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Building an Army for Afghanistan

How do you build an Army? That is the question that the U.S. military continues to grapple with in Afghanistan. The challenges range from the basics of recruiting, training, and equipping Afghan soldiers to establishing the logistics infrastructure to support and sustain them. Accomplishing this for our own military in a peacetime environment is difficult; accomplishing the same feat for a foreign army in a destitute and war-ravaged environment is nearly impossible. Yet that is precisely the mission we have been given. As we continue the Global War on Terrorism, this is a mission we can expect to repeat time and again while we develop our own allies to extend order and stability in remote locations.

For those of us who have been given the opportunity to support the Global War on Terrorism, the experience is both richly rewarding and deeply frustrating. I was given such an opportunity while deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan, throughout 2006 as a member of the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC–A). The CSTC–A is an organization chartered to coordinate with the Afghan government to establish both the Afghanistan National Army (ANA) and the Afghanistan National Police. My particular position was to serve as the senior ammunition mentor and ammunition program manager to the ANA.

My role, as I would learn, encompassed a lot more than a simple title. I was in a unique position to observe and participate in establishing a logistics chain from the tactical, strategic, and even political levels. While my focus was in the ammunition arena, many aspects of my experience were directly applicable across the logistics spectrum.

Ammunition Support for the ANA

The initial support and transition plan for providing ammunition for the ANA was relatively simple in concept but difficult to execute. The intent was to use a rough comparison with U.S.-made weapons to determine requirements, capitalize on existing ammunition stockpiles for supply, and obtain resupply through donations and U.S. direct purchases through foreign military sales. U.S. Army trainers would initially manage ammunition stocks while simultaneously training the ANA to assume the role. During this transition period, CSTC–A would supervise and coordinate facility upgrades for security and storage. The objective was an ANA-managed ammunition operation from cradle to grave.

While the initial plan was sound, it attempted to manage drastic changes in doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, and facilities (DOTMLPF). More often than not, changing realities on the ground drove a need for a course correction in midstream. The key lesson learned was to filter our planning according to the cultural environment before implementing the changes.

As a collective Army, it is essential to build on our experiences by sharing our lessons learned. The Army uses the DOTMLPF construct to insert changes into the way it operates. With the benefit of hindsight and by infusing cultural awareness into the DOTMLPF construct, we can better prepare for the challenges ahead.


Our original concept was to build a western-style, distribution-based logistics system. The intent was to manage logistics at the national level using strategically placed depots and distributing stocks based on plans and priorities established by the ANA’s army-level staff. The keys to making this work were an effective accountability system to record on-hand quantities and consumption, a method of reporting requirements from the field, and a distribution system to redistribute assets as necessary.

We found that the Afghans’ doctrine was based on what they had learned from the Soviet Union. Under Soviet doctrine, staff officers did not prepare staff estimates and mission analyses; they merely executed the commander’s orders. When the Afghans fought the Soviets, it was on the move, with supplies hidden in caches that were under the direct control of regional tribal leaders. These influences produced ANA commanders with fierce tribal loyalties and passive staff officers. As a result, ANA units were extremely reluctant to cross-level or even report ammunition stocks to ANA units of differing regional or tribal affiliation. In most cases, corps commanders’ priorities took precedence over those of the ANA army-level staff.

Further complicating the process was a lack of resources to transport ammunition effectively to remote locations over unsecured lines of communication. Security considerations and sometimes even weather conditions limited resupply missions. Implementing a pure distribution-based logistics system was extremely difficult. In the end, we developed a compromise between a supply-based and a distribution-based logistics system.


Our original organizational concept was based on five regional corps. Each corps consisted of three infantry battalions, a combat support battalion, and a combat service support battalion. We developed each of these battalions using our own battalions as templates. However, as we staffed logistics organizations, we found a problem arose when faced with end-strength limitations. The Afghans frequently misunderstood the roles of staff officers and the importance of logistics personnel. Afghan commanders distinctly preferred large contingents of combat soldiers to staff officers and logisticians. This prioritization resulted in a severe shortage of personnel in logistics positions. The leaders were predisposed to this mentality, and a change had to happen at the top level to correct it.


Our training concept initially relied on mobile training teams to conduct hands-on training with the ANA soldiers, noncommissioned officers (NCOs), and staff officers. The intent was to provide the local commander with trained and capable ammunition handlers and staff officers who could receive, store, and issue ammunition safely and accurately. We found that the ANA did not learn well with traditional
“platform” instruction. They insisted on printed handouts, and our translator often had to bounce from English to Dari to Pashtun, significantly increasing the time required to teach courses. Furthermore, the ANA generally relied heavily on personal experience and discounted anything that did not conform to what they already knew. When asked to consider doing something new, the typical response was that they had been fighting for generations and did not see the value in adopting new methods.

