By MAJ Fernando Lujan, USA, and Major Khoshal Sadat
Editor’s Note: A week ago, The New York Times (and At War) published pieces about an Army lieutenant colonel, Daniel L. Davis, who felt that the war in Afghanistan was not going well and that senior American military officials were not being honest about it. Lt. Col. Davis’ assertions, detailed in an unclassified report and an essay in Armed Forces Journal , have prompted much debate, pro and con. Below, two special forces officers, one an American who spent last year working with Afghan forces, and the other an Afghan, offer a different view. The officers did not write with the explicit purpose of countering Lt. Col. Davis, but merely to document their observations on the progress and pitfalls of training Afghan security forces in one very unsettled province. But the final product presents a far less pessimistic assessment of the Afghan forces than Lt. Col. Davis.
The first thing we noticed when we stepped off the helicopter in windswept Zabul province was a surprising but unmistakable feeling of pride and purpose among the Afghan soldiers. My friend Khoshal Sadat and I were visiting the first kandaks (battalions) to be declared officially independent in the entire country, and we secretly expected them to be in disarray. We were traveling as part of a tiny, specialized team of Afghan officers and Dari- or Pashto-speaking American advisers. Our job was to embed with units across the country and gain a deeper understanding of their challenges. We wore the same uniforms and rode in the same vehicles as the Afghan troops, spending long hours over dinners, patrols, and guard shifts talking about their hopes and fears now that American forces had pulled back.
A strange juxtaposition of enthusiasm and scarcity abounded everywhere; we felt elated and distraught at the same time. In their battalion headquarters, a special flag was displayed prominently on the wall. Called bayraq-e-iftekhar (the pride flag), this rectangular piece of red, black, green and blue fabric bearing two crossed swords was only issued to Afghan units that had demonstrated themselves capable of operating without United States assistance. They seemed to regard the flag with the deepest reverence, poking their heads in to stare at it, posting a guard at the door, showing us videos from the ceremony where they’d been awarded the honor. Yet in the same building, radios were rigged together with tape and wire, and a single crudely marked map hung in the corner.
We don’t share this story for idle entertainment purposes. In a few short weeks, the snow covering the mountain passes from Pakistan will start to melt, signaling the beginning of a fighting season that may prove the most critical of the war. While much attention has been focused on last year’s efforts to surge combat units and expand security across Southern Afghanistan, the most difficult work is about to begin: Coalition troops will try to hold onto hard-won security gains while simultaneously withdrawing forces and changing missions from “combat” to “advice and assistance.”
Khoshal and I would like to humbly offer our shared perspective — Afghan and American — in hopes that our experience in Zabul with these particular kandaks may help illuminate the challenges and unrealized potential of the fledgling Afghan security forces. Unlike the relatively safe areas in the north and west where other Afghan units have smoothly assumed responsibility for their sectors, Zabul — just north of Kandahar — is still bitterly contested by the enemy. (Indeed, this was the first place the Taliban chose to recruit and re-arm after their post-Sept. 11, 2001, defeat, and the province remains strategically important to this day.) Moreover, while the Afghan troops are impressive, the civilian government is still a long way from administering effectively and police forces lag badly behind their army counterparts.
Zabul is thus an invaluable test case and experiment. As momentum for the withdrawal of United States forces grows, it is likely that other Afghan battalions will find themselves in a similar plight — charged, somewhat prematurely, with holding onto “cleared” territory despite heavy pressure from a resilient Taliban, dwindling coalition resources and nascent civilian capacity. It seems that this war will largely be decided by the Afghans, long after the bulk of United States combat troops depart. Policymakers and leaders would be wise to take a good look at Zabul’s solitary kandaks — some of the first Afghan troops to take control of their own destinies — for they offer a wealth of important lessons and a bellwether of our future prospects.
Over the next few days of our team’s visit, we saw more odd juxtapositions. Out on tiny firebases — no matter how remote or austere — Afghan soldiers ran to stand in formation when we arrived, the lieutenant in charge shouting his report: “One officer, one sergeant, 10 soldiers ready for inspection! For Afghanistan we serve!” But looking down at the soldiers’ feet, we often saw toes sticking through boots worn down by countless patrols in mountainous terrain. In the absence of formal resupply, they improvised: Soldiers scrubbed 55-gallon fuel drums clean and converted them to makeshift water tanks, carrying them a kilometer up the mountain on their backs every morning. They dug holes in the ground to keep food cool.
