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H.D.S. Greenway

US tactics ill-suited for Afghan troops

By H.D.S. Greenway
January 5, 2010

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SEVEN YEARS ago Hamid Karzai basked in American favor, and there was much optimism that Afghanistan would be a success story. Although the Taliban was already stirring after its defeat two years before, and the shadow of Iraq was drawing resources away, those problems did not seem insurmountable.

I visited a camp for training a new Afghan National Army, which then numbered some 10,000 strong. The goal was to mold Pashtuns, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and the rest into a truly national force, even though Tajiks of the Northern Alliance dominated the government then as now. There was worry that the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group and the backbone of the Taliban, felt underrepresented in Kabul.

Talking to American officers involved in building a modern army out of the ashes of a long civil war, I remembered a scene in a camp along the Pakistani border nearly 20 years before. Then Americans were supporting the resistance to the Soviet occupation, but the training of the “holy warriors’’ was very different. I was shown how an innocent-looking piece of pipe could be smuggled into Soviet-occupied Kabul and be fitted to another innocent-looking pipe, smuggled in separately, and then filled with explosives.

I was shown a powder that could ignite gasoline at the touch. A bottle filled with gasoline - the classic Molotov cocktail - was proving too dangerous for unskilled recruits to handle. But put the bottle in a plastic bag with this powder and you could throw it against an armored car without worrying about trying to light a rag stuffed in the bottle’s neck. The idea was to keep it simple.

There was training with AK-47s, grenade launchers, light machine guns, but nothing intricate or too difficult for illiterate tribesmen to master.

Tactics included small-unit ambushes and concealment - hardly necessary for a people long practiced in lightning-swift strikes before fading away into the countryside. I thought then of how the Soviets were trained for a very different kind of war, and how these lightly armed units were easy to train and very effective, as generations of British soldiers had found to their sorrow in another century.

Today, seven years later, the United States is emerging as the new occupying power, and our Afghans are still not ready to stand up to the Taliban. We read of how woefully inadequate are the Afghan army and police. The army now numbers some 90,000, but they are not up to the task. “The Afghan army and police have shown themselves unable to maintain themselves in the field,’’ Dexter Filkins of The New York Times wrote recently. They seem incapable of purging “their ranks of corruption, to mount operations at night, or to operate any weapon more complicated than a rifle.’’

In addition, American trainers complain that they have no “bureaucratic skills and literacy levels necessary to administer a large force . . . even after years of monitoring,’’ Filkins wrote. Padded battalions and “ghost soldiers,’’ who don’t exist but whose pay is picked up by corrupt officers, are commonplace. “The focus of the training program has always been more soldiers at the expense of quality training,’’ one American trainer lamented.

One saw in Vietnam the same “ghost soldiers’’ and corrupt commanders, and, although there were good units, on the whole our Vietnamese never seemed as motivated as the enemy.

Could it be that we are training our Afghans in the wrong way just as we trained our Vietnamese to depend on complicated logistics and the vastly superior firepower of a Western army? Would we better off helping Afghans to fight as Afghans have always done over the centuries, with stealth, light arms, and their unmatched sense of terrain?

The Taliban does not depend on literate, highly skilled foot soldiers who can master sophisticated weapons or demonstrate bureaucratic skills.

Since a competent Afghan army is the key to President Obama’s strategy, should we be training them to fight more as the Taliban does, instead of like Americans? Would we be better off letting Afghans be Afghans?

H.D.S. Greenway’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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