, the military took the lead on national security last year.
A sharp rise in casualties has followed. The army and the country’s various national police agencies suffered 4,634 fatalities in 2014, a figure expected to rise by more than 3,000 this year based on government reports through July. U.S. military officials have called the casualty rate “not sustainable.”
The surging toll, coupled with the prevalence of corrupt and inept senior leaders, has hindered the military’s recruitment and retention of soldiers.
The Taliban have exploited the manpower shortage and lack of cohesion with sustained attacks on several provincial capitals and a series of devastating suicide bombings in Kabul. The group’s renewed potency coincides with the Islamic State group’s seeking to carve out a caliphate in the east and al-Qaida’s resurgence across the country.
The array of threats and the Afghan military’s chronic paucity of equipment and supplies can make the U.S. training mission appear vital yet futile. Near the end of the meeting at which Malik chided an officer about bread, the strain of war could be heard in the general’s voice.
Talking as if to himself, he said, “I have a lot of headaches.”
Fear and corruption
Six wounded soldiers arrived at Gamberi’s Afghan army hospital this summer after an attack on their platoon. One had lost so much blood that he would die without an emergency transfusion.
His chances of survival appeared small, with the hospital’s supply of blood almost depleted. The soldiers who had escorted their injured comrades to the base represented his last hope. Doctors asked them to roll up their sleeves.
Recalling the episode, Maj. Chris Mitchell, the 3rd Cavalry’s medical adviser to the hospital’s top staff, praised the doctors for improvising a “walking blood bank” to save the soldier’s life. Their desperate act reaffirmed for him the need for the U.S. military’s presence in the country.
“Afghans have been fighting this war for over a decade, and they’ve suffered a lot of casualties,” said Mitchell, who previously deployed to Iraq. “So continuing to support the mission is not only a way to help Afghan doctors care for the individual soldier but also to boost the morale of security forces. They know their doctors will do anything to keep them alive.”
The Afghan army has endured heavy losses battling insurgents with the Taliban and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, in eastern provinces bordering Pakistan. (Earlier this month, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Adam Thomas, 31, a Green Beret embedded with Afghan special forces in the region, was killed by an improvised explosive device during a foot patrol.)
The 201st Corps evacuates soldiers with life-threatening injuries to the national military hospital in Kabul, where cleaner conditions, better equipment and more supplies improve their odds of survival. The less seriously wounded receive care at Gamberi, and most rejoin their units in two to three weeks.
A few weeks ago, Mitchell accompanied Dr. Faqir Rahmani, the hospital’s deputy director, on his morning rounds. Dozens of Afghan soldiers wearing blue pajamas lay in bed, recovering from bullet and shrapnel wounds. White bandages swathed arms and hands, legs and feet.
A soldier in his early 20s who suffered deep gashes in his left forearm from shrapnel when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded near him sat up and told Rahmani that he felt strong enough to leave. Next to him, a young soldier lay on his side in silence, eyes open and unblinking, the top of his head wrapped in gauze. He looked younger than 16, the minimum age to enlist.
Dr. Mirwais Hotak, an orthopedic surgeon, joined Mitchell and Rahmani as they walked through the wards. He explained that army physicians face persistent threats from insurgents for aiding the government.
“They see us as the enemy,” Hotak said. “Most doctors don’t want to do this kind of work because it puts them and their families in a dangerous position.”
The fear impedes the military’s efforts to attract more civilian doctors at the same time that the army and national police agencies struggle to sign up new recruits and retain troops.
The army lost about a third of its estimated 150,000 soldiers last year to death and injury, desertion and retirement. Military leaders insist that aggressive recruiting has replenished the ranks. Yet a recent investigation by Afghan officials in the southern province of Helmand found that 15,000 troops were based there, or about 10,000 fewer than the government claimed.
In a report released earlier this year, John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, skewered U.S. and Afghan officials for their haphazard monitoring of troop levels.
He asserted that “neither the United States nor its Afghan allies know how many Afghan soldiers and police actually exist, how many are in fact available for duty or, by extension, the true nature of their operational capabilities.” Sopko has further suggested that the U.S. military’s count of 320,000 Afghan army and police troops inflates the figure by as much as 200,000.
The epidemic of so-called ghost soldiers illustrates the corruption plaguing the government and security forces. Political and military officials — beyond pocketing salaries of soldiers who exist only on paper — siphon off equipment, supplies, fuel and food to hoard for favored units or to sell on the black market, including to insurgents.
The systemic fraud, rigors of combat and acute deprivation corrode the morale of soldiers, who earn $300 a month on average, and induce large numbers to desert or decide against re-enlisting.
“The army at the soldier level is competent,” said Mir Ahmad Joyenda, deputy director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit in Kabul and a former member of the Afghan Parliament. “The problem is that there is so much corruption at the higher levels in the military and the rest of the government. If soldiers become disillusioned because they are not getting enough support, then they will not fight. And then what?”
The shift in the U.S. military’s training focus from ground troops to commanders reflects an attempt to reduce malfeasance while cultivating a new generation of leaders.
American advisers have assisted Afghan defense officials with installing a digital tracking system for military inventory that, in theory, will prevent commanders from embezzling. Maj. Gen. Richard Kaiser, who leads the U.S. training mission, considers the project crucial for weeding out corrupt Afghan officers.
