'This war is I winnable." I can't relay how often I heard officers or noncoms say that while I was embedded with American and Romanian troops in Afghanistan's Zabul province, just northeast of Kandahar province where 2,500 Canadian troops are fighting, and as we have just seen again, dying in a war against terror and for the liberty of a proud and deserving people. Implicit is that it's also losable; but they really mean winnable in comparison to Iraq. It's strange but true that Afghanistan -- with four major ethnic groups, both Sunni and Shia, two official languages and almost countless lesser languages -- is far more of a proud, united nation than Iraq. There are also recent important signs of progress against the Taliban, who remain reviled among Afghans. The much-anticipated massive spring offensive has so far proved more a trickle than a deluge and the killing of the butcher Mullah Dadullah, "the military mastermind of the Taliban insurgency," was a terrible blow to the enemy.
And yet the ultimate goal of turning the war over to the Afghans, while far more realistic than American efforts to whip the Iraqis into fighting shape, is hamstrung by a lack of funds and trainers when relatively incremental increases can make a tremendous difference.
Most of the Iraqi Army soldiers I patrolled with and was in combat with were pretty pathetic. The police were worse. Often the simplest things, like not balancing the tip of a loaded rifle on the toe of a boot, seemed beyond their ken. Iraqis are capable of putting up an effective defence, but I once interviewed a unit commander and somehow ended up lecturing him on the need to take the fight to the enemy and kill them. He just didn't seem to get it.
Not so with Afghan fighters. They come from a proud warrior culture in which the national sport is playing polo with a headless goat. Afghans "are very aggressive in the field," Major Ovidiu Liviu Uifaleanu, commander of the Romanian 812th Infantry Battalion told me, "very eager to kill the Taliban." At least one sergeant told me they could be a bit too aggressive, charging the enemy when staying behind cover was wiser.
But to take advantage of this natural aggressiveness requires adequate weapons, defensive fortifications, uniforms, and pay. And that's where they lack. Relatively speaking, the 32,000-member Afghan National Army is better equipped, better trained and better paid than the National Police. The ones I saw at Forward Operating Base Mizan had new-looking American uniforms, body armour for everyone and AK-47s in top shape. Unfortunately, the police weren't nearly as impressive.
Courtesy of a small Romanian convoy I visited four police outposts along Highway One, a recently repaved route providing a vital connection between the nation's two most important cities of Kandahar and Kabul. It's a route the Taliban would love to cut, if only for a day. Each station had a complement of about 15-20 men. The first thing you notice about their buildings is that while they have some blast and antipersonnel protection, the level of protection is dismal. Ideally they would all be surrounded on the outside by razor concertina wire to keep the Taliban at a distance. There would be an inside barrier -- made of huge thick cloth bags called Hescos -- to provide blast protection against rocket-propelled grenades. Sandbags would protect the roof. In fact I saw little wire, and the Hescos and sandbags protected only part of the perimeters. Some of the buildings had sandbags on the roofs for protection against light mortars, others didn't.
In terms of weapons and ammunition, they were no better off. I won't give exact numbers for security reasons, but for their AK-47s they had just enough ammo to sustain a brief firefight (fortunately most are quite brief ). At one station, they were delighted to inform us not just how many AK magazines they had per soldier but that the magazines were completely filled. Ouch! It doesn't help that like Iraqis they tend to fire not single shots or controlled bursts but rather to hold the trigger and let fly with a good chunk of the magazine.
Every outpost was given an RPG-7 -- the venerable Soviet grenade launcher -- and one had a pair, but again with little ammunition. Each station had one 7.62 mm RPK machine gun. For these, the police seemed to have a more decent ammo supply.
Fortunately, these outposts aren't overrun as often as you might think. The Taliban carry light weapons, nothing heavier than an RPK or RPG. Maybe a mortar tube, but with no base plate, so it can't be fired accurately. If the fighting does get thick, stations can call for the Romanian quick-reaction force. But the Taliban know how long it takes the Romanians to arrive and are careful to be gone by then. So the potential Romanian firepower is what really counts.
