By Howard Altman | Tribune Staff
Scott Mann could have seen it coming — a report issued Monday warning that mismanagement and waste could imperil a half-billion program to help Afghans create a local bulwark against the Taliban.
The retired Green Beret lieutenant colonel and Hillsborough County man helped create the program, called Afghan Local Police/Village Stability Operations, and recently published “Game Changers,” a book about how this and similar programs can be made to work.
This one won’t, he said, unless some basic problems are addressed first — like providing military leadership.
The program was “designed to be top down,” Mann says. “These are irregular fighters. They are farmers. Yes, you have to pay them. Yes, you have to arm them. But they have to be very closely coordinated with special ops advisors living there. If not, there is no way in hell they can succeed.”
But after the drawdown of most U.S. forces in 2014, direct U.S involvement in the Afghan Local Police/Village Stability Operations program ended.
That was the plan, the man in charge told the Tribune during a 2013 interview in Kabul.
“The Village Stability Operations mission will go away in December 2014,” Army Brig. Gen. Donald C. Bolduc said at the time. Afghans, said Bolduc, then deputy commanding general of Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan, would be “fully in control, of the training, logistics, sustainment, education, pay, and quality control of the Afghan Local Police.”
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The plan as laid out by Bolduc is falling short, according to the report issued Monday by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a Defense Department organization overseeing military spending programs there.
“Despite hundreds of millions of dollars invested in the program over the last five years,” there is a lack of adequate logistics support and general oversight. There are also concerns about pilfered and delayed funds and equipment and a misuse of personnel, according to the report.
Afghan Local Police commanders, for example, complain that though they submit the appropriate requests for fuel, “the fuel usually arrives late and at an amount less than requested.”
One commander said that whenever he ordered 1,400 liters of fuel, the unit would usually receive 800 to 1,000 liters.
Headquarters and coalition personnel have also identified “significant equipment shortages within units located in multiple districts in Helmand province. This included shortages of weapons, trucks, and motorcycles.”
In Marja, for example, “they noted a shortage of 114 AK-47 rifles, and in Nehri-Saraj district, a shortage of 13 ALP Ranger pick-up trucks.”
Another major problem discovered by the special inspector general is that the local police program is being misused.
The program was designed for police to work in local villages where they share the same clan and tribal backgrounds.
However, inspectors found that several Afghan Local Police personnel were assigned as bodyguards to members of the provincial council and district governors. In another example, coalition advisors said a politician requested 50 Afghan Local Police personnel and also used them as personal bodyguards.
The problems are exacerbated by inadequate record keeping by the Afghan Ministries of Interior and Finance, with some police paid too much and some too little.
Combined, these issues threaten to create attrition, the report says, in what is considered “the first line of defense for many villages across Afghanistan.”
For the special inspector general, the concern is also about where the program is going.
The Defense Department estimates that the program will cost about $121 million annually to sustain, according to the report, based on a fully authorized strength of 30,000 personnel. Based on these estimates, the total cost of the program over time is estimated to be more than $591 million.
That is, if the Pentagon agrees to keep funding the program through next year.
The new report echoes old problems with the program.
Two years ago, a local commander voiced some of the same complaints to the Tribune, which traveled to Afghanistan to observe the Afghan Local Police/Village Stability Operations program in action.
“These poor guys are soldiers, they have families to support and kids to take care of,” Tor Yalay, an checkpoint commander complaining then, via an interpreter, that many of his men were not being paid and might defect. “It’s kind of difficult.”
Yalay, speaking to a Green Beret captain, asked for help.
“This is a very big issue,” he said. “Guys are quitting. Guys are leaving. This is not what they want. This is not what I want. If this can be solved immediately, that would be great.”
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In “Game Changers,” Mann, a 22-year Army veteran who spent 18 years in Special Forces, lays out the concerns of pulling back from a program that he says requires a small, but steady commitment of U.S. military advisors to succeed.
Foreign Internal Defense operations like this one are a “long-term, small-footprint and whole-of-nation approach, led by the U.S. country team, which requires less U.S. blood and treasure,” writes Mann. He recommends a 13-point plan that “includes U.S. and Afghan Special Operations Forces advising regular and irregular host nation forces to achieve relative stability in a country largely dominated by honor-based clan society.”
Afghanistan has already seen the fallout from withdrawal, according to Mann’s book.
“We threw our local allies under the bus,’” Ted Callahan, who worked closely with Village Stability Operation leaders in Afghanistan, says in the book. Callahan is still there has seen what happens when Special Operations forces leaving the rural villages.
“My old Afghan cell phone from my days with SOF rings off the hook from local Afghans who stood up as Afghan Local Police against extremists,’” he is quoted as saying. “It’s heartbreaking to hear them plead for assistance after getting hammered by extremists all summer.”
Even in the best days of Afghan central rule, from the 1920s to the 1970s, “80 percent of the population was beyond the reach of the central government,” Mann says.
So the trick to building out governance, security and ultimately, stability on the local level is to work from the local level up, he says.
A seven-step plan to correct the problems is laid in the report issued Monday by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
It includes developing and enacting measures to ensure that Afghan Local Police units, across all districts where they are located, can reliably receive necessary supplies; stopping the misuse of police as bodyguards for provincial and district officials; creating a comprehensive plan for the future transition, sustainment, or dissolution of Afghan Local Police; and provide Afghan Local Police headquarters with the authorities necessary to enact recommendations included in its field visit reports.
To improve the oversight of U.S. funds, the special inspector general recommends better tracking of police pay, including electronic payment.
U.S. commands in Afghanistan concurred with the recommendations.
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Still, in the end, the recommendations won’t matter, Mann says.
“The approach itself is inherently flawed because we have abandoned the tenets of bottom-up stability,” he says.
Stability operations programs that have worked, like those in Colombia, the Philippines and El Salvador, have taken decades, he says.
Without a sustained presence of U.S. advisors, Mann says, the end result for Afghanistan will likely be even worse than the special inspector general has projected.
As an example, he points to the civil war that broke out after the Soviets left Afghanistan, fueled in part by misuse of local police.
Mann says his concern is a repeat of that mistake.
“Without any responsible advisors, it can have catastrophic consequences across the country,” Mann says. “We can lose all of our social capital and whatever trust is left would be gone.”
One possible result, as nonprofit groups have warned, is unsupervised rogue militias.
Officials with the special inspector general said they could not comment on possible effects to the Afghan Local Police program from the recent announcement that President Barack Obama will extend the stay of troops in Afghanistan.
“Either we go back in and clean up the mess or we are looking at another civil war,” Mann says.
It’s not just a problem for Afghanistan, but for larger U.S. interests, he says.
“If the Soviet failure in Afghanistan taught us one thing, it’s that a loss in Afghanistan is a clarion call to jihadists all over the world. It will be bigger than the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and rally the master narrative of an imminent caliphate all over the world.”
What’s more, he says, it could re-establish Afganistan as a home for terrorism, as it was when the U.S. invaded 14 years ago.
“It will provide a safe haven for al-Qaida and ISIS to strike us from the rural areas we have abandoned.”