Support: Fatal Inattention

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August 19, 2016: As predicted, by American and Afghan military experts, the Afghanistan armed forces were able to continue functioning and defeating the Taliban and drug gangs after foreign troops left at the end of the 2014. But another prediction that came true continues to be ignored. This was all about the non-combat support NATO, especially the Americans, provided for the Afghan troops. With that gone Afghan troops suffered higher losses and declining morale. As months of missing maintenance support went by a lot more weapons and equipment became less effective or stopped working altogether.

Afghanistan has survived, for the moment, the loss of all that foreign support. This is all happening because the foreign troops and contractors helped keep complex equipment going for the Afghan military that no one else from Afghanistan could handle. Things soon began breaking down in 2015 and there was often no one available to fix them until deals could be made to hire new contractors to replace the departed American and NATO specialists. The Afghan police and army are not missing the Western combat troops but the missing Western tech support is causing big problems.

Afghanistan has always been is a poorly education and largely illiterate country. It was taken for granted after 2001 that the new Afghan army and police would need Western specialists (military or civilian contractor) to deal with logistical, medical, communications and intelligence support. It was no secret that it would take Afghanistan decades to develop local people who could do this sort of thing. Medical support is particularly missed, as is the once abundant and timely air support (using smart bombs). This loss is already hurting the morale of Afghan security forces, many of them veterans who had gotten used to the availability of Western levels of medical care for those wounded in combat and smart bombs to get them out of hopeless situations.

The missing Western air support resulted in more Afghan casualties but the Afghans adapted. One or two smart bombs is often decisive when fighting the Taliban, warlords or bandits and the United States quietly moved some more warplanes back to Afghanistan to increase the air support. The air surveillance capabilities of the Westerners was also a great help in defeating the enemy and limiting friendly casualties. This was also quietly increased in 2015. All the other Western support services had a similar impact and most are now gone. There is still some air and medical support but much less than before and intended mainly to support the 20,000 foreign troops and contractors who remain as military advisors and trainers. In practice more of these resources have been allocated to the Afghans, rather than have them stand idle.

The remaining foreigners were well aware of these shortage and advised their bosses to see about keeping some more of those services in Afghanistan or helping the Afghans to replace them using Afghan or foreign contractors. Afghan leaders also asked for this, as they get reports of the growing problems created by the withdrawal of all those foreign technicians. Some of those appeals were quietly answered. After all, these needs are being provided by civilian contractors who are never deliberately sent into combat. But the Western nations with troops in Afghanistan had decided to declare the job done and leave by the end of 2014. Attempts to explain the crucial role played by NATO supplied “combat support” was either not understood by the political leadership or ignored.

Despite that the Afghan security forces overcame corruption and occasional poor leadership to outfight the Taliban after they began taking control of all security functions in 2012. Considering the internal problems the Taliban have, the Afghan security forces might actually win this war. One critical function the remaining American SOCOM operators provide is an up close and personal assessment of the performance of Afghan combat forces. The American SOCOM forces are doing more advising than teaching and those evaluations are constantly passed back to the Pentagon, the White House and Congress. So far the Afghan special operations troops are doing well, the army is OK and the police in many areas need some work. The complaints about missing technical support are still largely ignored back in the United States.

But the problems will get worse the longer the Afghans have to work without the kind of support the Western nations provided. Western and Afghan military leaders understood that this support, which rarely got much media coverage, was a key factor in the battlefield superiority of Western forces and the most effective Afghan troops, especially the special operations ones, learned to make the most of it. Now the world is getting a lesson in what happens when that support disappears. The Afghan special operations troops were particularly hard hit because not only did they get less support but were increasingly used as infantry because the Afghan soldiers were often rendered even more ineffective (or at least immobile because of poorly maintained vehicles) because of the lost support.

 


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