© Zabelin | Dreamstime.com – Group Of British Soldiers Photo
“Courage is a good thing; another ingredient, obedience, is also absolutely necessary for your soldiers”[i]
“You say to your soldier, ‘Do this’ and he does it. But I am obliged to say, ‘This is why you ought to do this’ and then he does it”[ii]
Even if a mountain is high, there is a path to the top[iii]
Wars are inherently dramatic events, events that bring out the best and worst in human nature. The ongoing Afghan War is no different and it has had a profound effect on the DNA of the Afghan National Army (ANA). The ANA is expected to be the instrument of choice for dealing with the ongoing security situation, but like many armies before, it is an imperfect instrument. There has been a lot of money, let alone blood sweat and tears spent on the ANA, but even its most ardent supporters, cannot ignore vast disparity in weapons, equipment, training and professionalism between NATO forces and the ANA. Since the Afghan state is involved in making war it has been forced by circumstances to make an army while in contact, not the most advantageous position to be in. Similar contexts that come to mind are Cromwell’s ‘New Model Army’ and the Baron von Steuben’s efforts with the Continental Army. Much of the ANA capability still rests in the realms of the paper it has been written on (or Excel spreadsheet) and has the depth in capability that reflects this.
Before NATO and especially the British Army get too pumped up by its own capability and importance, it should be acknowledged that the British Army has had over three hundred years of military development. The British Army has its faults; it was not that long ago that the British Army’s officers were drawn from the landed gentry and nobility and bought their commissions. Promotion was either bought or obtained by political connections. For all that, the British officers were by and large a competent lot, dedicated to their profession, and the men they led. The rank and file until the twentieth century was confined to the foolish, debtors, criminals pardoned on the condition that they enlist, and drunks. It would seem that the British Army with such a makeup would lack the elements to build a reliable force in combat; but its record in war is to the contrary. The British soldier throughout the years has unquestionably displayed qualities of hardihood, courage, persistence, and military effectiveness that did honor to the nation it served. The ANA, perhaps coming largely from better demographics, is no different. In short it has taken the British Army a long time to get to its current standing as one of the leading training organizations in NATO and to expect the ANA to get to the same level overnight while in contact is perhaps over ambitious. Cultural context and understanding is required.
There is no reason to doubt the ANA courage, it is the application of that courage so it can be effective that is the role of the NATO mentoring mission. The mentoring of the ANA does not so much require innovation or imagination but imperturbable patience, with an understanding of the conservative culture. The ANA needs to be mentored as much in the realism of administration, and organizations as it does in being a reflection of its warrior tribal make-up. The ANA is no different from any army of the twenty-first century in demographics; it is predominantly made up of young men in their late teens and early twenties, usually without families of their own, who are called on to do most of the fighting. With an army being formed in contact, the added friction is the command structure and intuitional infrastructure is being recruited at the same time as the rank and file. Experience is a valuable and variable commodity requiring constant refinement and validation.
Historically the Afghan tribesman, when he came together for war made a reluctant convert to what the British Army understands as how modern warfare should be conducted. The tribesman did not lend himself to the discipline and organization of a modern army. The Afghan, if he obeyed anyone, obeyed his tribal leader, where all men were pretty much equal. He had no concept of a chain of command; he had no understanding of the role of the noncommissioned officer. The reflexive obedience to an order that is pounded into the infantryman in training of every army in the Western World was all but missing. Since his primary loyalty was to the tribe, clan and family, (in that order), even at times of conflict the tribesman came and went as he pleased. If a man felt the need to go home and tend to his goats, he would leave and perhaps send back a son or a brother in his place. It was not, in brief, an army that could stand its ground in fixed positions, and due to being largely illiterate, it could not issue and receive orders and action a mission. It was not an army a British Officer understood or trusted.
Into this ill-disciplined mix, is the added fact that Afghanistan lacked a dedicated officer caste such as in the case of Germany (Prussian, Junker-class) or England (drawn originally from its landed gentry or during the height of the Empire from its public school output). Being landlocked and unable to feed, or water large military formations, with a notorious weak central government throughout its history, Afghanistan was ill-suited to the creation and maintaining of a large European-style army. Yet, since the mid-nineteenth century this has not stopped many from trying. The armed forces of Afghanistan have been the victims of excessive tinkering from a host of well-meaning benefactors, if only for their own long term interests. With each ‘New Model Army’ that rises and falls on the ruins of its predecessor, successive foreign advisors and military experts could do little more than look on in disbelief, as their respective creations; despite vast expense and diligent supervision, proved to be a house of cards.
The ANAOA looks to adopt some form of institutionalize training to develop mission command across the Academy. Mission Command being a cultural philosophy, it will always struggle against the cultural norm of the ANA to stay firm and await confirmation of orders. Its military professionalism is still in its infancy. This however should not be in itself a block to the instruction or education of the officer cadet. Instead, integrating of mission command into all education and training from the very beginning of basic training would have some distinct advantages, not only for the cadet but also the mentorship of the instructional staff. Even more importantly the goal should be to develop an understanding of the philosophy of mission command across the ANA guided by the graduates of the ANAOA, to attain this culture of trust. Knowledge of this skill set will allow officer cadets to employ mission command and to overcome cultural dynamics and social convention which shies away from the adoption of this style of command.
Once in the Field Army our officer cadet will of course find themselves responsible for subordinates with only the most basic level of training, such that they possess minimal capacity and capability for action beyond the most prescribed. But the level of training of soldiers should not be a hindrance to leadership development. It does however place great emphasis on the training of officer cadets and on the ability of instructors at ANAOA to recognize the delicate balance, when giving their charges scope for initiative, between the benefits to be gained from the greater responsibilities against making mistakes that might undermine the mission commanders intent, but it’s better to make those mistakes in training than in the FUP.
