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For want of a nail: Logistics and the ANA

It is extremely doubtful that any coalition soldier deployed to Afghanistan has not been asked at some time by a relative or friend: “What is going to happen there? Will Afghanistan make it?” I know among my Canadian colleagues, the question has often been asked and remains a topic of intense interest even for those of us observing the developments up close here in Kabul.

It has been 10 years since the ousting of the Taliban. In another 10 years, what will the headlines read? “Afghans succeeded against all odds” or “Despite decades of help, Afghans remain mired in the Dark Ages.”

Whether one’s outlook follows the former or the latter depends largely on what one is measuring against. If one is inclined to contrast Afghanistan’s progress against our quality of life, then the pessimism of the second headline will dominate.

But if one puts the progress into the context of Afghanistan’s history, there is plenty of room for optimism.

Consider that until the nation fell under the grip of the Taliban, it was one of the more progressive Islamic nations. This was especially true from 1933-1973 during the reign of its last king, Zahir Shah, who not only tolerated, but encouraged the incorporation of many western lifestyles. It is really only the draconian throwback of the Taliban’s tyranny upon a generation from the early 1990s until late 2001 that has caused the world to view the nation in terms of the Dark Ages. Many in Afghanistan recall those more relaxed eras and long to return to the path toward modernization.

In reality, that is the true mission of the international community and coalition forces – helping to re-establish the building blocks for a bright new future. At the same time, we also know the place to which the road paved with good intentions can lead, which is why the original question of Afghanistan’s future remains an open one.

Coalition forces and the international community have come to help train future leaders who, with our help, have extended the rope from which the nation may climb from the abyss. Given the terror of their recent past and the periodic security breaches, it is understandable that many Afghans remain reluctant to grasp on.

It can be discouraging when it appears many have picked up the rope but are reluctant to move forward, even with our encouragement. Indeed, it requires a kind of faith in those we advise that enough brave Afghans will to pick up the rope, move forward and lead the rest to the bright future that they seek.

What complicates the matter is the news coverage of the immediate future and the focus on 2014.
What does the date mean? Are all or most of the coalition forces leaving then? Will the financial support suddenly cease? To what extent are this government and its military expected to fend for themselves?

No one really knows. Plans have not yet been clearly laid out. Many of us on the ground believe coalition forces must remain past 2014 even if not in the current strength.

A new republic trying to govern itself with a 70 percent illiteracy rate will need a transitional safety net until the younger leaders advance to higher positions of authority. Yes, the Afghan National Army and the police will need to take an ever-increasing role in providing the security and stemming the insurgency, but they cannot be abandoned abruptly.

That transition is not without real and significant challenges, not the least of which are residual corruption, lingering comfort with the Soviet-style command centric direction in the ANA, and ingrained inertia.

My perspective is that of a logistics Major whose primary responsibility is to advise the Afghan officer (G4) responsible for the logistics for the Kabul Military Training Center. KMTC trains up to 60,000 recruits a year – that is the size of the entire Canadian military. The volume of supply and support required to do this is at a scale that perhaps even the Canadian Forces would struggle with.

That is why I am concerned that the current logistics support system may very well not be ready for the Afghan lead in 2014. I am reminded of the old military adage:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

So as I ponder the aftermath of 2014, I hope I am not predicting the complete collapse of the current fragile government of Afghanistan, but a breakdown in the ANA’s logistics system could have far-reaching consequences.

Consider this: What if the logistics system cannot provide the equipment needed on time for the ANA to successfully continue fighting the insurgents? What happens when the soldiers stop getting paid regularly? What happens when they stop getting fed every day? The answer likely is the mass exodus of the soldiers from the army.

True, a well-trained army will follow a good leader through a lot. The camaraderie built when facing huge challenges can cause soldiers to band together. But when we are talking about logistics, we are focusing on basic needs. Without food, pay and equipment, soldiers will question the worthiness of their cause and begin to doubt their leadership.

Virtually all governments – especially in potentially unstable environments – rely on their military power to maintain authority over the governed. This can be through fear or trust, depending on how public consensus views the army. But if the army no longer provides that governing foundation, if the soldiers have started a mass exodus, the resulting vacuum will be filled by others with power.

This was evident when the Taliban managed to fill the power void in the 1990s. Coalition and Afghan forces have weakened the insurgency drastically, but one cannot be certain they, with help from other nations, do not have access to sufficient resources and people to topple a government that has lost its military base. To shore up the logistic system in the ANA, the three challenges must be addressed.

In rooting out corruption, we have to acknowledge two fundamental truths. First, given the extreme poverty of Afghanistan, many here have grown up with a survival-of-the-fittest mentality that prompts them to look out for themselves and their family above any kind of western norm frowning on corruption. Second, things western nations view as corruption are not necessarily viewed that way here.

For example, the Persian word Baksheesh is a term used to describe tipping, charitable giving, as well as certain forms of political corruption and bribery in the Middle East to South Asia. In the view of some here, the personal payment in exchange for a favourable decision is akin to the western view of tipping a waiter or waitress for good service.

But in the army, this can have significant negative consequences. Some of the money that is siphoned off comes from the soldiers themselves, either in the form of pay distribution, cost of promotion or surcharges on items sold in the soldiers’ canteen. If soldiers see this and see their leaders profiting at the expense of their subordinates, the resulting weakening of the chain of command would be obvious in any army. Certainly, this cannot be overlooked as a potential factor in the 30 percent attrition rate in the ANA.

Further complicating this is a command-focused army. Keep in mind, the army here has had more than half a century of learning the Soviet way of running a military. The concept of a noncommissioned officer and delegation of responsibilities are new concepts introduced within the past 10 years. For things to get accomplished, often a command directive is necessary by someone up the chain of command (CoC). A kind of military inertia sets in. Inaction (unless commanded) combined with poor motivation (unless there is a benefit) comes across to a western view point as a lack of initiative. Armies will stagnate and not progress without change and the willingness to change comes from initiative.

This highly command centric system regularly causes their supply request to be crippled. Every layer of command seems to feel the need to sign off on the issuing of kit, equipment and supplies. The consequence is that simple supply requests can take upwards of two to four months to flow through all the authorities to obtain signatures. In time, the system will smooth itself out and a comfort level will be established in the supply process. But if the ANA is forced to implement the system fully within the next two years, there is little reason for optimism.

In the final analysis, it really does come down to the willingness of the Afghans themselves to re-adjust to the path upon which they were traveling and the willingness of the rest of the world to provide time for the Afghans to make the adjustments free from tyrannical interference.

We do hear the leadership in the ANA saying the right things in front of large crowds of soldiers, statements like “the ANA is leading the country as an example of unity. KMTC is a place where the door opens to represent all people of Afghanistan,” “soldiers come first and are the priority over leadership,” and “accountability of kit and equipment is essential for future success in the Army.”

So in spite of the dire headlines and the media’s “2014 Sword of Damocles” hanging over Afghanistan, there remains the basis for optimism. On a day-to-day basis I observe encouraging actions taken by members of the ANA. I have seen the logistics staff held accountable for poor performance and recognized in front of the group for doing good work. I have seen them discipline those who are guilty of corruption.

The ANA at KMTC have the experience to produce trained soldiers prepared for what they may face against the insurgency. The key is to ensure they have what they need to do the job and the time in which to accomplish the job unmolested.

Major Graham M. Longhurst is the Roto 0 logistics mentor to the Kabul Military Training Centre, leading a team of 8 Canadian’s and 21 Coalition logisticians providing advice and support to the Afghan training system in Kabul.

Author: Major Graham Longhurst from the Oct/Nov 2012 issue published

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