WASHINGTON — In their first fighting season leading combat operations, Afghan security forces blunted a planned Taliban offensive and held their ground, but the initial success has come at a heavy price in casualties, highlighting the need to improve the fighting effectiveness of Afghan government forces.
Thanks to U.S. and international support, the Afghan National Security Forces have a firepower advantage over the Taliban, but many Afghan units lack the ability to effectively coordinate fire support with the maneuvering of ground units, coalition officials say.
“Because they are warriors, they will attack a position from every direction,” said Australian Maj. Gen. Fergus McLachlan, a top coalition staff officer. “We try to encourage what we call simple battlefield geometry.”
The effective use of artillery and other firepower would allow the Afghans to kill the enemy at a distance before the battle becomes a close-quarters fight where neither side has an advantage.
“Too often at the moment, it de-escalates into a fair fight between the Taliban and the ANSF where they’re slugging it out close up,” McLachlan said. “We don’t want to give them a fair fight.”
Such combined arms tactics are the bedrock of the U.S. military, which has refined the coordination of aircraft, artillery and tanks on the battlefield over decades of training.
Improving the Afghan military’s effectiveness is a race against the clock. The United States has about 54,500 troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of about 100,000. By February, the numbers will be reduced further to about 34,000.
By the end of next year, most U.S. forces will have been removed from Afghanistan. Afghan and U.S. leaders have said they want a residual force to be left behind but have not finalized a legal framework for it.
Afghan security forces, which include army and police, have expanded to 352,000.
This is the first fighting season where Afghans are fighting mostly independent of U.S. and allied forces. More than 90 percent of the combat operations are planned and led by Afghan forces. U.S. and allied forces continue to provide support and assistance.
Coalition commanders said Afghan forces have held their ground, and the Taliban’s stated goals of disrupting the government and undermining the security forces have been thwarted.
“They are bringing the fight to the enemy,” said Army Col. Gary Brito, who helps oversee the development of Afghan security forces. “They have not given up any ground.”
It has come at a price. Afghan soldiers and police were killed at a rate of 50 to 100 a week during the peak fighting season.
McLachlan acknowledged that some units that have been fighting in remote locations for years are tired, but there was “no evidence of loss of cohesion or loss of willingness to fight.”
“There hasn’t been a single unit, police or army, that has shattered and lost their cohesion, lost their ability to carry on the fight as a result of casualties,” said Lt. Gen. Mark A. Milley, commander of the joint force command.
Coalition commanders said more training will reduce casualties. “As we see the ANSF professionalize, we know those casualties will come down,” McLachlan said.
Afghan forces face declining access to U.S. helicopters for medical evacuations, which probably contributes to a higher casualty rate. The U.S. military system of evacuation, treatment at the scene and extensive field hospitals is among the best.
A coalition soldier injured on the battlefield faces less than a 10 percent chance of dying from his wounds. An Afghan soldier faces a 30 percent chance of dying from a wound, about the same rate soldiers faced in World War II.
Coalition forces still provide helicopter medical evacuation to Afghans if an injury threatens the life, a limb or eyesight and if the Afghans are not able to provide their own evacuation. The coalition is working to build Afghan medical evacuation capabilities so they are not dependent on American or coalition help.
During a recent week, McLachlan said the coalition received 31 medevac requests from Afghan forces and were able to answer all but one. In the one case, a U.S. helicopter was unable to immediately touch down because the landing zone was not secured, and the injured Afghan died.
“This is one of the toughest moral dilemmas I think our commanders have out on the battlespace,” McLachlan said. “What we’re trying to do is develop a force that will be able to cope once we’re gone but without the tragedy of someone dying because we are trying to execute tough love.”