On patrol one day, we watched an Afghan soldier using a long wooden rake to probe for buried mines and tripwires, calmly scraping the dirt a few feet in front of him. When he saw something suspicious, he’d get down on all fours and rub his hand along the ground. No bomb suit, no metal detector.
Every dawn after prayer, the soldiers would pile into unarmored pickup trucks, waving huge Afghan flags and rifles, then drive down the most dangerous roads in the country looking for the Taliban. Sometimes an engine would sputter and fail, and the soldiers would huddle together to push the truck to a running start. The sight was both inspiring and heartbreaking — some of the bravest and most committed men we’ve ever seen, in some of the worst conditions.
Khoshal and I spent long hours talking about what we’d seen, trying to understand how the Afghans could have such apparent motivation — especially at the lowest levels — but still sometimes struggle to get basic supplies or coordinate operations. We decided that the answer was much like the Afghan proverb: “The wheat is a little wet, but the millstone is a little dull.” Both sides share some blame.
Success in an advisory mission starts with the right mindset. One of the most commonly heard refrains from United States soldiers across the country is that Afghans “just don’t understand,” but how much of the methods and processes that these soldiers struggle to teach are uniquely Western, crudely grafted onto an Afghan military culture that bears little resemblance to their own? In one operations center we visited, a well-intentioned adviser had left behind several translated copies of the United States counterinsurgency manual and charts from Fort Leavenworth up on the wall, but the Afghans had little idea how to use them, leaving them up more out of deference than utility. In another office, the Afghan staff struggled to use PowerPoint on their computers, spending more time adding sound effects and drawings than actually understanding the operation.
Yet as home to the first Afghan units to demonstrate the ability to operate alone, Zabul also held examples of exceptionally effective advising: One innovative United States platoon learned to deal in white boards and terrain models instead of plasma screens and computers; to explain their points in well-known proverbs instead of slides and bullet points; to let the Afghans consistently take the lead, even if doing so meant the mission took twice as long and was half as successful. Undeterred by stories of Afghan soldiers shooting coalition advisers, these Americans lived in the same compound as their counterparts, spending countless hours working, eating, training and relaxing together. In their view, staying safe depended more on knowing the Afghans well and building strong relationships — not imposing stricter rules or staying in the bunker.
At another base, we saw something truly remarkable: Afghan sergeants — their advisers now gone — organizing every day for meetings to have real, candid discussions about how they could continue training their troops, learn from past mistakes, or improve discipline. The meetings were a far cry from what might be seen in the United States Army or Marines, but they were effective — and the Afghans conducting them a much more important indicator of progress than other metrics we tend to watch.
Which is to say that as coalition forces begin to withdraw, the mission must be about the Afghans they train and empower. Rotating home after year-long deployments, American soldiers should measure their success by looking at the impact they’ve made on their Afghan partners — not at the terrain they’ve seized or the enemies they’ve killed. This seems somewhat obvious in theory, but can be extraordinarily difficult for coalition units to realize once they arrive on the ground and feel the pressure from higher headquarters to demonstrate ‘results’ in a short period of time. “We cleared 2 villages, captured 5 Taliban and constructed a school” is much easier to report than “Sergeant Jamaluddin finally started to earn the trust of his men, learned how to spot an ambush, or built a relationship with the local malik” — especially when the quality of Afghan leaders is uneven at best, and even the smallest Afghan-led operation can be a monumental task. Yet this is the only way to succeed.
Learning to have the patience or cultural understanding to be an effective adviser does not come naturally to many coalition troops. In fact, finding the right person for this type of mission is even more important than providing him (or her) with the right mix of language training, role-playing exercises and technical expertise before the deployment. But all too often when the conventional military is forced to assign leaders to “combat” versus “advisory” missions, the best are sent to fight while marginal performers are relegated to train and advise. Units assigned this duty are frequently created ad hoc, with little experience working together and no familiarity with Afghan culture. Additionally, some of the most valuable advisory positions — those involving experience in logistics or human intelligence or fire support — often go understaffed or neglected. The Afghans may learn to walk perfect patrols, but without the ability to sustain themselves on a basic level — to get fuel and ammo, find the enemy, or call for support in a firefight — none of the recent security gains can endure.
