KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan (Reuters) - NATO commanders scrapped a helicopter assault by hundreds of U.S. and Afghan troops last week because the Afghans weren’t able to take charge, a U.S. military officer familiar with the planning said. The decision to cancel the assault, designed to prepare the ground for the biggest offensive of the nearly nine-year-old war, has frustrated U.S. officers on the ground who say their local partners are not ready to lead.
“It wasn’t Afghan enough ... approval was denied,” a U.S. Army officer with knowledge of the plans told Reuters. “The implication is that the Afghans are in the lead. The bottom line is we’re nowhere near the stage where they can be in the lead.”
The assault in a rural part of Kandahar — due to take place in March and repeatedly postponed — would have been one of the biggest operations so far in the province, where U.S. troops are massing to carry out a major offensive beginning in June.
Its abrupt cancellation exposes limitations of the Afghan security forces and raises doubts over whether they are ready to start taking control of the country’s security this year.
The U.S. officer, who asked not to be identified while discussing the canceled operation, said approval for it had been blocked by a senior NATO commander in the south.
The commander, a general, stood up during a planning briefing and told the U.S. officers to come back once the Afghan army was in charge of the operation, he said.
The battalion-sized operation would have seen three companies from a U.S. Stryker Brigade and a company of Afghan soldiers launch a helicopter assault into a Taliban-controlled area to the west of Kandahar city. Their job would have been to prepare the district for the arrival of new troops for the summer offensive.
The operation was repeatedly postponed when officers met resistance from NATO commanders concerned that Afghan involvement was insufficient, the officer said. The plan was ditched altogether last Thursday.
Since taking command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan last year, General Stanley McChrystal has pushed for increased partnering between foreign and Afghan forces, saying Afghans should take part in all operations. Increasingly, he has sought to give Afghans a lead role in planning and execution.
But military officers on the ground who work with Afghan soldiers on a daily basis say that while the Afghan army has made strides on the battlefield, it still lacks leadership and effective coordination with its foreign partners.
The rank-and-file Afghan troops slated to go on the canceled air assault were capable enough but their leadership was not up to the task, the U.S. officer said.
“Tactically they are very good. They are excellent on patrol and under fire, what they lack is leadership and guidance,” he said. “There is no higher level partnership between coalition forces and the Afghans. They expect us to start at the bottom and work up,” he added.
The canceled assault would have formed part of the “shaping operations” currently under way ahead of the major offensive that is being billed as the central objective of McChrystal’s campaign plan to turn the tide in the war this year.
Over the next few months, the Kandahar operation will make use of the bulk of the 30,000 reinforcements pledged by President Barack Obama in December. It will directly involve more than 23,000 ground troops, including about 8,500 Americans, 3,000 Canadians and 12,000 Afghan soldiers and police.
U.S. commanders stress that Afghan police are expected to be in the lead throughout the campaign, which they hope will clear most Taliban fighters out of Kandahar city by August.
NATO leaders have said they are ready to start handing over security to Afghans in parts of the country at the end of this year, although they stress they will still act in a supportive role and the handover would be gradual.
The U.S. officer said the drive from the top to get Afghans more involved was affecting routine day-to-day operations, potentially putting the lives of soldiers and civilians at risk.
Operations such as route clearance patrols, where troops search for and clear roadside bombs known as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), were being called off because no Afghan troops were available at the time, he said.
“They have issued an edict from the top saying 100 percent of all route clearance patrols must be patrolled with Afghans. Sometimes Afghans aren’t available and route clearance patrols are getting canceled,” he said.
“We normally find two to three IEDs on every patrol, IEDs that could potentially blow up and kill people if we hadn’t got to them first.”
Editing by Peter Graff