The Afghan National Army in Combat: Dazed and Confused?

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Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Members of an Afghan National Army battalion line up at the Kabul Military Training Center on Oct. 2, 2010

It was past 2 a.m. when the American soldier spotted two armed men moving on the roof of a mud-brick compound just across from the one where his platoon was sleeping. Were the Afghan National Army (ANA) troops who were supposed to be keeping watch not at their assigned post, leaving the platoon vulnerable to a sneak attack? A red flare was popped to confirm the target before the American soldier fired, his finger poised on the trigger of his semiautomatic rifle. "Whoa, whoa, hey, hey!" a pair of voices shrieked. Much to the soldier's relief, and the platoon officer's chagrin, the furtive figures turned out to be ANA soldiers who were disobeying orders and moving to another building. The stunt could have turned deadly for them and the American unit they were attached to.

The incident speaks to the challenges facing the U.S. forces that are partnering with Afghan units in volatile parts of southern Afghanistan. With the start of a troop drawdown planned for next summer, American-led forces are maneuvering to roll back the Taliban in longtime strongholds. They are doing this with the help of Afghan troops, whom the U.S. is simultaneously trying to equip to take a greater role in securing their country. U.S. military commanders are quick to sing the ANA's praises, noting the rise in troop levels, the ratio of Afghan forces on operations and the esprit de corps. The ANA is certainly on a different plane from the under-resourced and corruption-riddled national police. Yet a bump up in quantity should not be conflated with reliable quality, especially where it matters most — in the fight. Illiteracy is a major impediment in mission planning. In the field, problems typically range from insubordination to a lack of discipline.

In the badlands of Zhari district, in western Kandahar, the ANA is undergoing a trial by fire — and it may be melting. The harsh landscape that gave birth to the Taliban has witnessed some of the heaviest combat in the province since several battalions from the 101st Airborne Division deployed there in the summer. Roadside-bomb and rocket-propelled-grenade (RPG) attacks are frequent, and hours-long gun battles are not unheard of. Rather than having a token ANA presence, as in the past, U.S. forces are now working alongside battalion-size Afghan ranks. The promise of fierce hostilities, however, took a toll upfront. During their Kabul training, nearly one-quarter of roughly 800 Afghan soldiers went missing when they learned they would be heading for the fierce war zone in the south. Another 150 have since deserted, in part, fellow soldiers say, because they were unable to take leave and deliver earnings to their families. Overall, this has left just over half the designated troop level on the ground.

For many of those who don't go AWOL, drugs are an easy means of escape, as the acrid wafts of smoke from some ANA camps inside and outside the wire suggest. Hashish and heroin are cheap, readily available, and used by at least one-quarter of the men in service, according to the Afghan army's estimates. At Forward Operating Base Howz-e-Madad, where an American battalion is based, hashish has been known to be sold in a kiosk at the edge of the Afghan barracks. The area was recently ordered off-limits to U.S. soldiers, but it's still open for business to Afghan troops, whose officers do not take issue with the outlet's presence. In fact, some expressed outright support. "Some soldiers are addicted [to hashish], and they fight well against the enemy," says Captain Fazilhaq Fazili, a five-year veteran. "It's good for fighting the Taliban."

The captain blustered that while he was grateful for U.S. support, "we would not need the Americans here if they gave us the right weapons. We could take control tomorrow." Hardly, say U.S. soldiers on the ground, who assert that Afghan forces are co-dependent on them at best and bring plenty of baggage to missions downrange. Illiteracy is a major impediment in mission planning. In the field, problems typically range from insubordination to a lack of discipline. On a recent clearing operation in Taliban territory, for instance, a tense house-to-house search was disrupted by a fistfight between two ANA soldiers. Later, an Afghan soldier refused to patrol down a route feared to be seeded with IEDs. Another argued with an officer who had assigned him to pull guard duty. American soldiers say such incidents are not uncommon.

At the same time, there is a parallel understanding that it's wrong to have high expectations. "Their army's young," says Sergeant Galen Bisel of Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment. "We have had 200-plus years to work out the kinks. They've had, what, seven years." Of the five ANA soldiers attached to his platoon, he says all are "rock solid." One of them, nicknamed "RPG" for the weapon of choice he wields with lethal accuracy, is in his late 40s and says he's been fighting since he was a teenager, when he took up arms against the Soviets. Bisel calls him fearless in a firefight. The same is said of a younger soldier, Farid, 21, who bristles with the kind of pride that U.S. commanders hope will grow to attract a steady stream of recruits keen on sticking around. "The Taliban can't stand against us. They take a few shots and run," Farid says.

American troops insist that Afghan soldiers, for all their inconsistencies, have a gift for spotting the Taliban's most effective weapon — the IED — ahead of time, saving lives and limbs. The ANA soldiers also distinguish possible enemy fighters from ordinary farmers far better than American troops do. Just as critically, with a counterinsurgency strategy that's hinged on winning public support, the ANA's linguistic and cultural advantages are seen as vital to getting locals to buy into a government that has until recently been invisible because of the Taliban threat. Says Lieut. Colonel Peter Benchoff, a battalion commander in Zhari: "We understand they have weaknesses, but they have strengths. Sometimes it's worth us slowing down to [take advantage] of their positives."

However, with the fighting season winding down and a White House war review due in December, time is limited. And in the Taliban's ethnic Pashtun strongholds, there's an added complication. While army recruitment is up nationwide, thanks in part to pay increases and shorter training sessions, the preponderance of northern Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras in the ANA is an enduring source of tension in contested communities in the deep Pashtun south. Afghan officers say they're seeing more locals in the area ranks but that the numbers are still lopsided, as potential recruits either sympathize with the Taliban or fear retribution against them and their families.

The tough predicament faced by some of the incoming Pashtuns is not lost on their American counterparts. "This is a deployment for us. It's a garrison for them," observes one U.S. soldier, shaking his head. In other words: We grit it out and then get to leave. They must live — and fight — in their own backyard, come what may.