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ANDSF training – where did it go so wrong? (Analysis)

17th August 2021 - 17:18 GMT | by Trevor Nash in Holsworthy

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Fear of the Taliban and a lack of confidence in a corrupt government did little to install confidence in the ANDSF. (Photo: DVIDS)

NATO and ISAF forces in Afghanistan have been training the ANDSF for many years, but when it came to the acid test of independent combat, Afghan forces were simply not up to the task. Why?

Although many refer to Afghanistan as ‘the graveyard of empires', this cliché does in part describe how the three Anglo-Afghan wars starting in 1839, the Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989 and the US/NATO presence from 2001 to 2021, have ended in military failure and humiliation.

The 2001 US invasion to remove the Taliban government and its support and harbouring of the al-Qaeda terrorist network was rapidly terminated by President Joe Biden, without any awareness of the thought and time needed to establish a robust handover process and exit strategy.

There is, however, a counter-narrative to this view and that concerns training. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the US had spent $141 billion on reconstruction in Afghanistan. Reuters says this total included $89 billion on ‘training and rearming Afghanistan’s defence forces'.

To this figure needs to be added the training investment provided by the NATO-led International Stabilisation and Assistance Force (ISAF), as well as national contributions from countries such as the UK that had provided instructors for the Afghan National Army Officers' Academy and the Infantry Branch School.

With such investments in training, why did 300,000 Afghanistan National Defence and Security Force (ANDSF) personnel dissolve so rapidly when faced with an estimated 80,000 Taliban?

US forces teach ANA soldiers small arms skills. (Photo: DVIDS)

There are numerous reasons, many revolving around the incompetent and dysfunctional nature of President Ashraf Ghani’s regime and the eventual abandonment of the ANDSF by his government. The GAO had previously highlighted that ‘weapons procured by the US for Afghan forces were vulnerable to theft or misuse due to inadequate staffing, monitoring and record-keeping at central storage depots'.

Such larceny and corruption posed 'a significant danger to US and coalition forces', the GAO added.

In short, profiteering actions by Afghanistan officials were the norm, and such behaviour cannot be altered by political and military advisors.

There is also the question of leadership and organisation within the Afghan National Army (ANA), where soldiers were frequently posted hundreds of miles from their homes, were often not paid and suffered from shortages of rations and ammunition.

More widely, the ANA was no different from Afghanistan as a whole, where corruption and societal nepotism is an accepted part of daily life. This situation is exacerbated by a national literacy rate of around 40%.

Such an environment clearly has a corrosive effect on morale. Some sources had put the annual attrition rate in the ANA at 20-30% per year due to casualties or desertion, and this would clearly have an impact on maintaining a core of trained soldiers. 

The other factor centred on who was the ANA fighting for? For a family-orientated and clan-based society where power lies with 34 powerful provincial leaders, or for a corrupt central government in Kabul?

They’ve got to fight for themselves, fight for their nation…— US President Joe Biden

Importantly, it should also be remembered that the ANA lost 60,000 soldiers since 2002, compared to 2,348 US and 1,147 NATO troops, so it is little wonder that morale has been a factor in its resilience to withstand the recent Taliban advances.

Another factor to consider is how the training given to the ANDSF was evaluated and assessed, and what support was given by the US and its allies.

In a March 2011 testimony to the US Congress, Gen David Petraeus, then commander of ISAF, said that ‘investments in leader development, literacy and institutions have yielded significant dividends’ for the ANDSF.

He added that Afghan forces were taking on significant combat roles against the Taliban, and that Afghan local police units were increasingly limiting the Taliban’s ability to intimidate communities.

A decade into the US military presence in Afghanistan, Petraeus’ ‘culture of optimism’ might have been justified, but today it rings hollow, a feeling magnified by the withdrawal from 2020 of the US contractors that were paid to provide technical and logistical equipment support to the ANDSF. This was as a result of President Donald Trump’s ill-conceived agreement with the Taliban that, in effect, declared when and under what terms the US was going to leave.

In essence, the ANDSF could operate effectively, but only if cajoled and supported by US and ISAF forces. With the foreign troops gone and the previously described dysfunctionality of Ghani’s government increasing by the day, disaster was clearly signposted.

In a press briefing on 10 August, Biden stated that ‘we spent over a trillion dollars over 20 years, we trained and equipped, with modern equipment, over 300,000 Afghan forces. Afghan leaders have to come together…they’ve got to fight for themselves, fight for their nation…but they’ve got to want to fight'.

Biden was right, but his comments were not based on reality and nor did they show any understanding of Afghanistan and its people.

As the ANA folded, leaving their weapons for the Taliban, and as media reports claim the Afghanistan Air Force flew 46 aircraft to Uzbekistan over the weekend of 14-15 August, the aftermath of Western involvement in Afghanistan will be massive and far-reaching. A power vacuum has emerged that the likes of China are already preparing to fill.

Yes, training failed — but only because the West failed to appreciate that its concepts and doctrines do not apply universally to all peoples and regions of the world.

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