NATO Reduces Scope of Its Plans

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by Thom Shanker

New York Times

October 27, 2013

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BRUSSELS — After months of tense negotiations over the size and role of a postwar presence in Afghanistan, senior North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials say they are planning a more minimalist mission, with a force consisting of fewer combat trainers and more military managers to ensure that billions of dollars in security aid are not squandered or pilfered.

The shrinking ambitions for the postwar mission reflect fears that the United States Congress and European parliaments might cancel their financial commitments — amounting to more than $4 billion a year, the largest single military assistance program in the world — unless American and NATO troops are positioned at Afghan military and police headquarters to oversee how the money is spent in a country known for rampant corruption.

The reduced scope is also a result of conflicting interests among military and political leaders that have been on display throughout the 12-year war. Military commanders have advocated a postwar mission focused on training and advising Afghans, with a larger number of troops spread across the battlefield. Political leaders in Washington and other NATO capitals have opted for smaller numbers and assignments only at large Afghan headquarters.

Any enduring NATO military presence in Afghanistan “is tied directly to the $4.1 billion and our ability to oversee it and account for it,” a senior NATO diplomat said. “You need enough troops to responsibly administer, oversee and account for $4 billion a year of security assistance.”

The senior diplomat — who, like other military officials, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the alliance’s deliberations — described continued financing of Afghan security forces as vital to avoid political chaos and factional bloodshed after NATO’s combat role ends in December 2014. “It’s not just the shiny object, the number of troops,” he said. “Perhaps much more meaningful is, does the funding flow?”

NATO has endorsed an enduring presence of 8,000 to 12,000 troops, with two-thirds expected to be American. That is well below earlier recommendations by commanders, but senior alliance officials say larger numbers are unnecessary given the more limited goals now being set by political leaders.

The postwar plan depends on a security agreement between the United States and Afghanistan concerning the number, role and legal protection of American troops. But one lesson of the war in Iraq is that domestic politics in the war zone and in Washington can scuttle a security deal, resulting in zero American troops remaining. Afghanistan’s desire to assure the continued flow of billions of dollars in assistance is one reason American and NATO officials are expressing guarded optimism that an agreement will be reached.

A traditional Afghan council is expected to meet in the coming weeks to pass its judgment on the proposed United States-Afghanistan bilateral security agreement.

NATO officials say they are acutely aware that Afghanistan has been the scene of spectacular corruption, including bank fraud, drug trafficking and bribery for services, all of which undermines the credibility of the Afghan government and its Western benefactors.

The problems run to the very top of the Afghan government. Many of President Hamid Karzai’s most senior aides and cabinet ministers have grown wealthy in the past dozen years, parlaying political power into lucrative businesses serving foreign militaries and development projects — or simply demanding a cut of business from other Afghans, much as organized crime bosses offer protection in exchange for regular payoffs.

The NATO personnel overseeing the security aid would be assigned to Afghan ministries and military headquarters, where they would review payments to make sure the money went to its intended purposes, like fuel, supplies and training. They would review money allotted to and disbursed by those programs and provide regular reports to NATO leaders assessing whether the goals of the assistance were being met.

Military officials said that initial plans had envisioned a far larger enduring presence of foreign trainers and advisers, who would have been spread across the country and embedded within small units of Afghan troops as they carried on the tactical fight against the Taliban. Only over time would foreign troops have been reduced and withdrawn back to headquarters.

Under the new plans, NATO military personnel would be assigned only to the headquarters of the two security ministries, defense and interior; to the six Afghan National Army corps headquarters; and to the similar number of national police headquarters. They would also be well represented in army and police training institutions.

With that more restricted mission in mind, NATO has approved outlines for a smaller force than commanders advocated. Just before his retirement last spring, the top officer of United States Central Command, Gen. James N. Mattis, told the Senate that he recommended keeping 13,600 American troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014, resulting in an overall allied troop level of more than 20,000.

Military officials still hope the current plans will allow them to carry out a substantial mentoring mission from the larger headquarters and training centers, and some said the emphasis on financial accountability was overstated.

“While we do need to oversee the money to maintain donors’ confidence, a critical component of our presence is capability development,” one American military officer said. “If we are at the corps level and in the four corners, we could provide the right level of train, advise and assist, and ensure that the funds led to combat effectiveness.”

Pentagon officials say they want at least some American commandos to remain to carry out counter-terrorism missions, unilaterally or in coordination with Afghan forces.

