Soldiers from the Afghan National Army patrol a village in the Pech River… (Andrea Bruce / VII Network/FTWP )
PECH VALLEY, Afghanistan — Long before U.S. troops departed Combat Outpost Nangalam last fall, they gave their Afghan counterparts a few words of advice: Don’t stay here.
Afghan soldiers had already failed once to secure Nangalam on their own, forcing the unplanned return in July 2011 of U.S. troops to one of the country’s most infamous insurgent strongholds. U.S. officials worried that the Afghans were about to make the same mistake again, electing to remain in a remote Konar province valley that would be difficult to defend alone. This time, there would be no backup.
When U.S. advisers shared their guidance with Col. Tarab Adel, the top Afghan commander in Nangalam, he quickly agreed. But a new, expansionist Afghan strategy left Adel with no choice. Adel’s superiors demanded that his unit take control of Nangalam after the U.S. Army’s departure, and in late 2012, he watched the last American convoy drive away and prepared for the worst.
As Western troops draw down their presence, Afghan officials have resisted U.S. guidance to reduce the nascent army’s footprint in recognition of its limitations. Many Afghan leaders view that strategy as a concession to the Taliban and an admission of weakness. But U.S. advisers say the ambitious alternative — an Afghan army spread thinly across volatile districts — could be even more self-destructive.
The disagreement over the Pech Valley is symbolic of broader bilateral tensions over growing Afghan autonomy and American officials’ unease about their own loss of control and what will replace it. American officials say the Afghan strategy would divert much-needed manpower from population centers, the pillars of government power that the U.S. military has devoted most of its resources to securing. A reversal of recent gains, U.S. officials say, could make it easier for the Taliban to carry out spectacular attacks with consequences both deadly and symbolic.
The Afghan army has “devised a strategy that is unsustainable,” said one U.S. official based in Konar, who like others interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Last summer, President Hamid Karzai asked his cabinet to “take all necessary measures to stop the demolition of bases by NATO and make their handover possible,” according to presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi.
On its face, that decision illustrated Afghan leaders’ enthusiasm about their growing responsibilities. Some U.S. officials argue that the Afghan army’s expansionism comes with inherent risks but also praise it as a key development in the institution’s maturation. Only by acting unilaterally in tough locations, they say, will the Afghan National Army, or ANA, know its abilities and limitations.
But in the Pech Valley of northeastern Afghanistan, and in other remote and volatile locations, U.S. advisers and Afghan soldiers view the plan as a potential disaster. According to a Pentagon study released last month, only one of 23 Afghan brigades is able to operate independently without support from the United States or NATO. That strain is felt most acutely in isolated, frequently contested locations.
“There is no way to hold that place without support of American troops,” said Adel, the Afghan commander.
“I told the Americans from the beginning that I wasn’t ready to take over control of base,” he said. “I wanted to just leave the area empty and move somewhere else.”
Each time U.S. troops withdraw from a base, top Afghan officials are left with a choice — either to inherit American infrastructure or allow it to be razed. Reducing the number of fighting positions means that Afghan security forces won’t have the same reach as NATO once did, but it makes it easier for the army and police to maintain and defend their footprint.
U.S. officials have encouraged the 180,000-soldier Afghan army to consolidate that footprint. A bilateral commission meets frequently to decide whether far-flung U.S. bases are fit to be handed over to Afghan troops. Western officials often question whether the army is capable of sustaining those positions. But Afghan officials have transferred some bases despite the concerns of U.S. advisers assigned to Afghan units.
Logistical problems plaguing the Afghan military supply chain have made it difficult for many units to get fuel or spare parts for vehicles. The more remote bases the Afghan army chooses to take over, U.S. officials worry, the more overextended that supply chain will become.
“ANA forces are a fossil fuel, not an infinite resource that can be spread across the country at will,” one U.S. adviser in Konar said.