This past week, David Barno published an article titled “The Real Pivot” in Foreign Policy. Based on some of the responses on social media outlets, his thoughts were well received, and for some good reasons: he commanded US troops in Afghanistan, and his military career was such that it lends credence to any thoughts he may have on military affairs. But, when it comes to what the next steps should be for the Obama administration in dealing with Afghanistan, particularly the transition of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), he is categorically wrong.
This will be the second time in recent weeks that someone connected to CNAS has put forward thoughts on Afghanistan that have little basis in reality. That’s not a commentary on CNAS…it’s more a commentary on how much influence CNAS has, and how some of the recent thoughts coming out of CNAS are devoid of any understanding of the realities on the ground right now in Afghanistan.
It appears that what CNAS may be suffering from is a need to play to a partisan audience. If that’s the case, then it’s no longer doing what a think tank should (in theory) be doing: applying workable, genuine solutions to the world’s various issues, and instead is providing support for preconceived political agendas. Rubber stamping popular political notions isn’t providing anyone with challenging solutions, and at that point the value of any think tank is in question.
This article is no exception. In recent months the political winds are definitely drifting toward a more rapid withdrawal of American troops, and given Barno’s fairly significant military credentials, his thoughts will lend weight to what in September appears to be an inevitable shortening of the withdrawal timeline and transfer of security authority to the Afghan government. What’s key to bear in mind with that last statement is that it is still September: much remains unknown between now and November. What Team Obama says now and what they say after the election will likely be vastly different things.
Barno spends the first half of the article detailing the troop surge, its aftermath, and the decision that the Obama administration must now make regarding the resumption of partnered activities between ISAF and the ANSF. He provides two options: 1) that ISAF (DoD specifically) continues along its current transition and training path, or 2) an alternative timeline that foreshortens the process considerably.
Just go faster
From the article, in reference to the decisions that Obama and COMISAF will need to make:
It could keep the current restrictions in place — that is, no partnering or advisory work below battalion level — while accelerating the draw down of U.S. and coalition forces. Special operations forces might be exempted from these restrictions, but conventional forces would focus on turning areas over to their Afghan counterparts more rapidly.
The basic truth here is that there have never been enough trainers on the ground… from when they were known as ETTs (Embedded Training Teams) until now when those teams are now know as SFATs (Security Force Assistance Teams), the DoD has regularly reported the fact that there were never enough personnel tasked with that mission. Since 2008, when the NDAA mandated that the 1230/1231 reports to Congress began, each bi-annual report points out the shortage of trainers, which was a key point of concern in looking forward to the transition.
All of that was supposed to change in 2011 when then-LTG Caldwell’s National Training Mission – Afghanistan (NTM-A) was stood up, theoretically bringing several disparate training efforts under a single command and control umbrella. Unfortunately, the only way that organization has seen progress has been through a series of benchmark changes and self-grading by evaluating units.
In essence Barno’s solution for a troubled mission that’s already poorly resourced is to simply make it go faster. Based on a story this week in the New York Times, it’s evident that, in addition to the tensions generated by insider attacks, the training mission is not being treated as a priority by the Department of Defense at any level.
Advisers flew into Bad Pakh last month to teach the Afghans how to load wounded soldiers into an American medevac helicopter.Time permitting, they also planned mortar practice.
But when the Americans flew out 10 hours later, the training day had gone much like three previous ones held here in the past two months: the helicopter never showed. It was either down for maintenance or called away for a more pressing mission. The advisers never got a clear answer why.
Simply increasing the operational tempo of this activity only means that an already troubled program will only ensure that the mission achieves complete disaster that much faster.
Let them call in their own air
One of the key components in dominating the battlefield in modern warfare is the application of superior airpower, which has proven essential on multiple occasions in Afghanistan. This is a complex, volatile, process requiring highly trained individuals known as Joint Tactical Air Controllers (JTACs) to direct firepower accurately. Barno recognizes the need for that continued aerial dominance, and his suggestion for dealing with that is this:
At the same time, efforts could be ramped up to train English-speaking Afghan officers to replace American advisers as the frontline links to U.S. air power. American jets, helicopters, and drones would continue to be available to Afghan forces for rapid response when engaging the Taliban in close combat.
What’s puzzling is that Barno, with all of his military experience, is advocating that any element of the Afghan security forces, which are massively illiterate and struggling with the basics of modern warfare, is probably ready to direct highly advanced airpower on its own.
