The presence of NATO forces in Afghanistan has been described as ‘buying time’ while the Afghan security forces are trained to such a level that they can take over the task of security for themselves. Key to this strategy is the partnering of British and other ISAF forces with units of the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army (ANA).
According to Major General Lorimer there are currently 146,000 trained members of the ANA, which he says is ‘well ahead’ of target and on track to hit 171,000 warriors by October next year.
But Major General Lorimer stressed it is not just about quantity, it is also about quality:
I think over the last year or so we have seen an increase in the overall quality of individuals and the collective abilities,” he said.
A number of times we have heard of operations that have not only been planned by the Afghan National Army but also been led during the conduct and execution of them.
This was recently shown during Operation OMID CHAR (Hope Four), the operation to clear a key area near Gereshk in the Nahr-e Saraj district, restrict Taliban freedom of movement, and see a higher profile ANA presence.
Whilst in the past ISAF forces have taken a more proactive role, this operation was completely devised and led by forces from the 3rd Brigade of 215 Maiwand Corps of the Afghan National Army (known as 3/215 Brigade), in close consultation with the district governor.
However, many challenges remain, as Major General Lorimer concedes:
Of course there are challenges … in terms of their [the ANA’s] sustainability in the field, their personnel side, retention and absenteeism; there are the issues in terms of the more sophisticated side of soldiering and there is the question of lower level leadership, but all of those issues are being dealt with head-on by the NTM-A [NATO Training Mission - Afghanistan] and the Afghans.
There are a number of plans and policies they have put in place to deal with the issues. For example, with the literacy side we have 34,000 members of the Afghan National Security Forces [ANSF] going through training for literacy and next year 100,000 will go through the training.
In terms of junior NCOs [Non-Commissioned Officers] there has been a 276 per cent increase in the number of junior NCOs we’ve trained in the last year, so it is all very positive.
But it is not just what the ANSF are getting out of it, it is what ISAF are getting out of it, and the current construct of embedded partnering working together in the field has brought real benefits to the coalition forces.
Commanding Officer of the Brigade Advisory Group, which leads on partnering with the ANA in Helmand, during HERRICK 12 was Lieutenant Colonel Charlie Herbert, who added that one of the key recent developments in ANA capability has been in countering improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Demonstrating success of this strategy, an ANA bomb disposal team, trained by British forces, recently put its skills into practice for the first time, safely disposing of two deadly IEDs in Helmand province.
In an important milestone in the development of the Afghan security forces, the ANA counter-IED team conducted a textbook operation under the oversight of their British partners from the Counter-IED Task Force.
They used controlled explosions to render safe the Taliban traps, which threatened the lives of British and Afghan soldiers, as well as local civilians. The devices had been discovered earlier during a joint patrol by Afghan National Army soldiers and C Company of 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment.
In a partnered operation, British and Afghan soldiers from the patrol worked together with the Afghan National Civil Order Police to provide an outer cordon, establishing a safe area around the devices for the Afghan counter-IED team to work within.
Overall, Lieutenant Colonel Herbert was confident in the progress being made by the ANA in Helmand. This was echoed by Major General Lorimer who concluded that there was a sense of ‘cautious optimism’ over the progress of the Afghan National Security Forces and that the target for withdrawing UK combat troops by 2015 was achievable.