Sunday, February 21, 2010

US Marines Do Heavy Lifting as Afghan Puppets Lag in Battle

February 21, 2010

Military Analysis: Marines Do Heavy Lifting as Afghan Army Lags in Battle

New York Times

MARJA, Afghanistan — As American Marines and Afghan soldiers have fought their way into this Taliban stronghold, the performance of the Afghan troops has tested a core premise of the American military effort here: in the not-too-distant future, the security of this country can be turned over to indigenous forces created at the cost of American money and blood.

Scenes from this corner of the battlefield, observed over eight days by two New York Times journalists, suggest that the day when the Afghan Army will be well led and able to perform complex operations independently, rather than merely assist American missions, remains far off.

The effort to train the Afghan Army has long been troubled, with soldiers and officers repeatedly falling short. And yet after nearly a decade of American and European mentorship and many billions of dollars of American taxpayer investment, American and Afghan officials have portrayed the Afghan Army as the force out front in this important offensive against the Taliban.

Statements from Kabul have said the Afghan military is planning the missions and leading both the fight and the effort to engage with Afghan civilians caught between the Taliban and the newly arrived troops.

But that assertion conflicts with what is visible in the field. 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.

The Afghan National Army, or A.N.A., has participated. 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.

By all other important measures, though — from transporting troops, directing them in battle and coordinating fire support to arranging modern communications, logistics, aviation and medical support — the mission in Marja has been a Marine operation conducted in the presence of fledgling Afghan Army units, whose officers and soldiers follow behind the Americans and do what they are told.

That fact raises questions about President Obama’s declared goal of beginning to withdraw American forces in July 2011 and turning over security to the Afghan military and the even more troubled police forces.

There have been ample examples in the offensive of weak Afghan leadership and poor discipline to boot.

In northern Marja, a platoon of Afghan soldiers landed with a reinforced Marine rifle company, Company K, Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, which was inserted by American Army helicopters. The Marine officers and noncommissioned officers here quickly developed a mixed impression of the Afghan platoon, whose soldiers were distributed through their ranks.

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.

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.

Not all of their performance was this poor.

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.

“They are a lot better than the Iraqis,” said the sergeant, 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.”

Capt. Joshua P. Biggers, the Company K commander, said that the Afghan soldiers “could be a force multiplier.”

But both Marines suggested that the Afghan deficiencies were in the leadership ranks. “They haven’t had a chance yet to step out on their own,” Sergeant Harms said. “So they’re still following us.”

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.

After the bridge was seized, Captain Biggers prepared his group for the walk back. Helicopters had dropped food and water near the bridge. He ordered his Marines and the Afghans to fill their packs with it and carry it to another platoon to the west that was nearly out of supplies.

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.

Captain Amanullah at last directed one or two of his soldiers to carry a sleeve of bottled water or a carton of rations — a small concession. The next day, the Afghan soldiers to the west complained that they had no more food and were hungry.

It was not the first time that Captain Amanullah’s sense of entitlement, and indifference toward his troops’ well-being, had manifested itself. The day before the helicopter assault, at Camp Leatherneck, the largest Marine base in Helmand Province, a Marine offered a can of Red Bull energy drink to an Afghan soldier in exchange for one of the patches on the soldier’s uniform.

Captain Amanullah, reclining on his cot, saw the deal struck. After the Afghan soldier had taken possession of his Red Bull, the captain ordered him to hand him the can. The captain opened it and took a long drink, then gave what was left to his lieutenant and sergeants, who each had a sip. The last sergeant handed the empty can back to the soldier, and ordered him to throw it away.

The Marines watched with mixed amusement and disgust. In their culture, the officers and senior enlisted Marines eat last. “So much for troop welfare,” one of them said.

Lackluster leadership took other forms. On Friday night, a week into the operation, Captain Biggers told the Afghan soldiers that they would accompany him the next day to a large meeting with local elders. In the morning, the Afghans were not ready.

The Marines stood impatiently, waiting while the forces that were said by the officials in Kabul to be leading the operation slowly mustered. Captain Biggers, by now used to the delays, muttered an acronym that might sum up a war now deep into its ninth year.

“W.O.A.,” he said. “Waiting on the A.N.A.”

February 21, 2010

Dutch Government Collapses Over Its Stance on Troops for Afghanistan

New York Times

BERLIN — A last-ditch effort to keep Dutch troops in Afghanistan brought down the government in the Netherlands early Saturday, immediately raising fears that the Western military coalition fighting the war was increasingly at risk.

Even as the allied offensive in the Taliban stronghold of Marja continued Saturday, it appeared almost certain that most of the 2,000 Dutch troops would be gone from Afghanistan by the end of the year. The question plaguing military planners was whether a Dutch departure would embolden the war’s critics in other allied countries, where debate over deployment is continuing, and hasten the withdrawal of their troops as well.