Referencing the Times piece again:
Mortar practice also had to be scratched when it turned out the Afghans were missing the sight for their sole mortar tube.
Yes, it’s a microcosmic example, but directing airpower accurately in a combat environment is difficult for even the most highly trained JTAC, as evidenced here:
Eventually two F/A-18 Hornet jet fighters from a US aircraft carrier in the Arabian Gulf provided close air support in the form of two 250kg bombs and cannon fire.
In the excitement the American JTAC forgot an airburst bomb was inbound until just before it struck.
“Shit that was close, but it neutralised the mortars and we were thankful for that,” Maylor said.
That’s being done by a highly trained, first world JTAC with years of military experience. The transfer of that skillset is not going to be accomplished by the SFAT program at any level, given the level of technical skill required to accurately guide close support aircraft.
Just let the ANA battalions do it
This is Barno’s solution in dealing with the “hold” portion of COIN’s “clear, hold, build”:
Afghan infantry battalions would replace U.S. infantry battalions in securing villages and maintaining areas that have already been cleared of Taliban fighters.
The issue with that is this: the Taliban have proven themselves fully capable of leaving an area temporarily, allowing them to regroup and retake that area when forces are shifted elsewhere. Where this also fails is that the Afghans still see us as fighting their war for them, and are only recently beginning to grasp the concept that this is their war, and they’re going to be fully responsible for its execution very soon.
So you have an adaptable, flexible enemy, facing a military force that still sees this as a proxy war, thereby ensuring that this same army is going to be keenly interested in self-preservation over protection of a particular area. Add to that the issues with the majority of Army being non-Pashtun (a fact that the DoD only reported once in the 1230 reports, in April of 2010) personnel, and the likelihood of that army defending territory in which it has no direct interest diminishes greatly. Of course, under LTG Caldwell, the NTM-A did try to redefine “southern Pashtuns” in order to show greater cultural diversity, but that was more a numbers shuffle that did not result in sustained recruiting increases.
It would fix that pesky CIVCAS problem
One of the flashpoints in coalition/Afghan relations has always been the accidental deaths of civilians due to airstrikes. Barno has this suggestion:
And the Afghan people might see civilian casualties from coalition airpower a bit differently if those strikes were called by Afghan troops, rather than by Americans.
Referencing previous paragraphs regarding the ethnic makeup of the Afghan National Army, and given the fact that the focus of both ISAF and ANSF operations are in the south of Afghanistan, it’s highly likely that Afghan soldiers are patrolling in areas where they have no cultural roots. Consequently, the people in that area do not see those soldiers as being their own, but as a sort of unwelcome intruder.
Even if there isn’t an ethnic consideration in play, there’s the issue that the average rural Afghan (who has borne the brunt of any airpower mishaps, given that ISAF isn’t prone to dropping high explosives on Kabul or Jalalabad lately) views the Kabul government with a great deal of suspicion. The concept of an “Afghan government” is still fairly new to people outside of Kabul and the other major cities in Afghanistan. As a result, they see any government forces as at best a nuisance, and at worst invaders to be repelled. That last has happened most recently in Ghazni, where the leaders of what is being termed the National Uprising Movement had this to say:
“We want traditional rule by tribal elders and village councils, not by the Taliban or the government,” says Mamor Jabar Shelghari, a former member of parliament from Ghazni.
Even ignoring the fact that most Afghans are not terribly fond of the Kabul government, there is this to consider: civilian casualties due to military action, regardless of whose military it is, will not endear anyone. Making a statement like this is tone deaf both in its lack of understanding of the Afghan people’s relationship with the government, and in its complete discounting of the human reaction to the accidental deaths of family members.
It’s an election year…I should calm down
What troubles me about the Barno piece is his level of influence with the Obama administration. Given that he works for CNAS, and Obama’s foreign policy is a co-founder of that organization, we have to assume a certain significant level of input from Barno and the rest of CNAS.
If this exemplifies the sort of policy advice on Afghanistan that CNAS is producing for the Obama team, it raises grave concerns about the future of American involvement in the area. While this might simply be the floating of potential policy in a charged political environment (read: election year), it is still an example of the kind of advice that CNAS produces for its clients. As such, it is flawed on a fundamental level, and I hope is not a genuine indicator of the administration’s next steps.