Thursday, July 15, 2010

We must stand with the Afghan soldiers

The Telegraph

After the killing of three British soldiers in Afghanistan, Richard Dannatt, former Chief of the General Staff, argues that the Afghan army must change its approach.

For the families of the three members of the British Army who lost their lives at the hands of a renegade Afghan soldier early on Tuesday morning, the incident is a total tragedy. But for the Nato mission in Afghanistan, it is a most deadly wake-up call. The Western strategy is based on strengthening the Afghan National Army and police, so that they can progressively assume responsibility for the security of their own country. That has to be the right approach – but such events underline how much more easily this is said than done.

We have experience in many campaigns of building up local military and security capacity – Sierra Leone and Kosovo are two small recent examples, Iraq a very fresh one. But doing it quickly and doing it well often conflict. Nato has already increased the Afghan army to a strength of 134,000 in a handful of years, and the aspiration is to reach 171,000 by 2014 – which is growth on steroids. Indeed, this is the crux of the problem: as the numbers rise, the quality suffers and the risks increase.

In this case, the main problems seem to have been inadequate vetting of the recruits as they entered the army, and poor unit cohesion, so that an unreliable, unstable or treacherous soldier was not identified by his colleagues or commanders. The result will be the loss of trust between the locals and their mentors, and a major stutter in the campaign.

How can all this be done better? The speedy growth of the Afghan army remains an urgent necessity. Domestic opinion in Britain, America and elsewhere will struggle to accept any extension of the timescale of the campaign. Having the Afghans trained and mentored by dedicated units and teams is a sound plan, and is working well. The days when a squad would run from the battlefield, leaving their British mentors to fight things out, are generally behind us. When reasonably trained, equipped and led, the Afghan soldier fights well. Moreover, the recruiting policy, whereby soldiers in a given unit are drawn from across the country, rather than kept together in tribal groupings, remains sound.

That, however, is where the good news runs out. The main problem is that Afghan soldiers are recruited on three-year contracts, sent to their units after eight weeks' training, and remain there. If they are lucky enough to be sent to a Kandak – an Afghan battalion – in the north or west, things will be fairly quiet. But if they are posted to the east or south – in Kandahar or Helmand – it will be three years' hard fighting. It is therefore not surprising that many of the initial recruits who were sent to Helmand in 2006 and 2007 have left the army in the past few months, as soon as their contracts were over.

To solve this problem, the Afghan army needs to instigate a rotation policy, which gives its units periods of training and of service in quieter areas, as well as taking their turn in the tougher spots. The Afghan soldier may be tough (not to mention illiterate), but he is a human being with needs and fears like the rest of us. Physical courage is a finite resource that needs to be husbanded. This needs to be recognised, otherwise the high levels of absenteeism, drug and alcohol abuse and individual breakdowns will increase, and we will exacerbate the risk of rogue actions like that of last Tuesday.

It is not, of course, up to us: at the highest levels, the Afghan army sets its own policies, so it is the Afghan leaders who must realise what is needed. Establishing a rotation plan will both conserve their troops' fighting power and make them more effective. And if they can be persuaded to adopt it, we must match them. I have always been an implacable opponent of British combat units spending more than six months on the front line, but with those involved in training and mentoring, this should be different.

To attach British or Allied soldiers to an Afghan unit that is following a sensible rotation cycle would not only benefit the Afghans, but would also constitute an acceptable assignment for their mentors. Over a 12-month period, our troops could really build up relationships and trust, which would stand the test of a hard four months in Helmand or Kandahar, and thereby markedly improve the overall efficiency of the Afghan forces.

The most significant mistake we made in Iraq was in our training and mentoring of the fledgling Iraqi army, which followed from our earlier decision not to embed our training teams with the Iraqis. The result was our embarrassment in Basra. We responded very quickly, and are doing things differently and better in Afghanistan. But this is a partnership, and the Afghans must now also do things differently, in order to give their army and themselves a chance.

We are standing with the Afghans as a nation; we must also stand with them as individuals. T E Lawrence did not just spend six months with the Arabs in the desert and go home: he built trust and confidence on an individual level over an extended period. Before the partition of India, our grandfathers and great-uncles did the same for years. Theirs is a good example to follow.

General Sir Richard Dannatt is a former Chief of the General Staff

1 comment:

  1. I agree. Rotation of the units between quiet and active areas is **absolutely critical**.
    Rest is essential, as is the occasional spell in a more active trouble spot.
    Rotation is a simple-enough thing to implement, but it would pay *HUGE* dividends in the future.