Analysis Military

Afghanistan Weekly: Where are NATO Forces stationed in Afghanistan and what are they doing?

Our current strategic approach to Afghanistan is called R4+S – Reinforce, Realign, Regionalize, Reconcile and Sustain. To support this approach there are two ongoing military operations with separate forces and missions. The main effort is the NATO led “Operation Resolute Support,” which is focused on the train and assist mission; the other is the American-led Operation Freedom Sentinel, which is an SF-centric force, focused on counterterrorism (mainly al Qaeda and ISIS-K).

NATO currently has 15,653 soldiers in Afghanistan organized into five regional Train, Advise and Assist Commands (TAAC). TAAC North in Mazar-e Sharif is run by the Germans, TAAC South (Kandahar) and TAAC East (Laghman) are run by the Americans, TAAC West belongs to the Italians and TAAC Central, which is based out of and focused on Kabul, is run by the Turks. In addition, there are two independent General-officer led American task forces in the country; TF Southeast is a U.S. Army task force based out of Gardez and focused on Paktika, Khost, Paktiya, Ghazni, Logar, Wardak and Bamyan provinces. Task Force Southwest is a U.S. Marine Corps task force focused on the Helmand province.

The troops supporting Operation Freedom Sentinel are mixed into the NATO numbers, but are mostly working from Afghan SF bases like Camp Commando in Wardak province. They may be based out of other places; it’s hard to tell because the SF community is good at maintaining OPSEC.

RS support

Those Special Operations forces assigned to Operation Freedom Sentinel are the only NATO forces who remain in a direct combat role. They can turn up anywhere the Taliban has routed Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) units and grabbed key terrain as they did in the cities Kunduz and Ghazni this past year. When they do show up on the battlefield, they are accompanying the Afghan forces they are mentoring (which is how we have always done mentoring in the past).

The shift in focus for NATO from fighting to training and assisting reflects the Reinforce and Realignment portion of our long-term strategy.  There is also a realignment of Afghan security forces that is shifting paramilitary police formally controlled by the Afghan Ministry of the Interior to the Ministry of Defense, as well as the introduction of a low-cost pilot program called the Afghan National Army Territorial Force which are designed to hold areas cleared by the Afghan Army. NATO also deploys enablers in the form of medical evacuation, close air support, fire support and intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) via drones.

The Regionalize and Reconcile portion of our strategy falls under the purview of the U.S. Department of State and the administration has dispatched the former Afghan-American ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to assist with that effort. The sustainment portion of the strategy has two important components — the first being the imperative to keep American (and NATO) combat casualties to an absolute minimum; the second being the encouragement of donor support to keep the Afghan government solvent past 2020 when the current funding agreements expire.

So how are we doing? In the first six days of November, the Taliban overran four ANDSF bases. The most recent attack was on a Border Police post in Farah province where every defender was either killed or captured. The most recent Special Inspector General for Afghanistan report states that government control at the district level is at an all-time low. The Long War Journal assesses that the Afghan government controls 145 districts, the Taliban control 52, and 199 districts are contested. It would appear that we are not doing well.

In a recent conversation with friend of The Freq Mike “Mac” McNamara (the host of All Marine Radio), the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joe Dunford said our strategy was working. The costs, in both casualties and dollars, are sustainable, and ANDSF units are showing incremental improvements across the board. The Taliban has been unable to hold key district centers or cities when they have seized them and they took a beating this fighting season from our tactical aircraft. Our 4R’s+S strategy is based on staying in Afghanistan for the long haul and Gen. Dunford feels that, over time, we can mentor both the Afghan security forces and the Afghan government to the point where they can maintain the security of their country on their own.

The optimistic assessment of the current situation in Afghanistan by Gen. Dunford is difficult to square with the realities on the ground. A careful reading of the June 2018 DoD report Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan yields this interesting paragraph:

“The use of indirect fires from Afghan artillery and mortar systems lags behind other enablers. The primary obstacle to the use of indirect fires is a lack of trained forward observers and competent fire-direction controllers. Artillery and mortars are used primarily as direct-fire systems or counter-fire systems following insurgent rocket attacks. The ANDSF prefer aerial fires, if available, to indirect fires during offensive operations.”

The ability to use indirect fire to enable movement is a basic infantry task. Although American forces have dedicated fire support teams at the company level, any competent squad leader has the ability to call for and adjust fires in a pinch. At this late stage in the Afghan War, the inability of ANDSF to call for fire while attacking enemy formations is (to put it mildly) concerning.

That is one of over a dozen major problems highlighted in the DoD report. Other show stoppers concern logistical sustainment, pay issues, retention, computerized record keeping, and the accountability of sensitive gear and equipment.

The myriad of problems identified in the report could be fixed over time, but they aren’t the real issue. The real issue is mentoring a foreign army,  locked in mortal combat with an intractable foe, without accompanying that army into combat. The current Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, Owen West, wrote an excellent book about mentoring Iraqi forces based on his experience as a Marine reservist. His father, Bing West, also wrote an excellent book about mentoring Vietnamese forces when he was in the Marine Corps. Both books are specific on the requirement to not only join the forces you are mentoring in combat, but to live with them; enduring the same circumstances the forces you are mentoring are enduring. According to the West family if you don’t live, sleep, train and fight with the forces you are mentoring, you are wasting your time. That is leadership 101 and a hard point to argue.

Our current approach to mentoring has been forced to factor in the problem of Green on Blue attacks (the subject of my next post) with the use of “Guardian Angels“. The NATO mentoring teams live in fortified compounds where Afghans are not allowed or welcomed. When they leave their compound to go and mentor the Afghans, they bring guardian angels who stand, weapons at the ready, prepared to shoot any ANDSF member who appears about to attack them.

tf SW
Marines from TF Southwest arriving to work with their Afghan colleagues. Note the guardian angel walking point. Photo from DoD

When the mentoring teams work with the Afghans, they provide staff officer support at the Corps level. On the firm bases where American are co-located with the Afghans there are training detachments teaching tactics, techniques and procedures, and there appears to be some weapons training too, but the focus is on staff planing and battlefield management.

How does that approach work on the ground?  This account from the New York Times on the assassination of General Raziq paints a grim picture:

After General Miller, other American commanders and some of the wounded departed on the helicopters, members of the American ground convoy tried to make their way out of the governor’s palace to their base at Kandahar Airfield. They clashed with Afghan forces at the palace gates and exchanged fire.

One of the Afghan guards was shot dead by an American gunner while the vehicles rammed through the gate, Afghan and American officials said. The convoy was attacked one more time at a traffic circle, according to American officials.

How much trust and confidence can you build with the Afghans when, after the assassination of a key ally, you have to shoot your way out their compound killing ANDSF guards? This year we have had ten American servicemen killed in action in Afghanistan. Seven of those ten were killed in Green on Blue (or insider) attacks. Ten servicemen lost in 11 months of fighting is a sustainable casualty rate, but when 70% of those losses are caused by the forces we are mentoring — that low number suddenly looks unsustainable.

It is a safe assumption that face-to-face meetings between senior Afghans and senior Americans will now rarely occur outside an American held base. This will impede, but not necessarily derail, the 4R+S strategy. Time will tell if that strategy is a viable road map toward peace in Afghanistan, but it appears that time is not on our side. If the Taliban continue to inflict American casualties with insider attacks, we will not be in the business of saving Afghanistan much longer.


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