World News

Training Quick and Staffing Unfinished, Army Units Brace for Surging Taliban

Posted January 26, 2018 5:32 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — They are being heralded as a key part of President Donald Trump’s new strategy to resolve the nearly 17-year war in Afghanistan. But their training has been cut short by months, and units are still short-staffed, as some of the estimated 1,000 additional military advisers prepare to arrive in Afghanistan in time for the spring fighting season, officials said.

The Army soldiers are deploying as the Pentagon begins shifting resources from the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria back to Afghanistan. As part of its new assault against an increasingly tenacious Taliban, the Trump administration is planning to send some of the advisers back to small bases scattered across rural parts of the country to help train Afghan forces.

The new brigade of advisers was formed in August and is based at Fort Benning, Georgia. Two military officials said its leaders were still trying to ensure that each small team had enough soldiers to train Afghans.

One of those officials, and an additional one, said that the advisers’ brigade was supposed to have around a year of training before deploying. Advisers in the new brigade are expected to begin deploying by early spring — roughly eight months after the brigade was created.

Additionally, a six-week Army course specifically for combat advisers was slashed to two weeks to more quickly cycle the U.S. soldiers through training.

Earlier this month, the brigade’s commander, Col. Scott Jackson, offered a blunt assessment about the difficulties to U.S. Central Command’s top general, Joseph L. Votel, according to the military officials, who were familiar with the conversation and spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly. Central Command oversees combat operations in the Middle East.

Following that conversation, and another with some of the advisers, Votel spoke with Gen. Mark A. Milley, Army chief of staff, about the coming deployment in a private phone call.

Milley has long made the units of advisers, known as Security Forces Assistance Brigades, one of his leading priorities. But the push to send the teams to the front, even with potential staffing shortages, comes as the U.S. military deals with a series of crises, including two collisions of Navy ships in the Pacific last summer and several aviation crashes in the Marine Corps over the last year, that exposed readiness problems in the services.

Maj. Matthew E. Fontaine, a spokesman for the brigade, said, “We have enough soldiers to deploy.” He said additional advisers, from Fort Drum, New York, were still being assigned to the unit. And he said many of the advisers had enough experience in war zones to adjust, despite the accelerated training schedule.

It was not unusual a decade ago, at the height of the United States’ two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for infantry units to find themselves rushed to deploy with compacted training. Since 2009, small teams of U.S. troops have deployed across Afghanistan to teach the U.S. way of war to local soldiers and police officers.

But the Army advisers who are part of Trump’s strategy are being sent to outposts that will put them closer to the Taliban than most U.S. soldiers have gone since 2014, with the exception of Special Operations troops, who receive rigorous training and are usually sent to the small bases for limited visits.

The advisers will help train Afghan forces, including marshaling air support and artillery when they are targeted by the Taliban, said one of the military officials who was familiar with the coming deployment.

Jason Dempsey, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, warned that the Army advisers were being set up to fail — much the way ad hoc and untrained teams fell apart in earlier missions around Afghanistan.

“Even though they’ve been stood up and somewhat formalized, it’s still a generic answer to a problem that requires a deep understanding of Afghan culture and politics,” said Dempsey, who deployed twice to Afghanistan as an infantry officer, including as a combat adviser from 2012-2013.

He said the unit ran the risk of being judged by the U.S. military’s typical measure of progress: regaining territory from enemy groups through airstrikes.

“We’re buying them time, but not addressing the underlying political dysfunction that makes them ineffective,” Dempsey said of Afghan forces. “The Afghans continue to be beat by a force that doesn’t need air power, so I’ll believe the Afghan army is competent when they don’t need American air power.”

The Afghan air force has grown in recent years, but still heavily relies on U.S. troops and civilian advisers for training and maintenance. The Pentagon is sending more aircraft to battle zones to bolster the Afghans, coinciding with the uptick in airstrikes under Trump’s new strategy.

Over the last four months, U.S. warplanes dropped 1,874 munitions in Afghanistan, compared to 524 for the same period in 2016.

Faced with the increased airstrikes, militants last year launched more ambushes, insider attacks and assassinations instead of trying to hold territory, according to the third military official, who described parts of a National Ground Intelligence Center report that has not been publicly released. Armed Afghan groups focused more on small arms attacks against U.S. forces, wounding more than 150 troops in both explosive attacks and gunfire. Eleven were killed in combat in 2017.

The militants have also increased rocket and mortar attacks since 2016, prompting U.S. forces to start to equip bases in southern Afghanistan with weapons to counter the indirect fire.

The Taliban have improved their ability to strike in the dark, often with captured U.S. night vision devices or over-the-counter goggles, according to the officer’s description of the government report. Taliban militants have more than doubled night raids since 2014, killing hundreds of Afghan troops.

And though the small teams of advisers are supposed to be capable of defending themselves, infantry soldiers are being sent to provide a ring of protection to their missions. Some of the force protection soldiers will deploy next month from Fort Carson, Colorado.

An Army officer familiar with that deployment said the infantry soldiers were still collecting information about where they were headed. They are expected to land in Afghan towns and farmlands — places where U.S. forces have not been stationed in years, and where they will probably clear roads of explosives and fight the Taliban.