One flower does not make it springtime[iv]
The ANA enters the fray as a symbol of the growing influence of the Afghan government, the ANA is the first national institution to come into being since the communist regime with credibility. The Afghan soldier goes through six months training; the officers are trained through three routes via NATO sponsored military academies[v]. The ethnic makeup of the ANA reflects those groups who historically oppose the Taliban; Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and Eastern Pashtuns fill the ranks making the Kandaks reliable in combat. The senior leadership is dominated by former members of the old communist era officer corps, and their reaction to contact often reflects this. This however does not distract from the deeply held conviction in the fight and the regard for the Afghan people.
The leadership of an infantry platoon is the most demanding and dangerous job in the ANA, as it is in any army, yet the infantry platoon is often commanded by the most inexperienced and least qualified man in that army. This is the ANA greatest challenge to deliver the future commander ready to command. The ANA current focus for that command is counterinsurgency warfare and there is a paradox here: on the one hand, recent history teaches us that the ANA is going to get dragged into an ongoing messy irregular conflict, and that conflict will increasingly be complex. On the other hand, when building an army from scratch, mentors/advisers prefer to develop a more conventional focus when training. So a mentor must start thinking about squaring that circle. To add to the Clausewitzian friction, the mentee, due to his cultural differences from the mentor can often seem to lack a sense of urgency. Endless time is spent on meetings, with compliments, ceremonies, politeness and the obligatory refreshments. The art of persuasion and patience are not only advisory, but a necessity. To lead a platoon into war is the rite of passage that focuses all minds. Small unit combat leadership remains the prevailing romance to which all new lieutenants aspire to and old generals cling.[vi]
“Your Army has existed for a century, mine for but a day”[vii]
As Colonel David Hackworth’s observed, to deliver combat power, you do not have to be dependent on the sophisticated machinery of modern warfare. The helicopter is viewed not as some magic panacea for winning the war, but as a vehicle to move men into battle. Ground radar, technical intelligence devices and countless other mechanical gimmicks which had been developed to bring a quick and easy solution to war are but only a means to an end. They are not considered an end in themselves. At the end of the day battles are only won by well trained, dedicated, highly motivated men who are expertly led.[viii] The soldiers’ training at the end of the day should equip them for future employment to lead men on operations; it is not merely meant to train them to man equipment.
The biggest problem for the ANA currently is the levels of attrition within its ranks. The ANA attrition to western eyes seems beyond belief but much of that attrition comes down to poor administration rather than direct contact with the enemy. That is not to belittle the effects of that attrition on the army; the losses are greater than the current system can bear. As always the attrition affects the brightest and the best, disproportionately the bravest are always the first to fall in conflict. The ANA can ill afford to lose so many low level commanders when it cost so much and took so much time to recruit and train. The ANA have also inherited a long war which are never good for armies, a struggle that goes against the teaching of modern western academies which it hopes to replicate. The Taliban’s jihad is not so much an insurgency as a prolonged siege that has metamorphosed into a war of attrition that requires stamina on the part of the ANA, something that perhaps cannot be mentored.
“Keep your Powder dry and trust in God”[ix]
The very experience which frames the ANA and its mentor’s view of the army is perhaps not the clearest lens with which to view the future. Tactical decisions taken in response to an imminent threat seldom make the bases for long-term strategic planning. The ANA mentee will often have more questions than answers. This is where the mentor must not provide the compete answer, but provide the conditions for successful deliberation by the mentee to find that answer.
As the ANA looks to finding its own way in the future perhaps they could look to another Army that grew out of war and militia:
“Your exertions in the cause of freedom, guided by wisdom and animated by zeal and courage, have gained you the love and confidence of your grateful countrymen; and they look to you, who are experienced veterans, and trust that you will still be the guardians of [the Nation]. More human glory and happiness may depend upon your exertions than ever yet depended upon any sons of men. He that is a soldier in defense of such a cause, needs not title; his post is a post of honor, and although not an emperor, yet he shall wear a crown—of glory—and blessed will be his memory!”[x]
What we await is the soldier that transcends his military appointment and moves seamlessly into the realms of nation building. Afghanistan awaits its George Washington or Ataturk its Cincinnatus the soldier with vision who lays aside his military persona for the good of the state to create a stable political environment for security and nationhood to take hold. If mentoring the ANA resulted in that, then that would be a worthy legacy for all the blood, sweat and treasure spent in the last fifteen years.
[i] Adjt Gen Edward Harvey 1775
[ii] Baron von Steuben, observing the difference between the French and American Soldier
[iii] Pashto proverb
[iv] Pashto proverb
[v] The Afghan National Army Officer Academy (Sandhurst in the Sand) sponsored by the UK, The National Military Academy (a West Point model) sponsored by the US & Turkey, & Officer Candidate School, (US, OTC model) which is a joint NATO/ANA project.
[vi] Samet D. Elizabeth, (2014) No Man’s Land, Farrar, New York, p9
[vii] Baron von Steuben
[viii] Hackworth, David, H. (1970) Guerrilla Battalion, http://www.hackworth.com/guerrilla.html
[ix] Oliver Cromwell.
[x] George Washington’s speech to Connecticut Troops before their enlistment ran out during the Siege of Boston in 1775. It is apt in connection with the Army and its relationship between the soldier and the state in time of war.