Afghan army engineering brigade ‘incapable’ despite years of American training – US watchdog

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The Afghan army’s National Engineering Brigade, a key support unit, is hardly capable of operating independently, despite extensive training by American instructors, the US government watchdog for Afghanistan’s reconstruction said in a report.

The National Engineering Brigade (NEB) was formed in 2013 to provide logistical and other support for the Afghan National Army (ANA). Like in any other army, the new brigade’s combat tasks included mine clearing, demolition, building and repairing buildings, roads and power links.

The US Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) – a task force whose official mission is to “defeat terrorist networks & insurgents by developing effective governance” in the country – has been in charge of making the NEB “fully capable” by 2014.

But the US government’s watchdog for Afghan reconstruction, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), said Thursday this goal was too optimistic and did not match reality.

“Knowing the challenges experienced with training ANA soldiers in the past, such as low literacy levels and soldiers not reporting for work, USFOR-A may have been overly optimistic in believing that the NEB could achieve a ‘partially capable’ level in 8 months, let alone a ‘fully capable’ level within 10 months,” said the report, quoted by Stars and Stripes. 

“However, even if the NEB had attained a ‘partially capable’ level, by definition, the brigade would not have been able to operate independently,” it added.

The watchdog’s report said the Afghan army itself is partially responsible for delays in sending soldiers for engineering training and in providing the equipment necessary for training. The brigade was initially allocated $29 million for engineering equipment and vehicles, with NATO’s Combined Security Transition Command–Afghanistan responsible for purchasing it. But much of that equipment never reached the brigade, SIGAR’s report said.

“The NEB lacked initiative and only planned when USFOR-A advisors urged them to do so. Most significantly ... the NEB was not capable of carrying out its mission,” SIGAR said, citing an October 2014 assessment report.

US advisers ended their training mission for the NEB in December 2014, and this was followed by the official departure of most NATO contingents at the end of that year. Apparently, the US government watchdog lost its ability to regularly track the progress of the brigade.

Recently, military officials told the Washington Post that thousands of US troops may remain in Afghanistan for decades to come, despite the Obama administration’s repeated assurances that the current president does not support the “idea of endless war.”

“What we’ve learned is that you can’t really leave,” one Pentagon official said on condition of anonymity. “The local forces need air support, intelligence and help with logistics. They are not going to be ready in three years or five years. You have to be there for a very long time.”

While NATO’s “advise and assist” operation Resolute Support is ongoing, Washington shifted to a plan to reduce forces in Afghanistan by early 2017. At that point, 5,500 US soldiers would remain in the country to work with Afghan National Army – down from the current contingent of 9,800. Plans to completely remove all US troops have not been announced.