Comment: Sink-or-swim strategy could leave Afghans isolated
THE announcement on Monday night by the Nato military command in Afghanistan that alliance troops would no longer conduct small-scale combat operations with Afghan forces represents a major downgrading of its role in the country.
Only a few days ago, these so-called mentoring missions were being talked about by Nato commanders as the main means by which Afghan troops would be trained up to be ready to replace international combat forces when they withdraw in 2014.
Now the spate of “green-on-blue” or insider attacks by rogue Afghan troops on Nato soldiers has made them too dangerous to be contemplated.
According to the Nato command, alliance troops will only go out of their camps to conduct joint operations in large missions involving no fewer than 500 troops.
The order has put a sudden stop to the small-scale patrols and security sweeps by small teams of Nato advisers, often involving fewer than 20 western troops.
This at a stroke denies the Afghan National Army some of the key support it needs to take on the Taleban, such as forward air controllers and artillery fire controllers, who have the radios and expertise to bring down Nato close air support and artillery fire, as well as organise helicopter evacuations of wounded soldiers.
Without this heavy fire support, small contingents of Afghan troops will be at significant disadvantage on the battlefield against an increasingly bold and heavily armed Taleban.
It seems that the surprise move by Nato top commander in Afghanistan, United States General John Allen, was made after the death of six US and British soldiers over the past week.
It seems to have convinced him that a raft of reforms started earlier in the summer had not done the trick to root out the “rotten apples” in the Afghan police force and army and had not done enough to reduce the continued threat to Nato soldiers.
At the moment, it seems the ban on small-scale joint operations is only temporary, and if this is the case the impact will not have a significant effect on the military balance across Afghanistan.
If it turns into the modus operandi of Nato of the next two years, it will mean that the western troops will be stuck in their heavily fortified camps and will be leaving their Afghan allies on their own to face the Taleban in the countryside.
This is effectively a sink-or-swim strategy that could lead to a string of setbacks for the Afghan army by denying it vital support before it is fully ready to stand on its own with the support of Isaf troops.
Some parts of the Afghan army, particularly those from the north of the country, are very effective. However, the vast majority are poorly trained and ill-equipped.
Some Nato officers have warned this is a recipe for disaster that could lead to Afghan government troops being forced on the defensive, even before alliance combat troops leave in 2014.
“This would be an even worse public relations disaster than if this happens after we pull out, because Nato would have to stand by as its allies suffer defeats while its troops sit on their hands safe in their camps”, commented a Nato officer.
“I hope they sort this mess out very soon.”
• Tim Ripley is a defence analyst for Jane’s.
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