ACHIN DISTRICT, Afghanistan — It was a mission like so many others I’ve been on throughout Afghanistan: Assailants unleash rockets, mortars and small arms attacks on U.S. soldiers in a remote corner of Afghanistan that the Taliban and other militants groups call home. The ordnances drop, machine gun fire clatters and then American troops return fire in the direction they think their enemy might be.
On this day I’m in Achin District, in Nangarhar Province, just a short distance from the mountainous border with Pakistan. Earlier that morning, a rocket landed a couple hundred yards from the platoon with whom I’m embedded, creating a giant ball of flames and smoke before a thunderous boom and shock wave. Soldiers scatter and climb into their heavily armored vehicles and discuss their next move over the radio. One captain wants to send American troops to a nearby mud-walled compound where the rocket attack emanated. Others object.
“Today is the day we stop doing everything for them,” says Capt. Derek Zotto. “We’re not putting our soldiers at risk.” So the American soldiers remain in the rear, and though their Afghan counterparts are heading up this operation, the Afghans decline to approach the compound from which the Americans were taking fire.
I watched a group of U.S. soldiers just moments after the firefight load cases of water into the bed of Afghan soldiers’ pickups because they hadn’t brought enough to sustain them in the scorching afternoon sun. Later that night, with the mission reaching the 20-hour mark, Afghan troops were seen lounging beneath their vehicles, visibly spent by the day’s operation, while U.S. forces remained on watch for would-be attackers. Their attitude toward the fight exasperates some American soldiers, as does the new supporting role U.S. forces are playing to Afghans’ lead in the last throes of American combat operations here. “There is no commitment to victory,” said one soldier following the attack, shaking his head knowing the Afghans wouldn’t pursue their attackers.
In this, the next-to-last summer fighting season before the planned 2014 drawdown, the U.S. effort in Afghanistan is decidedly different. The reality is that without U.S. troops in Afghanistan, missions like the one in Achin would probably never get beyond the planning stage, leaving large swaths of Afghanistan susceptible to extremist rule and giving the Taliban and others a comfortable foothold for launching attacks on the country’s larger population centers like nearby Jalalabad and the capital, Kabul. That’s a scenario both the Obama administration and the soldiers that worked so hard to train Afghans to take up their own fight can’t allow to happen.
Though U.S. and NATO troops remain in harm’s way, their Afghan counterparts are supposed to be leading every conventional military operation thought the country. Last month marked the official handover of all security responsibilities to the Afghan National Security Forces. Though special operations forces like the Green Berets and Navy SEALS still conduct their own missions, they are always joined by Afghan soldiers.
Opinions on the ability of the Afghan forces to handle their country’s security demands are mixed. While the force has swollen in size to nearly 350,000 in just a few years and shown signs of improving its ability to conduct small operations, the ANSF is handicapped by Kabul’s failure to keep its soldiers supplied with basic necessities like ammunition, fuel for vehicles and food. In fact, says one Afghan commander, if it weren’t for their continued reliance on U.S. military to provide them what their own leaders won’t provide, they’d rather operate alone.
“This is a good opportunity for us to work with locals and improve our relationships there,” says Afghan National Army Maj. Zubair Ahmad ahead of the mission in Achin. It’s also an ideal opportunity to show both Afghan locals and militants like the Taliban that ANSF isn’t merely a smoke screen for the will of U.S. and NATO forces.
Over the last year I’ve spoken to numerous ANSF commanders across Afghanistan who claim their men possess the will to fight the Taliban and any other challengers, be they homegrown, Pakistani or al Qaeda. Despite their professed willingness to take on all comers, Afghan commanders inevitably admit, albeit sometimes reluctantly, that they simply cannot conduct large operations involving hundreds of soldiers like the Achin mission on their own. Whether it’s U.S. helicopters flying overhead — a huge advantage when rooting out hidden gunmen — or basic necessities for survival, they need help.
Washington recently announced it was spending almost $600 million on Russian helicopters for the fledgling Afghan air force. The choice of Russian models was made due to Afghan’s familiarity with the Soviet-era aircraft. But concerns persist that the Afghans will not be able to maintain the aircraft in the long term, ultimately rendering them useless.
The seeming inability to maintain both its equipment and ranks — the attrition rate from desertion and those that don’t re-enlist is estimated to be about one third a year — will make standing on their own exceedingly difficult for Afghan forces following a U.S. drawdown. Concerns persist that with less U.S. oversight of Afghan forces and the Ministry of Defense, the entire rank and file of ANSF will break down: Soldiers will increasingly desert their posts if their paychecks stop coming (and increasingly join the ranks of the Taliban). Even now, those that remain already appear to sometimes lack motivation, as I saw in Achin, when American soldiers questioned their commitment to victory.
Some Afghan soldiers and civilians express the same doubt about the Americans’ resolve, saying that the drawdown planned for 2014 is leaving the country in the lurch, making it only a matter of time before civil war once again breaks out, as it did following the Soviet withdrawal.
Their frustration was further exacerbated when the Obama administration recently threatened to pull all U.S. troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2014. The so-called “zero option” is unlikely — even Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey already has said so — as removing all American troops would likely spell the unraveling of ANSF. But even today, Afghan forces already are fraying. Without significant U.S. help, the civil war some analysts are already predicting as an inevitability, perhaps even a return to Taliban rule, is only more likely.