WARDAK, Afghanistan — Their fighting season nearly over, members of an embattled Afghan army unit recently inspected their equipment, most of which was in two heaps on their base. There were Humvees shredded by roadside bombs, armored trucks damaged by rocket-propelled grenades and other vehicles in need of repair after hard use in one of the country’s most volatile areas.
The Afghan soldiers could not fix any of them, and replacements hadn’t come. Seventy-five percent of the battalion’s armored vehicles were out of commission. There were so few Humvees that some soldiers walked for 20 hours to get from base to base.
“How can we fight a war like this?” asked Col. Hamidullah, the battalion commander, who like many Afghans uses one name.
The problems plaguing Hamidullah’s battalion represent what might be the biggest threat to the fledgling Afghan army: an inability to repair or replace vital equipment once it is broken. The U.S. military shouldered that responsibility for years. But just as the Afghan army started doing the bulk of the fighting, the Americans stopped repairing Afghan equipment.
The U.S. military said that turning over the job to the Afghans was an inevitable part of the transition process. But with the Afghan supply chain still undeveloped and the Defense Ministry still hobbled by corruption, army units across the country aren’t getting the gear and parts that they need.
Afghan commanders are now taking stock of how many vehicles they have lost during the fighting season, which typically lasts from spring until fall, when many Taliban commanders return to Pakistan. Nabiullah, a battalion commander in the Arghandab River valley in southern Kandahar province, said by telephone that 20 percent of his Humvees have been blown up or have fallen into disrepair. Khan Agha, a battalion commander in Kandahar’s Panjwai district, said his unit lost about 15 percent of its Humvees in the past four months.
“We don’t have enough trained professionals to take care of this equipment,” Nabiullah said.
By nearly all measures, it was a brutal fighting season for the Afghan security forces. About 400 soldiers and police officers were killed every month. Even in districts where there wasn’t much combat, improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs, took an enormous toll on the army and its equipment. U.S. officials have praised the Afghans for their resilience in the face of such heavy losses.
Afghan soldiers say that they haven’t lost their willingness to fight but that the lack of functional equipment has restricted their ability to conduct operations. In Hamidullah’s battalion, for example, the team charged with locating and disarming roadside bombs is down from four Humvees to one, seriously reducing the number of patrols it can conduct.
Even the much-lauded Afghan special forces teams are plagued by the logistical problems.
“The Americans gave us the Humvees, but they didn’t give us the spare parts,” said Sgt. Mohammad Safi, who is part of the special forces team based in Wardak province’s Nerkh district. His team lost three Humvees this fighting season, and none have been replaced.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the armored vehicles to Afghan troops. This month, the Taliban fired two rocket-propelled grenades at a personnel carrier from Hamidullah’s battalion while the soldiers were on a routine patrol. The windshield was shattered, the roof was mangled and the engine was damaged, but the men inside were unharmed.
Days later, three Afghan mechanics were hard at work trying to repair the damaged engine. The Americans had left them a manual to fix the vehicle, full of diagrams and pictures of spare parts. But the Afghans had received few of those parts. They were even out of engine oil.
It didn’t take long for the mechanics to realize that they couldn’t get the vehicle running again.
“Of course it feels bad when I can’t fix something — but I know I could if I had the spare parts,” said one of the mechanics, Pvt. Sardar Mohammad.
To get them, the soldiers would have to fill and send a series of forms to the Defense Ministry — and wait. Some battalions have waited three years to get key parts or to have their Humvees replaced, because of bureaucratic inefficiency. It’s much easier to replace the army’s Ford Rangers, but because those trucks aren’t armored, they are not as desirable, especially in violent eastern Afghanistan. If the soldiers had been in a Ranger when the RPGs struck, they probably would have been seriously injured or killed.
“When we go on operations, either 10 guys cram into one Humvee, or we walk,” Pvt. Rahmatullah said. “A Ranger is made of paper.”
The Afghan Defense Ministry has acknowledged nagging problems with the army’s ability to repair and replace valuable equipment, despite a massive U.S. investment in Afghan forces. Earlier this year, Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the ministry, cited that weakness as a reason why continued Russian financial assistance was so important.
The logistical hurdles go beyond getting new vehicles or spare parts. A procurement debacle at the Defense Ministry has prevented tens of thousands of soldiers from getting army-issued boots. Instead, they have to buy shoes themselves, sometimes wearing tattered running sneakers. Hamidullah’s unit has also run out of rockets that can be used with the launchers it was provided.
Still, Hamidullah considers himself lucky. Because his unit is only 70 miles from Kabul, the capital, he typically gets the fuel he needs. For units far from headquarters, their allotted fuel shipment never arrives in full. Both Afghan soldiers and U.S. officials suspect that some of it is stolen.
The fighting is expected to die down in the coming weeks. Afghan commanders want to know: Will their gear be fixed before spring comes and the violence picks up once again? Another tough fighting season could wipe out what’s left of Hamidullah’s vehicles.
U.S. officials say that they are aware of the Afghan security forces’ logistical problems but that they have seen signs of improvement.
“The fighting season raises the stakes and exacerbates the problems of any military,” U.S. Brig. Gen. Eric Wesley said. “We recognize the problem and so do they, but we think we’re on our way to a solution.”
That solution would involve NATO forces helping the Afghans improve the supply chain that connects far-flung bases to the Defense Ministry in Kabul and ensuring that Afghan mechanics have the skills and tools to fix their equipment.
This week, Maj. Gen. Dean Milner of the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan announced that the alliance would redouble efforts to improve supply processes and prevent waste and fraud in the Afghan Defense Ministry.
But the push comes as the Americans are rapidly withdrawing from Afghanistan, removing advisers working with Afghan battalions and attaching them to higher levels of leadership. At those more-senior levels, officials say, these advisers will be able to identify and monitor systemic problems. But they are less likely to assist when a battalion or platoon is handicapped by an isolated logistical issue, particularly compared with a few years ago, when the Americans were fixing Afghan vehicles themselves.
Hamidullah’s battalion recently launched its last significant operation of the fighting season. Soldiers piled into the remaining Humvees. Others reluctantly took Rangers. The mechanics stayed behind, tinkering with the broken vehicle they knew they couldn’t fix.
“I’ll send it to brigade,” said Sardar Mohammad, the mechanic. “But I already know they don’t have the capacity to fix it.”