The New York Times, August 12, 2019
As U.S. Nears a Pullout Deal, Afghan Army Is on the Defensive
“These operations are kind of show-off — they don’t have any impact.”
By Rod Nordland and David Zucchino
KABUL, Afghanistan — As the United States appears to be nearing a deal with the Taliban on pulling its troops from Afghanistan, the country’s security forces are in their worst state in years — almost completely on the defensive in much of the country, according to local military commanders and civilian officials.
Afghan commanders vowed last year to take the offensive, rather than go on fighting a static “checkpoint war.” But in most major battlegrounds, the bulk of the regular Afghan forces are still holed up in fortified bases and outposts. Most offensive operations have been left to small numbers of Afghan and American Special Operations soldiers, backed by both countries’ air forces.
The woeful state of the regular Afghan forces has been widely seen as giving the Taliban a valuable edge in its negotiations with the United States, which have gone on for eight rounds in Doha, Qatar, and are believed to be near a conclusion. An announcement could come as early as Tuesday but also may be delayed, perhaps for weeks.
An analysis of more than 2,300 combat deaths of government forces, compiled in daily casualty reports by The New York Times from January through July, found that more than 87 percent occurred during Taliban attacks on bases, checkpoints or command centers. These numbers indicate that the Taliban can attack many such bases almost at will. During that seven-month period, the Taliban mounted more than 280 such attacks — an average of more than one a day.
The New York Times, Aug. 12, 2019
An analysis of more than 2,300 combat deaths of government forces, compiled in daily casualty reports by The New York Times from January through July, found that more than 87 percent occurred during Taliban attacks on bases, checkpoints or command centers. These numbers indicate that the Taliban can attack many such bases almost at will.
During that seven-month period, the Taliban mounted more than 280 such attacks — an average of more than one a day.
“Police and soldiers are stuck in their bases,” said Abdul Aziz Beg, head of the district council in Badghis Province in western Afghanistan. “The Taliban are killing security forces easily, but no one pays attention.”
Local government officials in several provinces said the only ground operations against the Taliban were being carried out by the American-backed Afghan Special Forces.
“They come here, kill some people and arrest some, and that’s it. When they leave, the Taliban come back” and kill regular troops in their bases, said Rahmatullah Qaisari, a district governor in Faryab Province in northern Afghanistan.
“To make people happy, security officials announce operations,” said Tor Khan Zarifi, a tribal elder in Herat Province in the north. “These operations are kind of show-off — they don’t have any impact.”
A senior American military official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss military operations, acknowledged that the Afghans were increasingly relying on elite units such as commandos and special police units to attack the Taliban. He said regular Afghan units still sustained most of their casualties while trying to hold on to territory anchored by bases and checkpoints.
Dan Coats, the American director of national intelligence, told Congress this year that outside urban areas, “Afghan security suffers from a large number of forces being tied down in defensive missions, mobility shortfalls and a lack of reliable forces to hold recaptured territory.”
Afghanistan’s minister of defense, Asadullah Khalid, said that since taking command in December he had worked to shift regular forces out of their defensive posture.
“Their mind-set has changed from defensive to offensive,” Mr. Khalid said in an interview at the defense ministry in Kabul. “Let’s be clear: These bases are not for us to just stay there and sleep there. They are going out on the offense.”
But Mr. Khalid also said that some regular forces had sustained high casualty rates this year during Taliban attacks on checkpoints and bases, in areas where the militants were not threatened by government offensives.
“We are trying to reverse that situation,” he said.
Only about three percent of the 2,300 deaths in the casualty reports compiled by the Times this year occurred during offensive combat operations carried out by regular forces. Among those were troops killed in Taliban ambushes after being sent to reinforce besieged bases or checkpoints.
Roughly 10 percent of the deaths occurred in other actions, away from bases and checkpoints. They were attributed to roadside bombs; attacks on convoys; snipers; insider attacks; friendly fire; and ambushes of soldiers or police who were on food runs, driving to work, in their homes, in bazaars, at weddings, in mosques or in clinics.
Soldiers at the Bala Hissar military base in Kunduz City, Afghanistan, last year. (Photo: Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
The casualty reports are compiled daily by Times reporters across Afghanistan. They are based on interviews with local government and security officials, district council members, village elders, local members of Parliament and other sources.
According to the Ministry of Defense’s own combat reports, roughly seven times as many offensive operations have been carried out by commandos as by regular security forces. And the number of Afghan Air Force strikes has typically been far higher than the number of operations by regular forces.
For July, the ministry reported 2,825 operations by commandos and 651 airstrikes, compared with 409 operations by regular forces. Mr. Khalid said that in many operations, commandos were backed by regular forces.
The ministry said the July operations had killed more than 2,400 insurgents. As of Aug. 7, nearly 4,800 insurgents had been killed this year, said Gen. Khoshal Sadat, a defense ministry official. Both sides routinely inflate enemy casualty reports.
The ministry reports do not mention government casualties. After May 2017, the Afghan military stopped releasing its casualty figures. The information has since been treated as classified by the United States military at the Afghans’ request.
By all accounts, Afghan security forces outnumber the insurgents. Yet the casualty numbers have been steadily rising among soldiers and police who were guarding bases and outposts, rather than engaged in actual battles.
On June 30, for instance, 58 members of the security forces were reported to have been killed in two separate Taliban attacks — on a military base in the southern province of Kandahar, and on two checkpoints in Kunduz Province in the north.
Asked about those incidents, Mr. Khalid said the Taliban had suffered higher casualties than government forces, and that they had failed to capture the base or the checkpoints.
Three weeks later, on July 25, the Taliban briefly overran two military bases in Takhar Province in northern Afghanistan. Local officials said up to 37 troops were killed.
Increasingly, the only Afghan units truly on the offensive are Special Forces commandos, who often partner with American Special Operations troops for combined ground and air operations.
“The weight of the Afghan war is mostly on the shoulders of commandos and the air force — they are doing all the offensive operations,” said Gharzai Khowakhozhai, a former army general and a military analyst in Kabul, the capital. “Regular forces are not doing their job properly.”
Mr. Khalid said he and the top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin S. Miller, agreed that Afghan forces had been maintaining too many remote outposts and checkpoints that were vulnerable to attack. But he said local politicians and some local commanders had resisted closing them down, because they protected the property of powerful local figures.
While the Taliban rarely hold the bases that they overrun for long, the casualties they inflict deepen the Afghan military’s morale issues and recruitment problems. More than a third of the force has to be replaced every year.
In a report this month, the American inspector general for Afghanistan said Afghan military strength was at its lowest level since January 2015. Reported strength dropped by 42,000 troops from the same period a year ago, to just 77 percent of authorized strength.
The decline was attributed to a new pay system installed to combat so-called ghost soldiers: nonexistent troops included on payrolls by commanders who pocket their salaries.
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