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U.S. Eager To Step Aside; Are Afghan Forces Ready?

Oct 24, 2012
Originally published on October 24, 2012 7:30 am

America's exit strategy in Afghanistan is to have Afghan forces take the lead in fighting for their country. But too often these days, the job still falls to U.S. troops.

A senior officer in Afghanistan tells NPR that Americans continue to coddle Afghan forces and that this must stop. Tough love is in, the officer says. He says the Afghan forces are far more capable than the U.S. estimates and have simply grown accustomed to the U.S. doing everything for them.

That pretty much sums up the situation in southern Afghanistan earlier this year.

Americans Out Front

In May, just outside the city of Kandahar, Sgt. Matthew McMurray and his platoon joined Afghan troops on a patrol through a village.

The Americans prodded the Afghans to lead the effort to search homes for insurgents or bomb-making materials. Hours later, McMurray offered his assessment of the Afghan soldiers.

"I think it'll take a long, long time. We have to keep pushing them," he says. "It is very frustrating."

That sounds familiar to Seth Jones, a defense analyst at the RAND Corp. who just returned from Afghanistan.

"Overall the Americans are still conducting a lot of operations in Afghanistan right now," Jones says. "In terms of combat operations, the Americans are at least in many operations in the lead."

Many operations are in the south and east, where the Taliban insurgency is the strongest. In those areas, 30 to 40 percent of Afghan battalions are what American officials term "independent." But officials say those Afghan units still need American advisers.

All this contradicts the public line, which is that Afghan forces are out in front.

Afghan Improvement

Australian Army Brig. Gen. Roger Noble, a deputy operations officer, told Pentagon reporters recently that three-quarters of the country is now under Afghan control or is moving in that direction.

"In these areas, Afghans have the lead for their own security and their own lives. And the future of Afghan is day by day increasingly in Afghan hands," Noble said. "This is the plan and it's on track."

Canadian Brig. Gen. Thomas Putt, director of development for the Afghan security forces, says the Afghans are vastly better than they were five years ago.

"I was out watching between 8,000 and 9,000 soldiers and policemen operating together in multibrigade-level operations that I had never ever seen before," he says.

Others say that's exactly the point: that if the Afghan forces are getting better they should be planning missions and doing the bulk of the fighting.

"They have got to take the lead for the campaign," Jones says. "The American role has got to be then one of supporting. But it's got to be the Afghans in the lead of a campaign."

To make that happen — and some U.S. officers are now making this case — American troops can't keep doing everything for them.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In Monday's foreign policy debate, Mitt Romney agreed with President Obama on many things, including America's exit strategy from Afghanistan. Both want to make Afghan forces take the lead fighting for their country. But as NPR's Tom Bowman reports, too often the job still falls to U.S. troops.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: A senior officer in Afghanistan tells NPR that Americans are still coddling Afghan forces; that we must stop. Tough love is in, this officer said. They are far more capable than we give them credit for. They're used to us doing everything for them. Americans doing everything for the Afghans, that's what it looked like back in May of this year. Just outside the city of Kandahar, Sergeant Matthew McMurray and his platoon joined Afghan troops on a patrol.

The Americans prodded the Afghans to get out front and search homes for insurgents. Later, Sergeant McMurray was asked if the Afghan soldiers were ready.

SERGEANT MATTHEW MCMURRAY: I think it'll take a long, long time. We have to keep pushing them.

BOWMAN: Is that frustrating?

MCMURRAY: Very frustrating.

BOWMAN: That sounds familiar to Seth Jones. He's a defense analyst at the RAND Corporation and just returned from Afghanistan.

SETH JONES: Overall, the Americans are still conducting a lot of operations in Afghanistan right now.

BOWMAN: So the Americans are in the lead.

JONES: So I would say, today still, in terms of combat operations, the Americans are at least in many operations in the lead.

BOWMAN: Many operations in the South and East where the Taliban insurgency is the strongest. In those areas, only 30 to 40 percent of Afghan battalions are what American officials term independent. Top commanders are more optimistic. Canadian Brigadier General Thomas Putt is director of development for the Afghan security forces. He says the Afghans are vastly better than they were five years ago.

GENERAL THOMAS PUTT: You know, I was out watching between eight and nine thousand soldiers and policemen operating together in multi-brigade level operations that I had never ever seen before.

BOWMAN: Others say that's exactly the point, that if the Afghan forces are getting better, they should be planning missions and doing the bulk of the fighting. To make that happen, and some U.S. officers are now making this case, American troops can't keep doing everything for them. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.