Another unanticipated challenge was how the ANA viewed the differences between officers and NCOs. In the U.S. Army, NCOs are the most proficient and skilled trainers. In the ANA, NCOs were not given the same respect, and that directly affected how ANA officers interacted with U.S. Army NCO instructors. U.S. trainers modified their training plan to accommodate these perceptions and to incorporate assistant instructors from the ANA when possible. To help the ANA gain interest in training, the trainers tied equipment and facilities funding to a unit’s level of proficiency as demonstrated through training.

A final training issue that we did not anticipate was the propensity of the ANA to reassign soldiers between units without regard to the type of position or the training that the soldiers had. Keeping trained ANA soldiers in the right positions to accomplish the ammunition support mission was a constant challenge. Our strategy to counteract this problem was to maintain a detailed list of trained soldiers organized by identification card numbers. We presented this list to the ANA leaders to fill positions as needed.


Initially, our intent was to support equipment currently in use by the ANA, primarily Soviet Block-style weapons, such as AK–47 assault rifles, RPK light machineguns, PKM machineguns, rocket-propelled grenades, and SPG–9 73-millimeter recoilless rifles. The Afghans were familiar with these weapons and had existing stocks of them. New weapons arrived through donations and direct purchases, but we found that the ANA had a distinct preference for weapon systems based on past experience and country of make. If the Afghan soldiers were unfamiliar with a weapon system, or if the system was from a country they considered hostile or inferior, it was difficult to incorporate into their operations, even if it was more effective than what they were using.

This led to a significant challenge to introducing new systems because the ANA would either decline to use them or make false reports of failures to obtain a more favorable weapon system. To mitigate this problem, the U.S. trainers incorporated more training in the different weapon systems to inspire confidence and training on the correct tactical employment of various systems. On a related note, providing or withholding materiel proved to be the key bargaining factor in dealing with the ANA.

Leadership and Education

Leadership was consistently a challenge when adapting the ANA to a western-style logistics system. As noted earlier, ANA commanders are typically selected based on tribal or regional loyalties rather than proficiency or competence. This resulted in significant challenges in gaining a synchronized effort among the ANA leaders. Corps commanders of different tribal backgrounds often refused to agree, and staff officers at the headquarters level were challenged to gain concurrence from officers in the field.

To encourage unity, the CSTC–A encouraged and fostered a more diverse ANA officer corps through incentives to promote officers based on qualification rather than tribal loyalties. The CSTC–A also developed senior staff officer courses to bridge the gap between U.S. Army doctrine and ANA doctrine.


A key challenge for the ANA was to recruit and retain qualified personnel to perform logistics functions. Some primary qualifications for ammunition personnel are the abilities to read procedures manuals, properly identify ammunition markings, and calculate net explosive weight.

We found that when we solicited candidates for training, we often had to conduct supplementary training in literacy, computer skills, and general knowledge. While this increased the ANA soldiers’ ability to perform their tasks, it also took up time previously intended for military occupational specialty training. Another unanticipated training issue was language. Occasionally, the ANA soldiers spoke Pashtun and their leaders spoke Dari. This brought about challenges ranging from which language to use when printing training materials to how to communicate among those speaking English,
Pashtun, and Dari.


Our original intent was to fund the construction of ammunition storage depots and forward ammunition storage points. We expected to build on existing Soviet-era depots and create new facilities to western safety and security standards. The expectation was that the ANA would be grateful for anything we funded. However, the ANA preferred underground, bunker-style facilities and insisted on several changes to the plan based on cultural considerations. They insisted that each location had to have a mosque, they stated a preference for wood over gas stoves, and they wanted specific arrangements for living facilities.

Significant controversy erupted over who was contracted to perform the work. Each local leader sought to provide work for his preferred vendor and excluded contractors from other tribal backgrounds. To mitigate this problem, the CSTC–A developed a lengthy contract bidding process to ensure that only qualified contractors could bid in the process. While this did not totally eliminate the problem, it provided a rationale for selecting contractors that was easy to explain to the ANA leaders.

The mission to establish and implement a fully functioning ammunition logistics system within the ANA is a project that began way before I arrived in theater and continues even now. I was fortunate to be a part of a great team of both U.S. and Afghan Soldiers. We learned through trial and error to adapt and modify our plan to match the realities on the ground. In more cases than not, we U.S. Soldiers had to learn from our ANA counterparts what their expectations were and how to integrate changes incrementally rather than drastically. By recognizing and addressing the cultural differences, we became more efficient as trainers and mentors. Looking back on it, I realize how steep the learning curve truly was. If, by sharing my experiences, I can shorten someone else’s learning curve and pass something on, then it was all worthwhile.

Major Jason A. Crowe is assigned to the Army Sustainment Command at Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois. He has a degree from Alabama A&M University and is a graduate of the Ordnance Officer Basic Course, the Combined Logistics Officers Advanced Course, and the Combined Arms and Services Staff School.