As Afghan Troops Build Capacity, Decisive Battles Loom
By Tim Kilbride
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 2, 2007 The anticipated spring offensive may mark the beginning of the end for the Taliban in Afghanistan, a military official told bloggers and online journalists in a conference call yesterday.
“If the Taliban do not make it through this offensive, we feel that by next year they’ll have limited access to Afghanistan,” Army Col. David B. Enyeart, deputy commander of Task Force Phoenix V, said.
Enyeart, whose soldiers oversee training of the Afghan forces, said coalition officials fully expect a surge in Taliban and insurgent attacks in time with the country’s spring thaw.
“We know there’s going to be a spring offensive,” he said. “There always is.”
Enyeart characterized the upcoming battles as a key fight. “We believe that this offensive is going to be probably the worst one they’ve had here in quite a while,” he said.
However, Enyeart noted, the country’s security forces are in a better position than ever to face the threat, thanks to increased recruiting numbers, solid training and a strong sense of national identity among the Afghan forces.
Enyeart compared the current Afghan National Army with what he observed during his last tour of Afghanistan in 2002. “The Afghan National Army itself is growing not only in size, but it seems that they’re growing smarter in the way they do things,” he said.
The colonel noted that more than two dozen ANA battalions are capable of operating “on their own with minimal support” from U.S. or coalition forces. “Two years ago, we weren’t even close to that,” he said.
High numbers of new recruits have added to the end-strength and quality of the Afghan force, Enyeart said. “We’re recruiting so many now we’ve had to split off from our Kabul military training center, where most of the basic training is going on, and added two more basic training areas,” he said.
Along with training that matches the curriculum U.S. soldiers undertake, training for Afghan forces also focuses on literacy, writing and language skills in a country where the education system has been moribund for decades.
Military trainers also take pains to ensure diversity within the ranks. Enyeart said that in a country with 14 different tribes and ethnic groups, “they have to have the right basic ethnic balance” to construct a true national army.
The colonel related an anecdote in which an ANA unit visited a remote village in central Afghanistan. For residents who had never yet seen their new army, he said, “They were amazed that they could tell the different tribal or ethnic groups. It just gave them such good insight that here their army was a true national army, it wasn’t just from one tribe.”
That sense of national identity is crucial to long-term success. “The best thing that’s going” for Afghanistan “is the Afghan National Army,” Enyeart said.
The ANA is a “very spirited army; they’re not afraid to go after the enemy, and they’re not afraid to die for their country,” he said.
At the same time, Enyeart explained, a large and capable police force is needed to supplement the army’s strength. “You’ll never have enough Afghan National Army to cover the whole country,” he said, “And so you’ve got to train up the police to fill in the areas that the army cannot be at all the time, and to keep the terrorists and (insurgents) out of the area.”
While police training is viewed as behind schedule, important improvements are being made to strengthen the end force, Enyeart said. Counter-corruption mechanisms, in particular, are being put in place to bolster the institution.
“Corruption is a way of life here,” Enyeart explained. “It’s a way of their survival.” But that doesn’t mean trainers have to accept corruption as inevitable, the colonel said. “It’s our job as mentors to teach them that this is not really the right way to go, and you will not be able to build an honorable team or section by doing this,” he said.
He said salaries for both the police and army have been raised above the national average to reduce the temptation to skim funds.
Meanwhile, as recruitment and training continue on or above pace, the ANA is continuing to expand its presence in the country with a focus on counterterrorism.
Enyeart explained that recently increased hostilities in certain Taliban and al Qaeda holdout areas were the result of Afghan and coalition forces “operating (in) more and more areas, in areas we haven’t been before. … We’re pushing them around quite a bit.”
Describing a fundamental shift in the nature of the fight, the colonel said that in the past year he’s watched the Afghan people replace U.S. soldiers as the primary drivers for peace and stability.
“Now it’s more of the Afghans want the war to be over with, and they want a secure state themselves,” he said. “This is a winnable war over here.”
(Tim Kilbride is assigned to American Forces Information Service.)