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U.S. Debates Best Afghan Training

In my youth, I was an avid player of Squad Leader, a World War II board game, in pre-personal computer days when young lads still played board games. In the game, squads are represented by small cardboard cutouts in corresponding colors for different armies, with printed numbers for combat power. Stacked in opposing hexes, ready do to do battle, different army’s squads were fairly evenly matched; although the ratio between German and Russian infantry was always pretty lopsided.

The real kicker was the squad leader. Stack an ace leader atop your squads with a super high multiple, like the veteran German captain with a +10, and you were virtually unbeatable. Of course, then there were the leaders with a negative multiple; the Russian army had lots of those. No matter how strong your squads and how many you stacked in a hex, the lousy leader knocked your combat power down so far that your squads didn’t stand a chance. It was all about leadership.

Last week, Professor Mark Moyar from the Marine Corps University, put together an excellent conference on leadership in counterinsurgency wars. Panel after panel of Marine and Army officers fresh from Iraq and Afghanistan attested to how vital good leadership is in counterinsurgency. It is the make or break factor in a type of war that puts a primacy on small units and decentralized operations.

Also much discussed was Afghan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s plan to greatly accelerate the expansion of the Afghan National Army (ANA). Current ANA end strength goals are 134,000 troops. The idea is to almost double that number, and some recommend that the ANA end strength should be expanded to closer to 300,000 within a few years.

The problem with that idea is that while it’s easy to rapidly expand an army - a draft of all Afghan military age males would do it pretty quickly - creating a capable fighting force is an entirely different matter. The key, of course, is leadership. Creating really good, let alone competent, non-commissioned and junior officers takes a long time. To create a good battalion commander can take 10 to 20 years, Professor Moyar said.

He worries McChrystal’s rapid expansion of the ANA will lead to a dramatic drop in quality, which could lead to battlefield defeats when it faces veteran Taliban fighters and a predatory security force that is brutish towards the Afghan people. In his excellent new book, A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq, Moyar examined the U.S. experience in rapidly building up El Salvador’s army in the 1980s, during that country’s counterinsurgency war.

That case, he told me, shows the perils of rapidly expanding a military for counterinsurgency without first having strong leaders in place. The shortage of good officers in the Salvadoran military was particularly pronounced at the battalion level. In fact, just adding more troops at some point became counterproductive because the good leaders were spread too thin to have much positive effect; the expansion had a negative impact as bad units, led by bad officers, preyed on the local population.

Moyar made the fairly radical proposal that U.S. officers take direct command of Afghan units to assure high ANA quality as it’s rapidly expanded. None of the serving officers on the panels at the conference would directly endorse that idea. I can see how U.S. officers in direct command of ANA units could foster a culture of dependency and delay the development of good Afghan officers. There is something to be said for trial by fire.

It will take time, and very close U.S. officer mentoring, to create good Afghan army officers. Yet, Moyar’s argument that time is not on our side and drastic steps are required does have merit and is worthy of consideration.

To boost immediate Afghan security force quality, an alternative might be to imitate what the French did in the Indochina war. There were plenty of Vietnamese “colonial infantry” units under direct French command, including most of the high quality Vietnamese parachute battalions.

The French also created, in an ad-hoc informal fashion, large numbers of “commandos,” raised from highland tribes (often including recycled Viet-Minh), and commanded by French NCOs and junior officers. Those commandos operated deep in the jungles and mountains, far from established bases, gathering intelligence and waging counter-guerrilla operations, and proved very effective relative to their small size.

The U.S. military has a tendency to generate foreign forces in its own image: conventionally organized and equipped battalions, brigades and divisions. Perhaps that’s not the best model. Ad-hoc Afghan “commandos,” under command of green berets, might be better suited to fighting the highly decentralized enemy in Afghanistan.

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