A little about me to frame the contents of this blog: In May, I transitioned out of the Army where I served for five years as an officer in the infantry. For nine months of those five years I lived in eastern Afghanistan at a combat outpost (COP) named COP Penich. The COP was unique because my platoon of 33 soldiers shared the base with about 100 Afghan National Army soldiers. When we arrived in November of 2012, our primary mission was to prepare the Afghan soldiers at the COP for life after American forces in their country. This included not only basic military tactics, but also understanding how to manage life on the COP, as the base would no longer be supported by US forces and would operate under complete Afghan control after my unit left in August, 2013. The experience revealed that while our development efforts in Afghanistan are well intentioned, the progress the Army has made as a whole over nearly 15 years in Afghanistan is not sustainable long term.
A Training Issue
The Army is very good at preparing for and winning wars. Year-long training cycles begin before a deployment with a focus on the individual soldier and training him to be an expert with all of his personal equipment. Then the training gradually increases in scale, culminating with a brigade level training exercise which incorporates thousands of soldiers. The detailed structure of the training, periodic assessments, and clear standards that must be met throughout the cycle yield infantrymen who are extremely good at what they’re trained to do.
The Army, however, offers very little cultural training or preparation for working with and training Afghan soldiers. From my experience preparing to deploy to Afghanistan, it was generally assumed that training Afghan soldiers would be no different than training American privates. Unfortunately, as soon as we arrived overseas, we discovered that assumption to be extremely wrong. While all US soldiers must hold a high school diploma, there is no such requirement in Afghanistan. One Afghan commander told me that while I had “educated soldiers who all completed at least the 12th grade” to work with, his soldiers “averaged a fourth grade education level. Most cannot read and write.” In addition to their lack of education, unlike in the American Army, positions of rank and responsibility in Afghanistan are often based on wealth and family reputation. Leaders do not hold their soldiers, and often times themselves, to any sort of standard, so drug use, desertion, and a lack of discipline are prevalent, making training Afghan soldiers completely different than training American soldiers.
A Time Issue
Training a developing Army is a significant undertaking. It takes time to build respect, trust, and meaningful relationships. As the war in Afghanistan continues to drag on, deployments have shrunk in duration from 15 months, to 12 months, and now finally to nine months to help reduce the strain on frequently deployed soldiers and their families. While this time shift is logical from the American perspective, it is not advantageous to building a sustainable Afghan Army. American military leaders often have drastically different leadership styles, and units have different techniques for training the same basic military drills and tactics. Forcing Afghan forces to not only establish brand new relationships with different US leaders every nine months, but also to adjust to their unique training techniques and individual personalities greatly hinders their ability to grow and develop into a well-trained army capable of defending its country long-term.
A Short-Term Mindset
A third issue hindering the proper development of the Afghan army is the short-term mindset of American forces. I will be the first to admit the second I landed in Afghanistan I began counting down the days until I was home in America again. American forces have a tendency to completely narrow their vision to their individual nine month block of time in Afghanistan. We all wanted to make a difference in our nine month deployment, which often meant racking up short-term successes that would only hinder Afghan forces in the future. We constantly bailed them out of hostile engagements with our attack helicopters, mortar systems, and GPS guided bombs. We provided them with fuel, food, generators, and money to fix their infrastructure problems. We airlifted their wounded to American medical facilities for treatment. At the time, it felt like doing these things was the right thing to do. But in reality, it did nothing more than set them up for failure as our assets will not be available to them forever. Through our desire to report all of the great things we did to aid the Afghan forces, a more prudent approach would have been to focus solely on training, and distancing ourselves in all other aspects (except emergencies of course), to force the Afghans to adapt to life post-American involvement.
Obviously there is no way to turn back the clock 10 years on Afghanistan and reevaluate our strategy and goals. However, as a learning point for similar military operations in the future, the army should do several things when working to train a developing nation’s military:
- Adapt training at home to the realities on the ground overseas. Assuming that training techniques and methods that work for Americans will work with Afghans is short-sighted and ineffective.
- Develop a system to maintain continuity between American units in how they train and interact with host forces, so indigenous armies are not subject to constant change, essentially resetting their training progress back to zero every nine months.
- Develop a long-term mindset where units are focused on the larger picture, not just collecting short-term reportable metrics that make their units and leaders appear successful on paper, but actually hinder the achievement of the larger mission.
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Zach is a one year MBA student at the University of Notre Dame. Prior to enrolling at Mendoza he spent five years serving as an infantry officer in the Army. He spent two years stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, and three years at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, as part of the 101st Airborne Division. He deployed with the 101st to Kunar, Afghanistan in the fall of 2012 for nine months. He graduated from the United States Military Academy in 2010 with a BS in management and systems engineering. In his free time he enjoys spending time with his friends and family in Massachusetts, exercising, watching college football, and visiting Civil War battlefields.