Commentary Magazine


A Military in Progress in Afghanistan

C.J. “Chris” Chivers, a former Marine officer turned New York Times correspondent, provides an update on how the Afghan National Army is doing in the Marjah offensive. It’s a mixed picture — pretty much what one would have expected. The Afghans are hardly leading and planning the mission, as suggested by some spinners in Kabul. Chivers writes:

In every engagement between the Taliban and one front-line American Marine unit, the operation has been led in almost every significant sense by American officers and troops. They organized the forces for battle, transported them in American vehicles and helicopters from Western-run bases into Taliban-held ground, and have been the primary fighting force each day.

No surprise there, given how advanced the Marine Corps is and how relatively primitive the ANA remains. But the good news is that the ANA soldiers are not running away, either — as so many Iraqi soldiers did in the early years of the Iraq War. Chivers notes:

At the squad level [the ANA] 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….

“They are a lot better than the Iraqis,” said the sergeant [Joseph G. Harms], who served a combat tour in Iraq. “They understand all of our formations, they understand how to move. They know how to flank and they can recognize the bad guys a lot better than we can.”

The main problem for the ANA is a lack of effective leadership. Chivers recounts an anecdote of an ANA captain taking away a Red Bull that one of his men had acquired in a trade with a marine; the captain and his officers and NCOs drank the entire beverage and didn’t let the poor soldier have a sip. It’s hard to imagine something like that happening in the Marine Corps, where officers are drilled to always take care of the men first and foremost. That ethic is alien to the ANA, as it is to most Third World militaries, and it will take time to inculcate it, however imperfectly.

It will take just as long to teach ANA officers to conduct complex operations. The task is actually more difficult than in Iraq because of the lower level of literacy and education in Afghanistan, but it’s not impossible. If the Taliban can field effective leadership, so can the ANA. Just don’t expect results overnight — and don’t write off the ANA as hopeless because they can’t perform up to USMC standards.