“If the Dutch go, which is the implication of all this, that could open the floodgates for other Europeans to say, ‘The Dutch are going, we can go, too,’ ” said Julian Lindley-French, professor of defense strategy at the Netherlands Defense Academy in Breda. “The implications are that the U.S. and the British are going to take on more of the load.”

The collapse of the Dutch government comes as the Obama administration continues to struggle to get European allies to commit more troops to Afghanistan to bolster its attempts to win back the country from a resurgent Taliban. President Obama has made the Afghan war a cornerstone of his foreign policy and, after months of debate, committed tens of thousands more American troops to the effort.

Dutch leaders had promised voters to bring most of the country’s troops home this year. But after entreaties from the United States, Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende tried to find a compromise to extend the Dutch presence, at least on a scaled-back basis. Instead, the Labor Party pulled out of the government after an acrimonious 16-hour cabinet meeting that ran into the early hours of Saturday.

The Dutch troops have been important to the war effort, despite their small numbers, because about 1,500 of them were posted in the dangerous southern Afghan province of Oruzgan.

Analysts said that new elections in the Netherlands, as well as the departure of the Dutch troops, now appeared inevitable.

The war in Afghanistan has been increasingly unpopular among voters in the Netherlands, as in many other parts of Europe, creating strains between governments trying to please the United States and their own people.

But the tension in the Netherlands also reveals how deep the fissures over the war have grown within the NATO alliance.

As the number of Dutch military casualties has increased — 21 soldiers have died — the public back home has grown increasingly resentful at the refusal of some other allies, in particular the Germans, to join the intense fighting in the south.

The probable loss of the Dutch contingent and the continuing resistance to significant increases in manpower by other allies demonstrate the extent to which the dividend expected from the departure of President George W. Bush, who was so unpopular in capitals across the Atlantic, has not materialized, despite Mr. Obama’s popularity in Europe.

“The support for Obama was always double-faced,” said Stefan Kornelius, foreign editor of the German newspaper S├╝ddeutsche Zeitung. “It was never really heartfelt. People loved what they heard, but they never felt obliged to support Obama beyond what they were already doing.”

Since taking office, Mr. Obama has been pressing the non-American members of the coalition to increase their contribution, seeking up to 10,000 additional troops. While NATO has pledged around 7,000 troops, critics of the alliance’s efforts accuse it of fuzzy math: counting up to 2,000 soldiers who were already in Afghanistan but had been scheduled to leave after the recent election.

And even the 7,000 figure was notional; NATO is holding a “force generation conference” this week at which time official pledges will be made, and there are questions about whether it will reach that number.

The Dutch contingent is part of the roughly 40,000 troops from 43 countries who are aiding the United States in Afghanistan, most of those from NATO. The United States is fielding about 75,000 troops, but that number is expected to rise to about 98,000 by the end of the summer.

The Dutch troops were deployed to Oruzgan in 2006 and were originally supposed to stay for two years; that mandate already had been extended another two years to August 2010.

Analysts in the Netherlands said they expected the Dutch troops to leave on time because any deal to keep them there appeared all but impossible in the tumult following the government’s collapse.

“I don’t think there’s room, with a government falling and waiting for elections, for there to be a decision,” said Edwin Bakker, who runs the security and conflict program at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations.

Although American officials are concerned that an exodus by the Dutch could prompt other allies to follow suit, a sudden rush to exit seemed unlikely.

“There is a groundswell of distress in Europe, of feeling this isn’t working, but does that translate into electorates saying we’re going to vote you down? I don’t see that,” said Constanze Stelzenm├╝ller, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.

But the collapse of the Dutch government reinforced the difficulty of holding together an alliance made up of a multitude of countries, each with its own fractious domestic politics.

On Saturday, Mr. Balkenende informed Queen Beatrix, the country’s head of state, of the government’s resignation. According to the Dutch media, she is vacationing in Austria, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs said a decision about whether to hold new elections would probably be made in the next several days. By law the election would have to be held within 83 days of the queen’s decision.

The question of retaining troops in Afghanistan was far from the only issue pulling apart the parties in the governing coalition in the Netherlands; the parties were also divided over a controversial decision to increase the retirement age and the impending need for deep budget cuts. But the dispute over the troops brought relations to the breaking point.

“The majority of the Dutch people say, ‘Go, we’ve done enough. Let other countries do it now.’ That’s a big majority and also the majority in the Parliament,” said Nicoline van den Broek-Laman Trip, a former senator from the Liberal Party, who said she supported the Dutch mission but also believed that it was time to pull back most of the troops, leaving F-16s and perhaps trainers for local Afghan troops.

“They’ve got a small military,” said Mr. Lindley-French of the Netherlands Defense Academy. “The force has suffered a great deal of wear and tear. The Dutch have hung in there.

“The real failing is the ability of NATO partners and allies to rotate through the south and the east of the country, where the real center of the struggle exists.”

Dexter Filkins contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, Scott Sayare from Paris, and Thom Shanker from Washington.

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