Last year, the American military spent more than $100 million to rebuild the Afghan Army’s 215th Corps, which is battling resurgent Taliban militants in the southern province of Helmand.
Soldiers were to be recruited and trained, and armed with new equipment. A new commander, trumpeted as visionary and clean of corruption, was appointed to rebuild and reform the unit, which was a shambles just a year after taking charge of security in Helmand from the American-led NATO coalition. Casualties were at a record high, the leadership was corrupt, and many of the soldiers existed only on paper.
But as winter set in, it became clear that the plan had not worked.
Over the course of the year, the Taliban gained more territory; the militants now largely control seven of 14 districts in Helmand and contest another five, according to local officials. Casualties among government forces in the province broke records again.
And that new, clean commander? He was arrested on charges of stealing food and fuel intended for his beleaguered soldiers.
With large swaths of the Afghan countryside under Taliban control and several cities threatened, American and NATO leaders are growing increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of security reforms that they see as necessary to battle the insurgency.
A major problem is the rampant corruption of the Afghan security leadership, which is profiting from the chaos even as soldiers die in record numbers.
“Most of that work was rapidly undone, because of corruption and inept leadership,” says Maj. Gen. Richard G. Kaiser, in charge of the Combined Security Transition Command in Afghanistan, referring to efforts to reform the 215th. “When they went into the winter cycle, the 215th Corps was pretty low and we said we are not going to do this again.”
The commander of United States and NATO forces here, Gen. John W. Nicholson, has likened the reform of Afghan forces to building “an airplane while in flight.” Fighting, which used to slow in the winter and pick up again in the spring, is now a constant, preventing the military from being able to regroup.
This year’s fighting comes as the country’s coalition government remains stagnated by infighting and struggling to deal with the realities on the battlefield.
There is also a breakdown of the regional consensus over the United States mission here. Russia and Iran, in addition to Pakistan, are increasingly accused of fostering ties with the Taliban and hedging their own bets.
“The American military has tried for 15 years to help Afghanistan build a professional army,” said Karl W. Eikenberry, a retired American general who commanded coalition forces in Afghanistan and later was the American ambassador to Kabul. “It has always assumed that its own goal of defeating the insurgency is shared by Afghan Army leaders.”
But, he added, “this is often not so.”
Mr. Eikenberry said that for many Afghan commanders, the Taliban were just one concern in an uncertain political and economic environment.
“Others are ensuring the welfare of his family and supporters, staying aligned with political patrons, and avoiding combat so as to preserve his unit, which is a source of revenue,” he said, referring to commanders in general.
Some improvements have been made to varying degrees across the country over the winter, the American military acknowledges; some security officials have been stripped of duties and put under investigation.
General Kaiser said Afghan forces had been at “about 10 percent to 20 percent higher readiness.” He cited the Afghan Special Forces, who while stretched by heavy fighting last year met a goal of keeping roughly one-third of the force fighting, one-third resting and one-third retraining. In Helmand, the new army corps commander insisted on the continued training of his battalions even as fighting raged in a key district, he said. The leadership of the air force was replaced wholesale.
But, from interviews with about two dozen security officials across the country, it is clear that of the improvements that General Nicholson said were urgently needed in several vital areas — leadership, retraining struggling units and combating corruption — little has been achieved on the ground.
Western officials said that in the first three months of the year, Afghan forces were almost entirely on the defensive. In a clear indication of concern, General Nicholson has asked the White House to send thousands of additional American troops to help the roughly 10,000-strong coalition force that remains on the ground.
In the eastern province of Nangarhar, the district governor of Bati Kot said the pressure of fighting over the winter months was such that training was impossible. In northern Sar-i-Pul Province, the commander of a police battalion said his forces had no time to regroup and prepare for the next fighting season because they had been “on standby 24/7” all winter. “This year, we did not send anyone for retraining,” said Haji Ghalib Mujahid, the district governor of Bati Kot. “We are engaged in fighting each hour, during day and night.”
Officials say President Ashraf Ghani is increasingly aware that his military commanders have been lying to him on the state of their units and on the adoption of changes charted in Kabul. But there is also skepticism among Western and Afghan officials about just how committed he is to keeping the security overhaul free from patronage politics.
After prodding by coalition leaders, a board appointed by the president was supposed to purge corrupt and incompetent security leaders during the winter and create a system of merit-based promotions. The winter is over, and that work has yet to begin.
Even though the military reform has been far from satisfactory, the support keeps coming.
According to General Kaiser, the United States has since October provided about 900 new Humvees, new weapons sufficient for about 14 battalions, fuel for a fleet of more than 100,000 vehicles, winter clothing for 25 percent of the Afghan Army and the police, and three-quarters of a year’s supply of ammunition.
“I can give you everything all day, but it doesn’t mean anything if you have poor leadership taking it away from you,” General Kaiser said.
Coalition leaders have had to resort to drastic measures to jolt their Afghan partners into action. Last year, General Kaiser’s team pulled the fuel contract from the Afghan Ministries of Defense and Interior Affairs, which adds up to about $250 million, because it could not trust the agencies with that much money. Then, to get Afghan leaders to update their systems with biometrics of existing soldiers to ensure there were no “ghost soldiers” on the payroll, they held back pay for tens of thousands of army soldiers funded by the United States.
The pressure tactics appeared to work: The army increased the number of its properly enrolled soldiers by 20,000 over just two months.
“It was a shock to the system, but I had to,” General Kaiser said.
One reason for the leadership problems is a widening gap between soldiers and commanders. One senior Afghan official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to candidly express his concerns, described what he called a caste-based system within the ranks.
At the top, he said, is a class of often incompetent generals, many of them from the Communist or the civil war period who had strong political ties. The soldiers and police officers are treated as an “untouchable” class, dying at an average of close to 20 a day. The leaders show little concern for their men, the Afghan official said, a view that is widely held by Western officials.
“We hear story after story of commanders who steal the fuel, sell it to the Taliban, who take the weapons we — you — pay for and sell it to the Taliban,” John Sopko, the United States special inspector general for Afghanistan, said in a recent speech. “The irony of it is, the terrorists are at the end of our supply chain.”
In the interview, General Kaiser, whose son is an Army lieutenant, clearly felt frustrated by the lack of empathy shown by Afghan leaders for their soldiers.
“I wish every Afghan leader could have a son or a daughter out in the checkpoint,” the general said. “And I wish everyone would ask one question before they went to bed at night — does my son or daughter have what they need to fight tonight and win?”