Allied military personnel who support a larger deployment say the United States and NATO have an obligation to send foreign advisers into the field with tactical-level units to ensure that forces armed by the coalition operate at standards deserving of financial support from other countries.

These officers note that the Afghan army is still developing its tactical prowess, evolving in its leadership skills and learning how to wage a war against an insurgency that hides among civilians. It has significant gaps in capability, especially in air transport and medical evacuation. There are concerns that assigning foreign advisers only to large headquarters may prevent the hands-on mentoring that field units need and allow Afghan troops to return to illegal and immoral methods learned over brutal years of Soviet and jihadist fighting.

Even so, some Afghanistan policy experts, including former military commanders, say the focus on the money makes sense.

David W. Barno, a retired lieutenant general who spent 19 months as the senior American officer in Afghanistan, agreed that sustained financial assistance was the “strategic center of gravity.”

“The most important thing we can do is keep writing checks so the Afghan National Security Forces can remain funded — fuel, food, weapons, salaries,” said General Barno, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.  “If that continues, they will be at least able to maintain a stalemate with the Taliban, and that is enough to keep the state up and running.”

Matthew Rosenberg contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.

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Two Marine Generals Fired For Security Lapses In Afghanistan

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by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Washington Post

September 30, 2013

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The commandant of the Marine Corps on Monday took the extraordinary step of firing two generals for not adequately protecting a giant base in southern Afghanistan that Taliban fighters stormed last year, resulting in the deaths of two Marines and the destruction of half a dozen U.S. fighter jets.

It is the first time since the Vietnam War that a general, let alone two, has been sacked for negligence after a successful enemy attack. But the assault also was unprecedented:

Fifteen insurgents entered a NATO airfield and destroyed almost an entire squadron of Marine AV-8B Harrier jets, the largest single loss of allied materiel in the almost 12-year Afghan war.

The commandant, Gen. James F. Amos, said the two generals did not deploy enough troops to guard the base and take other measures to prepare for a ground attack by the Taliban. The two, Maj. Gen. Charles M. Gurganus, the top Marine commander in southern Afghanistan at the time, and Maj. Gen. Gregg A. Sturdevant, the senior Marine aviation officer in the area, “failed to exercise the level of judgment expected of commanders of their rank,” Amos said.

“It was unrealistic to think that a determined enemy would not be able to penetrate the perimeter fence,” Amos said.

The incident brings into stark relief the unique challenges of waging war in Afghanistan. The withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops over the past two years has forced commanders to triage, sometimes leading them to thin out defenses. The U.S. military also has been forced to rely on other nations’ troops, who often are not as well trained or equipped, to safeguard American personnel and supplies.

The attack occurred at Camp Bastion, a British-run NATO air base in Helmand province that adjoins Camp Leatherneck, a vast U.S. facility that serves as the NATO headquarters for southwestern Afghanistan. Because Leatherneck does not have a runway, the Marines use Bastion as their principal air hub in the country. Several hundred Marines live and work on the British side, and dozens of U.S. helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft are parked there.

The British are responsible for guarding Bastion, which is ringed by a chain-link fence, triple coils of razor wire and watchtowers from which sentries can scan the horizon for any potential attackers. British commanders had assigned the task of manning the towers to troops from Tonga, which has sent 55 soldiers to Afghanistan.

On the night of the attack, the Tongans left unmanned the watchtower nearest to the Taliban breach, according to an investigation by the U.S. Central Command.

Other aspects of the U.S.-British security plan were “sub-optimal,” the investigation found, with no single officer in charge of security for both Bastion and Leatherneck. The security arrangement created command-and-control relationships “contrary to the war-fighting principles of simplicity,” Amos wrote in a memo accepting the investigation.

Troop reductions also affected security measures. When Gurganus took command in 2011, about 17,000 U.S. troops were in his area of operations. By the time of the attack, in September 2012, the American contingent had dropped to 7,400 because of troop-withdrawal requirements imposed by President Obama.

In December 2011, 325 Marines were assigned to patrol the area around Bastion and Leatherneck. In the month before the attack, that number was cut to about 110.

Gurganus did seek permission in the summer of 2012 to add 160 troops to protect Bastion and Leatherneck, but his superiors in Kabul rejected the request because the military had reached a limit on forces set by the White House.

Even so, Amos said Gurganus should have reallocated troops from elsewhere to protect the encampments. “The commander still has the inherent responsibility to provide protection for his forces,” Amos said. “Regardless of where you are in a [troop] drawdown, you’re required to balance force projection with force protection.”