Not being overrun seemed near the limit of what these outposts could do. At one station they told us, "We ask in the villages, 'Why are you helping the Taliban?' and then they say, 'They take our sons and brothers and there's nothing we can do.'" At another: "We see Taliban driving by on motorcycles, but we don't have good weapons to shoot them."
Lest I be accused of violating operational security by revealing this, the Taliban obviously can see the fortifications and can determine ammo supplies with probes. When they fire several RPG rounds at an outpost and receive only one in return, that tells them something. The Taliban know; it's time Canadians know.
"We'll try to give you enough ammo and enough weapons," is all the Romanians can tell the police. But for the time being it's a pipe dream. Consider that an AK bullet costs about 18¢. That's about $5.40 for a full magazine. For a 15-man station, we could provide each policeman another magazine for about $81. Meanwhile, a single Hellfire air-to-surface missile costs about $107,000.
The police themselves are a ragtag bunch, ranging in age from perhaps 14 to 70. A few wear raggedy blue official summer uniforms, while some of the younger guys at one outpost wear thick wool winter gray uniforms that look like they came from a stockpile of the Confederate States of America. Even the caps look Confederate. But most of the police wear civilian clothes, which isn't good. A uniform helps hold a unit together, and it gives a man pride.
The worst deficiency, though, is pay. While their salaries are merely $75 a month, none of the police had been paid in three months. (To use the Hellfire comparison again, one missile would pay more than 1,400 police salaries for a month.) Obviously this discourages recruiting, and when those police do finally get paid it may encourage them to take the money and run. Less obvious, except to anybody who knows the history of Afghanistan, is that bribes are more important than bullets. In fact, the conquest of the country from the Taliban began when the CIA flew in $3.2-million in cash (they would eventually spend many times that) to win over warlords to the Northern Alliance.
So the Taliban know that far more important than any weapon in their arsenal is the wad of cash supplied by sympathetic Arab oil sheiks, Islamic charity front groups, and Osama bin Laden himself. According to a February report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, "In some reported cases, the Taliban are paying up to $13 a day, three times as much as the [Afghan National Army] field soldiers, and there is evidence of defection from the national security forces to the Taliban ranks."
More than that, a lack of funds encourages some police to sell what weapons they do have. I asked 1st Lt. Keith Wei, the executive officer of the American Army battalion in Zabul, if it would be possible to supply the police with DShKs (pronounced "dishka"), a Russian-made 12.7 mm anti-aircraft weapon adapted for ground combat. It would clean the Taliban's clocks. He was politely aghast at my ignorance. "Because they're receiving no salaries, there would be tremendous temptation to sell those to the Taliban," he said. And DShK rounds can slice through Humvee armour.
That said, Afghan police don't go over to the enemy as whole units and surveys show the people have great faith in both the National Army and National Police.
Retired U.S. General Barry R. Mc-Caffrey's February, 2007, Afghanistan report, based on personal observation but primarily outside data, is generally upbeat. "We are now on the right path," it concludes. Nevertheless it also states, "We have no real grasp of what actual [Afghan National Police] presence exists at the 355 District level operations. …We do know that 50% more Afghan police were KIA last year than [Afghan army] soldiers." It continues, "The task of creating 82,000 Afghan policemen (currently a notional 62,000 force) is a 10-year job that we must fully resource," and we are now beginning that. Yet "the effort to create the Afghan police is currently grossly under-resourced with 700 U.S. trainers." By contrast, he notes that in Kosovo we had 5,000 police mentors for 6,500 Kosovo police.
In the short term, though -- which is to say right now -- the Afghan police need weapons and ammo and proper uniforms for hot and cold weather. Most critically, we need to pay them their lousy $75 a month.
- Michael Fumento, a former U.S. Army paratrooper, has been embedded three times in Iraq and once in Afghanistan.