Richard Engel on NBC and Rachel Maddow on MSNBC Tuesday delved into a devastating 25-page Pentagon report about the Afghan National Army that was recently leaked. The report provided more details on a story that has been making the rounds for several years. To condense: the Afghan National Army is a farce; there's little chance of turning it into a cohesive fighting force; and there's zero chance of doing so on a speedy timetable, all of which I noted 10 days ago in Phantom Hope: The Afghan Army.
Gareth Porter pointed out four months ago that data from the Pentagon and the Inspector General for Reconstruction in Afghanistan reveal that from September 2008-September 2009, one-in-four ANA combat recruits deserted or defected. The leaked, 66-page declassified version of General Stanley McChrystal's strategic assessment [pdf] of Afghanistan has equally grim things to say about the ANA.
Despite the negative evaluations of the ANA, some think it can be transformed. Mark Moyar, for instance, has written How to Whip the Afghan Army Into Shape, taking note of knowledgeable people who think the situation can be turned around.
The leaked document highlighted by Engel and Maddow questions their assumptions:
BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor:
Now to news from overseas tonight. Tonight we have an NBC News exclusive, a report that was prepared for US military commanders about the situation in Afghanistan, how ready the Afghan army is. This report was not to be distributed, but it has been now. And as you’ll see, it shows what a tough road Americans in uniform now have in front of them. Our chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel obtained the report. He’s here with us in our New York studios with more.
Richard, good evening.
RICHARD ENGEL reporting:
Good evening, Brian. This is a copy of that report. It was prepared for a briefing for CENTCOM commander, General David Petraeus. It was also copied to his commanding general in Afghanistan. And the military says that it is still a preliminary report, that it’s not final, but that does not change what this says about the Afghan national army, or the ANA.
The 25-page study obtained by NBC News says senior Afghan commanders are, quote, "not at war. Many ANA leaders work short days, are often absent and place personal gain above national survival." The report says Afghan troops simply aren’t leading the fight, but remain dependent on US forces, and show few signs of wanting to take off the training wheels. But what’s striking about the report is that it goes to the heart of President Obama’s argument about the war. When announcing the surge, the president said Afghan forces must be trained and equipped quickly, so American troops can return home. But the report’s section on the Afghan army’s personnel says, "Corruption, nepotism and untrained, unmotivated personnel make success all but impossible."
And there may not be nearly as many Afghan battalions as the country claims. The report said previous estimates are not believable. "Estimate for soldiers actually in battalions far below reported," it said. "Example: between 40 and 50 percent in some areas." And Afghan soldiers still in the ranks have literacy problems, and that "mentally, physically unfit and drug addicts hurt units."
Perhaps the most controversial finding, however, has to do with timing. President Obama has said he wants the troop surge to start drawing down in July 2011. But the assessment said it will take time to expand and rehabilitate Afghan forces. The report said it "cannot take a year to fix this problem."
The report is dated from mid-December, and it just goes on and on, mostly complaining about leadership and corruption within the Afghan security forces.
WILLIAMS: We went over there weeks ago just to watch them train the Afghans. The problem is you don’t get to see the end result.
ENGEL: That is now the priority, and this says that the priority is—has a problem.
WILLIAMS: Richard, thanks for your reporting tonight. Richard Engel here with us.
[Partial transcript (h/t to hissyspit)]:
MADDOW: "We are about to break some serious news on this show. Next, joining us here in studio is NBC's Richard Engel. He's NBC's chief foreign correspondent and he is joining us with an exclusive jaw-dropping report from the Pentagon about America's chances for military success in Afghanistan. This is a report that Richard has obtained exclusively. It may change the whole narrative of how we discuss the war.
He broke the story tonight on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. We'll have Richard here in person in just a moment to walk us through this document he has obtained.
Because we are talking about Afghanistan, I do want to report first, though, that an American soldier was killed today there under very worrying circumstances. The Defense Department and NATO are not saying anything about this yet, other than to confirm that an American was killed in a shooting, but it's reports from Afghan and Italian sources that make this so worrying. They're saying this American was killed by an Afghan soldier, who opened fire on foreign troops with whom he was serving. Two Italian soldiers wounded in the same incident in which one American was killed... A corps commander with the Afghan National Army told the Associated Press that this Afghan solider got angry when NATO soldiers tried to keep him away from a helicopter that was about to land. Italian sources reporting that there was no chance that this shooting was accidental - it was intentional.