Despite the overall troop reduction, several officers stationed at Leatherneck at the time said that many Marines with idle time could have been assigned to guard duty. Instead, some of them took online college classes and others worked out in the gym twice a day.

In an interview with The Washington Post this year, Gurganus characterized the attack as “a lucky break” for the Taliban. “When you’re fighting a war, the enemy gets a vote,” he said.

Amos said that when he informed Gurganus that he was being relieved, Gurganus told him, “As the most senior commander on the ground, I am accountable.”

Two Marines, Lt. Col. Christopher Raible and Sgt. Bradley Atwell, were killed trying to fend off the attack. Raible, a Harrier squadron commander, charged into the combat zone armed with only a handgun. Eight other Marines were wounded in the fighting. The cost of the destroyed and damaged aircraft has been estimated at $200 million.

Although Gurganus ordered a review of security on the bases after the attack and a British general conducted a brief investigation for the NATO headquarters in Kabul, the Marine Corps waited eight months to ask the Central Command to initiate a formal U.S. investigation. Amos’s decision followed inquiries from the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, congressional staff members and a front-page article in The Post that detailed the unmanned watchtower and the reduction in troops patrolling the perimeter.

Amos said Monday that he wanted to wait for reports from NATO and the Central Command before requesting a formal investigation.

Before seeking the investigation, Amos had nominated Gurganus to receive a third star and serve as the Marine Corps staff director, the service’s third-ranking job. His nomination was placed on hold once the inquiry began.

Since his return from Afghanistan, Sturdevant has been serving as the director of plans and policy for the U.S. Pacific Command.

Amos said the decision to fire the generals was the most agonizing choice he has had to make as Marine commandant. Gurganus and Sturdevant are friends of his, he said, and their collective time in uniform totals almost seven decades.

In a statement Monday evening, Gurganus said, “I have complete trust and confidence in the leadership of our Corps and fully respect the decision of our Commandant.”

Gurganus and Sturdevant will be allowed to retire, but Amos said it will be up to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to determine their final rank. If allowed to retire as major generals, they would be eligible to receive an inflation-adjusted annual pension of about $145,000.

The last two-star general to be fired for combat incompetence was Army Maj. Gen. James Baldwin, who was relieved of command in 1971 following a North Vietnamese attack that killed 30 soldiers at a U.S. outpost, said military historian Thomas E. Ricks.

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Afghan Forces Got Too Many Casualties

Operation Enduring Freedom

U.S. trained & equipped soldier of the Afghan National Army, Nangalam, Afghanistan, 2009 (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jennifer Cohen)…

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General Joseph Dunford, the highest US and Nato commander in the country, said that the security forces’ weekly death toll regularly tops 100 and therefore they may need five more years of western support before they can fight independently.

He added that it was too early to tell whether Nato had been right to end combat operations and only offer training and support in the war torn country this Spring.

He said that both Nato and Afghan commanders viewed the number of men being lost as “serious”, telling the Guardian: “I’m not assuming that those casualties are sustainable.”

The rapidly expanded security forces, now 350,000 strong, have grasped the basics but struggle to support themselves in areas varying from logistics and planning to intelligence-gathering and back-up in difficult battles.

The west officially shifted their role in Afghanistan from combat to support and training in June, and General Dunford said that “time is going to tell” whether that was the correct decision.

His comments highlight a rift between the views of western politicians keen to end a bloody and expensive war and military commanders on the ground who see Afghan forces struggling to cope.

All Nato combat troops are due to leave by 2014, and President Barack Obama has said that in 17 months the transition to Afghan control will be complete, although he has promised a follow up Nato training mission.

However, no firm date has been set for the end of assistance, and General Dunford told the Guardian that western troops may need to remain until 2018 to tackle problems from the air force to intelligence.

“I look at Afghan security forces development as really kind of three to five years,” General Dunford said, adding that this could include a combat role such as close air support.

The US is currently negotiating a long-term security deal with Kabul to pave the way for wider western co-operation, but Washington has warned that unless a Bilateral Security Agreement is agreed in the next few months they will be forced to remove all their troops…

Despite the heavy losses the Afghans have managed to remain “resilient,” General Dunford added, preventing the Taliban from accomplishing and ensuring 80 per cent of the population is secured from violence.

The Afghan defence ministry no longer publishes monthly death tolls because of concerns about morale, and the interior ministry said that 1,792 police officers had been killed since March.

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