Four Afghan Air Force flight students from and their U.S. instructors prepare to fly a MD-530F during undergraduate helicopter training on Aug.29 at Shindand Air Base, Afghanistan. (Staff Sgt. Melissa K. Mekpongsatorn / U.S. Air For)
The U.S. has spent $55 billion to recruit, train and equip Afghan security forces. And as the U.S. and NATO transition from leading the fight against the Taliban to pushing the Afghans into the lead, the world will see what the U.S. got for its money.
One of the most closely watched initiatives undertaken by the 195,000-strong Afghan National Army (ANA) is its nascent quick-reaction capability, which has already cost tens of millions of dollars to field more than 300 of a planned 640 vehicles. The force will grow to a strength of seven kandaks — each about the size of a battalion — two of which will be special operations forces.
The plan is for the kandaks to be capable of driving to the fight in the ANA’s fastest, most advanced and well-protected vehicle: the mine-resistant mobile strike force vehicle, a derivative of Textron Marine and Land Systems’ M1117 armored security vehicle, used by U.S., Canadian and other forces around the world.
The elite force will be able to respond to crises quickly and with mass and firepower, giving Kabul a new set of options when faced with a variety of fast-moving and unpredictable threats.
To increase the area they can cover, five kandaks are slated to remain in the Kabul area, while two more will go to Kandahar in the south once their training is complete, officials involved with the program said. Two units have already gone through training; one is stationed in Darulaman outside Kabul, and the other is deployed to Kandahar.
Brian Feser, Textron’s Afghanistan director of operations, said he expects all of the vehicles to be fielded by September 2014.
Despite a recent Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report that found that only 60 to 80 percent of Afghan soldiers are present for duty at any time due to desertion or injury, and an October Pentagon report that placed the desertion numbers at between 2,400 and 5,500 soldiers a month, Feser said attrition “hasn’t been a problem for us.”
He said the kandaks “are doing phenomenally well” in training and have been conducting a train-the-trainer program to allow the Afghans to eventually train their recruits.
Key to the quick-reaction force’s success, Feser said, is the fact that “they’re specially selected.
“The kandak staffs are selected by the chief of the staff” of the Afghan Army down to sergeant level, Feser said. The soldiers are veterans who have already gone through training and deployment.
Aside from the ambitious quick-reaction capability, Lt. Col. Michael Parry, head of the U.S. Army’s foreign military sales office in Kabul, said most of the Afghans’ critical equipment has already been delivered.
The issue now is training the Afghans in the difficult tasks of logistics and sustainment so they can keep their Humvees, Ford Rangers, Mi-17 transport helicopters and Mi-35 attack helicopters working once NATO forces leave.
Parry is “looking to get it ‘Afghan right,’” he said, as opposed to setting up a system the Americans are comfortable with. “The Afghans do not have a technical base here, and we’re trying to build that and get them equipment that they can sustain over the long haul.”
With corruption, poor bookkeeping and waste remaining major problems in contracting in Afghanistan, Parry said he is impressed by the initiative Afghan Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi showed in December when he ordered his staff to come up with a two-month course to teach procurement, logistics and financial issues. The Afghans invited 250 of their top logistics officers to Kabul for the course.
“We heard about it and asked how we could help, but we found out very quickly that they had courses ready to go,” Parry said. “I was very encouraged to see how adamant these 250 people are about what they’re trying to do.”
The Afghans are also beginning to write their own foreign military sales memos of request, as opposed to having the Americans do it for them.
“They have the organic maintenance capability, and now they’re ordering the parts for next year,” Parry said.
While Parry is optimistic, there are still major issues to contend with. One of the sore spots in the effort to equip the Afghan forces has been the $600 million contract with Finmeccanica subsidiary Alenia Aermacchi for 20 C-27A transport planes. The U.S. Air Force announced in December that it is walking away from the aircraft.
While the U.S. Air Force cited poor performance and high maintenance costs as the reason for the cancellation and has committed to supplying the Afghan Air Force with four C-130H transport planes in 2013 and 2014, it has no plans for the 20 aircraft it has already purchased.
Alenia has not officially commented, but sources close to the firm have argued that Alenia should not shoulder all the blame, pointing to difficulties in training Afghans and adding that the U.S. Air Force did not order enough spare parts.
But equipment can only do so much. While the independence and effectiveness of the Afghan Army appears to be increasing, this spring and summer will be a huge test of its capabilities, and its ability to operate independently.
Australian Army Brig. Gen. Mark Smethurst, International Security Assistance Force Special Operations Forces commanding general from 2011-2012, told a special operations conference in Washington on Jan. 29 that Afghan-led ops had increased to 86 percent from about 20 percent just one year before.
Still, according to the Pentagon, of the 292 ANA units rated for effectiveness and readiness in October, 168 were rated at the two highest levels, either “independent with advisers” or “effective with advisers.” Eighty-one units were not assessed.
NATO has less than two years to change those percentages.
Tom Kington in Rome contributed to this report.