Now, this isn't the first time something like this has happened, not by a long shot. In November, an Afghan policeman shot and killed five British soldiers in Helmand province. Late October two American soldiers killed when someone wearing an Afghan National Police uniform opened fire on them... In March, an Afghan soldier killed two American servicemen and wounded a third before killing himself. Back in July 2007 an Afghan soldier opened fire and killed four of his own countrymen and wounded an American advisor. The American was reportedly the target of his outrage. And in May or 2007, an Afghan soldier shot and killed two American soldiers and wounded two others outside a top security prison outside of Kabul.
... but incidents like today's and this, even, abbreviated catalog of past carnage of this type, raise questions about the nature of our mission in Afghanistan, even as our President escalates it. The most minimal description of what our forces are there to do is to train and equip Afghanistan's military and police, so that they can defend their country themselves. It appears that at times, we are arming them and then they are turning around and training that fire on us.
There are also new questions today about whether our mission to train Afghan forces, even if it is wise, a question about whether it has a chance of succeeding. At least, whether it has a chance at succeeding within the time frame that President Obama has laid out for that mission.
With us again tonight is NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel..."
ENGEL: "This report, it's 25-pages long, was provided for a briefing for the top commander, CENTCOM commander, David Petraeus. Also CCed on this report was the senior commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and it talks about the readiness of the Afghan security forces, primarily, the Afghan National Army.
To understand the context of this: THE main mission of the United States Army, all of the different forces that are there, is to train the Afghan security forces so that American forces can ultimately leave. That is THE No. 1 priority. The reason 30,000 extra troops are going there is to try and create enough security so that an Afghan Army can be built. I was told this by numerous commanders. No. 1 priority.
This report says that that priority is facing serious, serious problems and the military knows it.
This was an independent study; if I could just read a few things... It talks about how, this is the opening statement, 'The ANA (which is the Afghan National Army) above company level is not at war.' Now, company level means the small units, so the soldiers on the ground, they're fighting. Above, say 150 soldiers, anything, colonel, general, anyone at that level, doesn't believe he's at war. They talk about corruption. This is a quote: 'Nepotism, corruption, and absenteeism among ANA leaders makes success impossible. Change must come quickly.' Another line: 'If Afghan political leaders do not place competent people in charge, no amount of coalition support will suffice in the long term.'
It's more than sobering. It says that this is a serious challenge. It goes on to say that rehabilitating the Afghan security forces will not take one year, it will take a long time."
MADDOW: "Do they give a time frame about how long it would take if it was going to happen?"
ENGEL: "No. I've heard that, independently from this report, that they're thinking about four years. And the reason that the dates are important is, there is the key speech by President Obama - he says he wants to start dialing back the surge, roughly, eighteen months - the summer of 2011, eighteen months from when he announced it. That is impossible according to this study, to get the Afghan security forces up and running and in place and even with some sort of semblance. Another key finding in this report says that the numbers of Afghan troops and police that on the ground are inaccurate, that some battalions will over-report by 40-50 percent, inflate their numbers."
Back in September, Ann Jones, author of Kabul in Winter, wrote about this inflation:
What is there to show for all this remarkably expensive training? Although in Washington they may talk about the 90,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army, no one has reported actually seeing such an army anywhere in Afghanistan. When 4,000 U.S. Marines were sent into Helmand Province in July to take on the Taliban in what is considered one of its strongholds, accompanying them were only about 600 Afghan security forces, some of whom were police. Why, you might ask, didn't the ANA, 90,000 strong after eight years of training and mentoring, handle Helmand on its own? No explanation has been offered. American and NATO officers often complain that Afghan army units are simply not ready to "operate independently," but no one ever speaks to the simple question: Where are they?
My educated guess is that such an army simply does not exist. It may well be true that Afghan men have gone through some version of "Basic Warrior Training" 90,000 times or more. When I was teaching in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006, I knew men who repeatedly went through ANA training to get the promised Kalashnikov and the pay. Then they went home for a while and often returned some weeks later to enlist again under a different name.
In a country where 40% of men are unemployed, joining the ANA for 10 weeks is the best game in town.
By November, the final contingents of the 30,000-U.S. troop escalation are scheduled to be deployed. In July 2011, the first units are slated to start coming home. Does anybody really think there is the slightest bit of realism attached to that calendar? If so, they apparently don't work at the Pentagon.
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Further discussion can be found in catilinus's diary, Pentagon Papers-oops there goes the Afghan Plan.