Afghan patrol limits may undercut transition
NATO's decision limiting some operations with Afghan troops might lessen so-called insider attacks, analysts say.
But the move could undermine the coalition's efforts to help the locals take over their nation's security.
Coalition forces have been regularly partnering with small Afghan units in operations for years.
But in an order Sunday from Gen. John Allen, head of NATO's International Security Assistance Force, a regional commander now must give the OK for a joint operation, a move seen as a setback to the transition of military power to Afghans by the end of 2014.
The spurt of attacks by Afghan police and soldiers against their coalition counterparts and the anger of the anti-Islam video that went viral across the world forced the NATO-led force to adjust the relations between coalition and Afghan forces.
"Every day you take away from them will reduce their effectiveness," analyst Bill Roggio said. "To me this is a major blow to our withdrawal strategy."
Roggio sees the only positive outcome as limiting future insider attacks. The negative is that when Afghan security forces go without partnership, they suffer. He said there's no indication the forces are ready to work on their own effectively.
"Whenever they are given more responsibility, they drop the ball," said Roggio, managing editor of the blog Long War Journal, which tracks the war on terror.
And, Roggio said, commanders can be risk-averse and may want to avoid giving the OK to joint patrols.
Stephen Biddle, adjunct senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said before the announcement, "every U.S. patrol or offensive operation in the country had Afghans out with them."
Now such steps will be unusual, and it's a sign that partnering isn't working.
"We have now decided apparently that partnering model of very close shoulder-to-shoulder interaction across the rank structure is too dangerous because of Afghans are shooting us when we do that."
He said underlying problems spurring insider attacks, such as politics and corruption, must be confronted.
Time is short, he said.
"We can't kick this can down the road very much longer before we run out of road and we may have already."
Jeffrey Dressler, a senior research analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, said if the coalition move is "temporary" and has "minimal operational effect," it could be a "wise decision."
But Dressler said militants might see the move to place restrictions on some patrols as a sign of weakness that could be exploited.
"This will come at a cost, potentially resulting in more 'green on blues' (attacks) once partnership resumes if the insurgency sees that the tactic is a successful one, namely, breaking the bonds between U.S. and Afghan forces," he said. "Sometimes it can embolden the enemy to be even more brazen and aggressive so that's something to be cautious of here with this announcement."
More than 50 coalition forces have died this year in insider or "green-on-blue" assaults, the name for the strikes by Afghan security forces.
Then there is the Afghan troop learning curve. Partnership and transition are paramount "going forward," Dressler said.
"You can't do that from afar," he said.
Stephanie Sanok, deputy director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said this move means that there will be fewer joint patrols.
And that results in fewer ideas about what, she said, security forces are "capable of and what they are willing to do."
"With fewer partnered patrols, we'll have less insight," she said.
But she said that Afghan security forces will embark on their own patrols, which could be illuminating. People will find out how competent they are after years of training and advice.
"This is sort of a sink or swim effect," she said. "At some point, they will have to be able to do this stuff on their own. This is going to be an indicator for how far they come. We'll find out."
Another effect of the move is the political perception in Afghanistan and the West, with two narratives emerging, she said.
One view is this move will empower the Afghans and give them a "taste of what they expect to experience," she said. But the other sees the decision as looking like the coalition is abandoning the soldiers with which it promised to partner.
NATO-led nations have set the end of 2014 for the planned withdrawal of combat forces. Sanok said declaring a specific withdrawal date feeds into the sense that the coalition is backing down and Afghanistan will be abandoned despite any changes in conditions on the ground.
Another key to the future of the Afghan security forces is the selection of two top security ministers, interior and defense. At the moment, those spots are open, Sanok said.
Sanok also said she does not understand why the coalition is publicly highlighting the change it made. She said the military frequently makes changes in the field without discussing them in the press.
"They are actually talking about it," she said. "They probably could have gone on fewer patrols" without saying anything.
All of these changes might not matter to many Americans. She said they have "Afghanistan fatigue" and the public "pretty much thinks it's time to move on."
But the militants might not be going anywhere, a reality that requires robust training.
"I don't think this is an enemy that's on its last legs and can be tipped into collapse on the battlefield anytime soon," said Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Australian Brig. Gen. Roger Noble, ISAF deputy chief of staff for operations, who briefed Pentagon reporters in a teleconference Wednesday, stressed that Allen's decision isn't preventing Afghan-coalition partnership.
Given the angry response to things seen as anti-Muslim, "you'd be crazy not to heighten force protection," he said.
"He's just reinforcing the requirement to make a considered decision about when, where and how that happens. And he reserves the right, of course, to change that policy in response to what's happening," Noble said, referring to Allen.
The coalition has worked furiously to train the Afghan military and remove the last of its surge troops this month. The Afghan military and police will be in charge of security when combat troops depart the country.
The insider attacks have eroded trust between Afghan and coalition forces. The killings have emerged as a greater long-term problem than the ire over the recent anti-Islamic video.
"The problem with the insider attacks is it strikes right at the heart of our resolve," Noble said. "It is one thing to be killed in action fighting the insurgents, quite another to be shot in the back of the head at night by your friends."
Insurgent sentiment and cross-cultural differences resulting in animosity have been factors in attacks. The military has been investigating the causes of the attacks.
Coalition forces have taken security steps to deal with the strikes. They have required troops to carry loaded weapons at all times. They have stationed some troops to be "guardian angels," soldiers in units who keep an eye on the Afghan forces.