Equally critical to the advisory effort is continuity: After individuals are selected and trained, they must be sent to work with the same Afghan units again and again — long-term personal relationships are the real coin of the realm in Afghanistan. Khoshal and I repeatedly saw this at work in Zabul and other provinces, where United States Special Forces soldiers who had been rotating into country since 2002 had forged friendships with Afghan leaders that allowed them to have real, closed-door conversations about the most difficult subjects — bribery, incompetence or politics — then work to address these impediments to institutional change. The numbers associated with these types of embedded advisers are comparatively small — whether special operations or conventional, civilian or military — yet these people must be the very best, and prepared to dedicate years to the mission.
We’ve talked much about the millstone, but little about the wheat. None of these changes can succeed without help from the Afghans, and their chain of command also faces a daunting personnel challenge: Finding a way to remove leaders who are predatory, incapable or corrupt. A single bad kandak commander can set back the counterinsurgency effort in his area by years, driving the locals to the Taliban and poisoning the unit culture. Too often, Afghan leaders are forced to avert their eyes when the offending individual is politically connected in Kabul or protected by a powerful friend. Instead, the best, the most qualified, must rise to the top. This may not happen in a year or even five — but it must happen if we are to succeed. Already there are signs of this in Zabul, where ethnic distinctions and political ties are starting to blur in the kandaks under shared hardship and experience. Our peers, the youngest generation of Afghan soldiers and officers, are eager for more of these changes, and they whisper about it every chance they get.
It is these young Afghan leaders who will ultimately succeed or fail. They must take the lead from their coalition advisers, and show the same pride and commitment we saw in Zabul. While the soldiers we visited there were certainly exceptional, they were not as rare as one might think. On other trips, in Kandahar, Helmand or Uruzgan, we saw other Afghans at far-flung bases who showed the same determination and resolve. Sometimes they formed a majority, but other times they worked alone or in small groups of like-minded believers, surrounded by many who lacked their ability, experience or desire. They must continue to find each other, to organize and grow the institution from within. They must take the training and equipment that the coalition provides and use it for the right purpose — not to find a civilian job in Kabul or enrich themselves with bribes — but to make the Army stronger and protect Afghanistan from its enemies. Now is the time for those leaders to step forward, as members of the most established institution in Afghanistan, and set an example for the rest of the country.
On the final night of our embed, we stayed on a remote firebase in the mountains. The Afghans had received word of an impending Taliban attack, by perhaps 50 or 60 fighters. Without any prompting, the officer in charge, a grizzled lieutenant who’d lost an eye in a firefight years ago, immediately started going through rehearsals for an attack. Calmly directing his men, he drilled them again and again about what position they’d take on the walls, what code words they’d use for different actions. Then he invited us to join him on a night ambush, hoping to hide some of his men high on the mountain and surprise the Taliban as they approached the camp. He briefed his soldiers on a large-terrain model, held inspections, then we moved out just before the moon started to rise in the sky.
Staring over our rifle sights in the darkness, I asked him in a whisper if his men could fight off the attack. Surprisingly candid, he explained that it all depended on his men’s confidence. That night, with a tiny group of United States Special Forces joining them, his men felt good. Other times, they’d had a team with a radio that could call for airstrikes and medical evacuation, or they knew American fighter jets were in the air. Even with no coalition troops around this time, he explained that if they could just trust that their superiors in Kabul or Kandahar would support them, they would know that they were stronger than the enemy. After a long pause, he turned to me and said something I still remember: “This will be a long war, my friend, and I don’t know if I’ll live to see the end of it. But the Afghan Army will fight, and we’ll win. We just need a little help.”
Major Fernando Lujan is a Dari-speaking United States Army Special Forces officer and fellow at the Center for a New American Security who embedded with Afghan units last year as part of the NATO commander’s Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team. He wrote about Afghanistan for The Times last year. Major Khoshal Sadat is an Afghan Special Forces officer specializing in counterterrorism who is currently attending the United States Command and General Staff College and Army Ranger school. They will both return to Afghanistan after their current assignments.