WASHINGTON: Yes, Afghan forces are shrinking even as violence grows, but that smaller force is better trained, better advised, and better at taking the offensive against the Taliban, the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs told the Senate. The ongoing increase in US and other NATO advisors is crucial to this turnaround, Sec. Jim Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford argued to skeptical Democratic senators this morning.
You can’t just count the number of violent incidents, Mattis told Sen. Richard Durbin, ranking member of the defense appropriations subcommittee: “Who’s initiating the attack is as important as the number.” A clash in which Afghan troops are scrambling to react to a Taliban attack has very different strategic implications from one in which the government forces take the offensive on their own terms — and they’re taking the offensive more and more. What’s more, he said, when the Taliban do attack, they increasingly go after soft targets like election registration stations rather than the increasingly formidable Afghan forces. (The Taliban has also shifted its efforts from the major cities to rural areas).
Overall, “this fighting season that’s underway, the number of enemy-initiated attacks — where they had the initiative — is down by 17 percent over last year,” Mattis said. “Where we’re ambushing them, where we’re starting the fight, that means we have the initiative.”
But staging a successful attack is much more demanding than hunkering down on the defensive, requiring more training, skill, and esprit de corps. As a result, a relative small number of elite Afghan troops with US advisors have played an outsized role. Regular infantry battalions — which had US advisors once but lost them during the drawdown — have proved much less effective. The new US strategy recognizes this difference and will emphasize increasing the elites while reducing the overall force, even at the price of decreasing overall numbers.
“We are (paying) more attention to the quality of those Afghan forces,” Mattis said. “We’re going to expand the size of the elite forces, and there will be a reduction overall in the number of forces.” The focus is on “quality not quantity,” he went on.
Western advisors have been crucial to the success of those elite units, Mattis argued.
“The American-advised units — commandos and special forces — over the last several years have not been defeated in combat with the Taliban. Those that were not mentored by our units were being defeated,” Mattis said. “As we…start having more NATO advisors working with them — mostly American but other NATO countries as well — then we will end up with more capable units in the field.”
That’s why the US has changed its strategy to emphasize advisors to an unprecedented degree, Gen. Dunford said. “If I could address the idea that we’ve ben doing the same thing over and over again for 17 years,” the Joint Chiefs chairman said, “there’s really three phases in Afghanistan,” each with a markedly different approach:
- “From 2001 to 2013 we did the fighting in Afghanistan, and we somewhat pejoratively talked about an Afghan face on coalition capability,” Dunford said. US forces peaked at about 100,000, with allies bringing that number up to 140,000.
- “From 2013 to 2017 we drew down to the 8,000-plus (advisors and counterterrorism task forces),” Dunford continued. Executing the drawdown itself became “our primary mission,” he said. “You can’t come from a high of 140,000 down to 8,000 without singularly focusing on logistics.” (Which implies combat was secondary, although Dunford didn’t say this aloud).
- “This year….this is the first time we are providing the Afghans with the capabilities they need and the advisory effort they need to actually fight the counterinsurgency themselves,” Dunford argued.
Just because more advisors are in Afghanistan, however, that doesn’t mean more advisors have actually reached frontline units. The US Army’s first dedicated advisor unit, the thousand-strong 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, reached Afghanistan in March, but it is reportedly still stuck at central bases, advising high-level headquarters, while it waits on a laborious process of screening every single Afghan in the tactical units it might work with.
Taliban infiltrators and sympathizers in the Afghan ranks have repeatedly killed both their comrades and Western advisors, and Mattis today reemphasized the importance of screening. “We’re going to vet the troops that we are working with,” he pledged. “We’re not just going to send our troops to work with people who’ve not been vetted.” But he didn’t address whether the emphasis on “force protection” was interfering with the advisor brigade’s ability to do its mission.
Instead, both men struck a consistent note of cautious optimism. The US is helping Afghan units purge their rolls of “ghost soldiers,” Mattis said, fictional recruits who exist only so corrupt commanders can pocket their pay. And while Afghan casualties are high, Dunford said, “one of the things we expect to see because of the strategy we’ve implemented is a reduction in Afghan casualties and a commensurate increase in the number of Afghans that might be willing to serve. It is a volunteer service.”
While it didn’t come up at today’s Senate appropriations hearing, the Pentagon’s also been making a point of how the Afghan military is becoming better equipped. The Afghans took delivery last month of two more A-29 Super Tucanos — a propeller-drive ground attack plane the US Air Force itself may buy for counterinsurgency warfare. This week, Afghan pilots flew their first mission in UH-60 Black Hawks, which are replacing aging Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters. And the US will provide AC-208 turboprops with precision weapons.
But the fledgling Afghan air force remains dependent on contractors for maintenance and still flies only a small number of missions. Afghanistan will be dependent on US airpower and advisors for a long time to come.