“The absolute key ingredient to an effective military is leadership,” Kaiser said in Kabul last month. “It’s very apparent when it’s missing.”
At Gamberi’s hospital, where the fallout of combat takes the shape of young men torn open by bullets and bombs, Rahmani confronts a more urgent dilemma.
The scarcity of experienced physicians in Afghanistan forces the military to hire practitioners with as little as six months of medical training. Some of the two dozen doctors on Rahmani’s staff fall into that category, and amid a rising tide of wounded soldiers, he must reckon with war’s harsh calculus.
“We always have more patients,” he said, offering a rueful half-smile. “We do the best we can with the people we have.”
‘Afghan good enough’
Hundreds of insurgents attacked the district of Jani Khel in the eastern province of Paktia in late August. Afghan soldiers repelled the assault for nine days until retreating as their ammunition ran low and defense officials in Kabul refused to send reinforcements.
U.S. advisers with the Texas Army National Guard stationed at a nearby base in Paktia aided commanders with the Afghan army’s 203rd Corps in devising a counterattack. Afghan soldiers drove out the enemy fighters several days later, restoring tenuous government control in the district of 120,000 people near the Pakistan border.
For Maj. Scott Abram, one of the guard advisers, the chain of events proved that much has changed since his previous tour in Afghanistan three years ago.
“Back then, if the district had fallen, we would have sent a U.S. unit in to retake it,” Abram said at Forward Operating Base Lightning. “This time, we sent about 60 people, most of them advisers.”
But the fact that insurgents overran Jani Khel reveals more about the operational strength of Afghan forces than their ability to reclaim the district with the U.S. military’s help.
The pattern has been repeated in dozens of the country’s 34 provinces this year, with the Taliban and other insurgent factions ambushing Afghan outposts and checkpoints and troops then needing support from American forces to recapture lost ground.
The tug-of-war for territory has intensified over the past two years. Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has described more than a third of the country as either under the Taliban’s control or “contested.”
The group has launched large-scale assaults in the northern province of Kunduz and seized up to 85 percent of Helmand, the lucrative heart of the global market for opium, the main ingredient in heroin. The drug trade generates
$3 billion a year for Afghanistan and provides the Taliban’s primary source of funding.
The Afghan military’s failure to suppress the insurgency exposes the small return on the U.S. government’s $800 billion investment in the 15-year war. In the view of Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghan Analysts Network, a nonprofit research group, the performance of the country’s troops contradicts the rhetoric of American officials.
“I’ve never been convinced that the training of the security forces has been as effective as claimed by the countries doing the training,” he said. “And what we see again and again is that the security forces are in a reactive mode.”
Concerns over the country’s fragile stability persuaded Obama earlier this year to ease restrictions on U.S. airstrikes against insurgents. He later announced a decision to keep 8,400 troops in Afghanistan through the end of his term in January, revising a plan to reduce the total to 5,500.
Fighter jets, attack helicopters and drones over Afghanistan testify to America’s military support from above. On the ground, huge artillery guns and an estimated 1,500 U.S. special forces troops bolster the Afghan infantry.
Some 80 soldiers with the Texas Army National Guard, split between bases in the east and south, deployed in June to handle the less dramatic duty of advising. Brig. Gen. Lee Henry directs their work from Kandahar Airfield, a sprawling base in southern Afghanistan that once housed 25,000 troops from the U.S. and other coalition nations.
The departure of most foreign forces doomed the trinket shops and fast-food restaurants lining the base’s boardwalk, an emblem of Western comfort and excess in a nation mired in conflict and poverty.
In a similar sense, the absence of vendors today symbolizes the U.S. military’s unfulfilled aspiration to deliver peace to Afghanistan.
“What’s going on here is a 2,000-year-old problem,” said Henry, who turned to a football analogy to characterize the guard’s nine-month tour. “We have to be looking at our mission as three yards and a cloud of dust: Move things forward the best we can.”
The diminished ambitions have yielded to necessary acceptance of the Afghan military’s approach to war. Henry and other senior leaders have come to recognize that the country’s armed forces will mature at their own pace.
“If their commanders are planning a mission, and it’s something we would do in two hours but it takes them two days, then that’s what it takes,” Henry said. “Is it coalition good? No. But is it good enough to counter the Taliban? Yes. It’s Afghan good enough.”
A codicil to that phrase, popularized by retired Gen. David Petraeus during his year as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, would call into question whether “Afghan good enough” can prevail, given the high rate of troop casualties.
The country’s military, lacking enough personnel to rout the Taliban, ISIS, al-Qaida and other insurgent groups, tends to remain moored to bases and checkpoints that present easy targets.
U.S. advisers want Afghan commanders to adopt a more offensive mindset. Col. James Pleasant, a member of the guard on his second tour in Afghanistan, has sensed a reluctance to change.
“It’s their soldiers who are dying, and their decisions are meant to mitigate casualties,” he said. “But it’s war. You can’t think no one is going to die in war.”
Then again, as Henry pointed out, fighting on one’s own soil alters the dimensions of combat.
“It’s hard to be deployed all the time,” he said, “and never know when the end will come.”
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