Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Afghan National Army

"You can't produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant. It just doesn't work that way." - Warren Buffett (referring to the speed of the economic recovery post-stimulus plan)

By all accounts, the Afghan National Army (ANA) has been one of the most successful institutions we've built since our arrival in this country in 2001. The US has done almost all ANA training, funding, and fielding since the war 'ended' and the ANA were established in 2002. Other countries have focused on other things - the UK on counter-narcotics and the Germans (originally, until they failed so miserably) on training the police for example. The ethnic breakdown of the ANA reflects that of the country as a whole, with about 40% of the soldiers being Pashtun, 25% Tajik, 15% Hazara, 10% Uzbek, and 10% other. Each Kandak (battalion) and smaller unit reflects that mixture as well. Almost all soldiers speak Dari or Pashto. Many speak both languages. Estimates on the number of ANA troops vary, but at this time the ANA has about 80,000 soldiers. The size of the ANA has steadily expanded over the years, and I'm sure we'll keep trying to expand it. We may be plowing a lot of money into the ANA, but the individual Afghan soldier must be at least one order of magnitude cheaper to field than one of our own.

There's a certain amount of pride that goes with being one of the a very small contingent of Americans walking amongst the populace with local soldiers, and I've been told many times by the local people that they feel a lot of pride in seeing their Army out on patrol. For this reason, I often attempt to keep a low profile when I'm out with my guys - let them run the show and do the talking. If anyone asks, I tell them I'm only there so they can communicate with the American units. It's always an especially proud moment for me when the ANA soldiers are looking good and taking things seriously. Impressions are important, especially for the local soldiers. Whether the ANA ever kills a single Taliban insurgent or not, they can still be effective by looking competent and professional, and in so give the local people something to believe in and take pride in.

Many times I've been out with the ANA as the lone American in the group as we patrol in a town full of people that may or may not hold some degree of antipathy towards us. But it's not something we as ETTs worry about because we know the Afghan soldiers would take care of us if it came down to it. When you build that good relationship with the soldiers and a degree of mutual respect exists, then working together can be a pleasure.

To experience those moments of pride, however fleeting they may be, ETTs have to go through plenty of frustration. The laziness and unwillingness to train, the whining and harassment for comfort items they don't need, the hashish smoking, the general slovenliness, the willingness to let us do their jobs for them, the corruption and stealing at all levels, the refusal to do as many operations as they should, the painfully slow learning process, the pathetically short attention spans, the disobedience to some of our demands, and the repetition of simple mistakes all add up to weigh on you at times. And it's those times that I understand why our tours as advisers are shorter than the normal tours that many people do over here. One can only take so much. Most days we take it all in stride as we know what to expect from the ANA. Keep your expectations in check and you can't be disappointed. But then something will happen like an interpreter getting beaten to a bloody pulp for no good reason or your best local contractor getting shaken down by the ANA commander and his platoon (mob) to the point that he can no longer work for you, and you ask yourself whether all of this is going to add up to something in the end. Are the ANA really going to be any better when we leave than they were when we got here? Tough to say. Will the Afghan National Army ever be able to work without us holding their hands? The only way to know will be to kick them out of the nest at some point and see if they fly. Better sooner than later I say because at this point they have the equipment and training to do the job. Whether they have the will to do the job is the question, but I think will will come with necessity, and necessity will come when we're gone.


Anonymous said...

I feel like I am there when I read this about the ANA. You must be commended on the comfortable relationship you have established with the ANA. I don't know if I could be as confident as you are that they would defend me. BUT, I'm not the ETT. What nationality is the TERP? Surely they wouldn't beat up one of their own.

Anonymous said...

Enjoy reading each input you have to share.

K said...

Thanks! Do my best to try to vary the topics a bit, while staying pertinent to the subject matter of the blog itself so as to keep readers interested.

The interpreters are Afghan nationals. As for the ANA defending the can be a concern. I have heard a story of an ETT getting wounded and getting left by his ANA because they had such a bad relationship. Of course, I've heard stories of great bravery by the ANA to protect their ETTs. It's certainly a balancing act keeping a good relationship with the ANA. They will ask you to buy them stuff every day, and they'll get lazy about patrolling if you let them. You can't be too inflexible but you have to push them to get better as well.

Sassy Fox said...

As I read back through your blog entries, I believe this one has had the most impact upon me. It shows what can be done with a positive outlook, and encouragement to the ANA. Knowing your demeanor, I suspect that you balance command and encouragement well. Otherwise, your confidence in the ANA would not be so evident in your entries.