New York Times Disses Afghan Troops. Now What?

Today’s New York Times questions the efficacy of Afghan troops. And how. Writer C J Chivers more or less concludes that there’s no way on God’s green earth (or Afghanistan’s wind blasted dirt) that local troops will be ready to lead the fight against the Taliban by the Obama administration’s 2011 deadline for U.S. troop withdrawal. In the interests of, what, political sensitivity? Fairness? The writer alternatively praises the Afghan National Army and disses their abilities. “At the squad level it has been a source of effective, if modestly skilled, manpower. Its soldiers have shown courage and a willingness to fight. Afghan soldiers have also proved, as they have for years, to be more proficient than Americans at searching Afghan homes and identifying potential Taliban members — two tasks difficult for outsiders to perform.” Chivers sets ‘em up . . . Then knocks them down.

Moreover, in multiple firefights in which Times journalists were present, many Afghan soldiers did not aim — they pointed their American-issued M-16 rifles in the rough direction of the incoming small-arms fire and pulled their triggers without putting rifle sights to their eyes. Their rifle muzzles were often elevated several degrees high.

Shouts from the Marines were common. “What you shooting at, Hoss?” one yelled during a long battle on the second day, as an Afghan pulled the trigger repeatedly and nonchalantly at nothing that was visible to anyone else.

Then again . . .

Not all of their performance was this poor.

On the other hand . . .

After several days, no Marine officer had seen an Afghan use a map or plan a complicated patrol. In another indicator of marginal military readiness, the Afghan platoon had no weapons heavier than a machine gun or a rocket-propelled grenade.

Afghan officers organized no indirect fire support whatsoever in the week of fighting. All supporting fire for Company K — airstrikes, rockets, artillery and mortars — was coordinated by Marines. The Afghans also relied entirely on the American military for battlefield resupply.

That said . . .

Sgt. Joseph G. Harms, a squad leader in the company’s Third Platoon, spent a week on the western limit of the company’s area, his unit alone with what he described as a competent Afghan contingent. In the immediacy of fighting side by side with Afghans, and often tested by Taliban fighters, he found his Afghan colleagues committed and brave.

Yes well . . .

Shortfalls in the Afghan junior officer corps were starkly visible at times. On the third day of fighting, when Company K was short of water and food, the company command group walked to the eastern limit of its operations area to supervise two Marine platoons as they seized a bridge, and to arrange fire support. The group was ambushed twice en route, coming under small-arms fire from Taliban fighters hiding on the far side of a canal . . .

The Marines loaded up. They would walk across the danger area again, this time laden with all the water and food they could carry. Captain Biggers asked the Afghan platoon commander, Capt. Amanullah, to have his men pack their share. He refused, though his own soldiers to the west were out of food, too.

Captain Biggers told the interpreter to put his position in more clear terms. “Tell him that if he doesn’t carry water and chow, he and his soldiers can’t have any of ours,” he said, his voice rising.

This doesn’t sound good at all. There’s an old expression in the business world: culture eats strategy for lunch. Judging from this report, the Americans and Afghanis are winning the battles but losing their lunch. Or something like that.

No matter how you paraphrase it, it seems clear that the Americans are fighting this war as their war. They’re directing the place and pace of conflict, and using overwhelming force (much of it via helicopter gunships) as their trump card. It may be an effective short-term solution, but that long-term thing grows closer every day. As it does.