A member of the Afghan National Army opened fire on a group of British soldiers yesterday, killing three and wounding four others.
The attack occurred on a NATO base outside of Kandahar when the soldier opened fire with a machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade launcher before fleeing.
British Prime Minister David Cameron responded to the attack stating “it is absolutely essential that we don’t let this terrible incident change our strategy. It is the right thing to do to build up the Afghan national army”. British Defense Secretary Liam Fox echoed him, saying that the attack “will not undermine the real progress we continue to make.”
But a good look at the state of the Afghan National Army (ANA), the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF, the national police) and the ever-rising casualty rates among NATO troops seems to contradict the idea of “continued progress”.
In fact, it reveals that this unpopular and prolonged occupation will probably continue to worsen.
This June was by far the deadliest month for NATO forces since the occupation started in 2001, with 102 deaths. This latest attack brings July’s death toll to 34, which puts it roughly on par with the second deadliest month of the occupation, last August, when 77 troops were killed
Casualty rates among NATO troops have been increasing consistently since the end of 2002, when 69 coalition troops died. 2008 saw 295 coalition troops killed in combat, with last year’s total reaching 521. If the current rate continues, nearly 650 could die by the end of the year.
With major fighting approaching in Kandahar, all signs point to an expanding and increasingly deadly conflict.
Brock McIntosh, a U.S. National Guardsmen who served in Afghanistan from November 2008 to August 2009, described the rising violence to me in a interview. “The longer we are there, the worse it will get”, he states bluntly. “The more sophisticated our armor, the bigger the explosions will be.”
On top of this worsening violence, the Afghan National Army’s desertion rate, which has remained at similar levels since the start of the war, is starting to poke holes in the myth that NATO forces are approaching some sort of stability in the country.
In the first two years of the occupation, according to the Naval Postgraduate School’s Culture and Conflict Review (pdf), the desertion rate among the ANA was between 20 and 22 percent.[iv] Of the 100,000 soldiers currently in the ANA, over 9 percent are said to be AWOL or missing at any given time. Within that, there is a 19% desertion rate when we look at just Afghan combat troops.
Along with these desertions, there have been numerous attacks by ANA soldiers against NATO troops.
In December 2009 an Afghan soldier shot and killed a US soldier and wounded two Italian soldiers on a joint-NATO/Afghan base in Badghis Province. A month earlier, an Afghan policeman “possibly in conjunction with another” killed five British troops at a checkpoint in Helmand Province. In 2005 “around 300 men simply walked away (pdf) from the 205th Corps in Kandahar, or one-twelfth of the entire force.”
While those reading the news may be shocked by these stories, soldiers who have served in Afghanistan are not.
“It’s really not surprising at all”, says Jacob George, who served 3 tours in Afghanistan from 2001-2004 as a Combat Engineer with the U.S. Army’s Special Operation Command. “The ANA is just… it’s there. I wouldn’t consider it a functioning unit.”
An anonymous U.S. official interviewed in December of last year told a Washington Times reporter “we’re out here fighting, and there isn’t one Afghan face in the mix fighting alongside us.” McIntosh, interviewed in the same article, said Afghan soldiers would often “just be following behind without actively participating” in missions.
“Most people that we were training with had absolutely nothing but an AK-47 and a pair of clothes, George says. “They were hoping to get a meal at the end of each day.” Others, according to George, joined “to get training to bring to the resistance, or to form alliances to funnel weapons and training into the hands of the resistance.“
Along with sympathies with those fighting the NATO occupation, McIntosh says there are also a lot of Afghan soldiers who are just trying to make a bit of money. “When there’s 50 percent unemployment, a lot of people will do a lot of things for a paycheck”, he says.
In August of 2002 George was stationed at firebase Asadabad in Kundar Province, which was used for refueling helicopters and interrogating prisoners. Before arriving there, NATO troops had found a cache of Soviet weapons and explosives nearby. One day the cache disappeared. Local Afghans told George and others that it was trafficked out of the military into the hands of resistance groups.
This led to an attack that happened after he had arrived at Asadabad. The cache was found and those found with it were killed. “I wound up carrying a bag of body parts back to the base so they could try to identify who they had just killed”, George told me.
Brock McIntosh was stationed at a Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Paktika Province in Eastern Afghanistan in 2009. “I was on tower guard for a month, doing general lookout for the base”, he told me. “A lot of times we would get a call saying something like ‘a person in an ANSF uniform entered such and such base and blew up’.”
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It is certainly possible that resistance groups or groups linked to the Taliban utilized such uniforms as cover, but it’s also likely that Afghan police officers or soldiers carried out such actions.
Either way, McIntosh says there is a huge distrust between U.S. forces and the Afghans. The ANA were also “high all the time”, he told me, but he doesn’t fault them for this. “They had a really dangerous job.”, he says. “They were going around looking for IEDs in Ford Rangers, that’s all we bought them. A Ford Ranger can’t even stop a bullet.”
In this context, when 6,000 combat-troops desert in areas with heavy resistance, it leaves one wondering where they’ve gone. And the likely scenario is that they have joined the armed resistance to foreign troops, a reflection of the unpopularity of the U.S./NATO occupation.
Afghanistan’s recent history points in this direction too. This is what tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers did during the Soviet occupation throughout the 1980s when an estimated 20[i] to 70[ii] percent of the Afghan military deserted, with many soldiers joining the ranks of the Mujahideen resistance.
In July of 1980 the Kabul garrison attempted to overthrow the Soviet-backed government, while their counterparts in Ghanzi seized their garrison. 4,500 of the 5,000 troops stationed there soon deserted to the Mujahideen.[iii] In 1982 1,000 of 8,000-10,000 Afghan soldiers deserted to the ranks of the Mujahideen during one battle in the Panjshir Valley.[iv]
Even in the first year of the Soviet occupation the Afghan Army was, in the words of one Mujahideen commander, a “room with two doors”.[v]
According to George, it’s been that way since the U.S./NATO occupation started too. “I never saw any significant improvements in the ANA from the initial invasion up to 2004”, he says.[vi]
Current reports come to the same conclusions. The ANA’s combat desertion rate is at the same level it was in 2005, if not higher, and their role is increasingly questioned by U.S. service-members.
From George’s perspective, this is because most Afghans want the U.S. and NATO out of their country. “An insurgency of this scale and sophistication is only possible if there are a lot of people supporting it”, he explains. “That’s one of the deeper things we might want to look at when we consider people in the military switching sides or deserting.”
McIntosh says there are various things at play, but believes that “a lot of them (Afghan deserters) are probably going over to the Taliban”.
“There’s deeper cultural complications there too” George adds”. “Many people in the provinces depend on Taliban leadership to provide things that the central government fails to provide. They will continue to support them for this reason.”
McIntosh describes an ANSF Police Commander stationed across from his FOB whose cousin was that same region’s Taliban commander. “They had sympathies with them as Pashtuns and for various other reasons”, he explains, “but in general, they are tired of being occupied and treated paternalistically”.
George sees it similarly. “The people by and large don’t want occupation”, he says. “Especially when you have an illegitimate government like Karzai’s. It’s corrupt to the bone.”
When asked what this means for the U.S./NATO occupation in general,
George sees it plain. “We stepped into the middle of a civil war when
this occupation started, and that will continue when we leave.”
[ii] Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, Henry S. Bradsher, Duke Press, page 206
[iii] Afghanistan Will Not Die, R. B. Bain
[vi] Personal interview