Standing up Afghan army is like ‘trying to build an airplane while in flight,’ says top U.S. general

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An Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier keeps watch at a checkpost in Logar province, Afghanistan February 16, 2016. NATO advisers want Afghan soldiers to spend less time manning checkpoints and more taking the fight to Taliban militants, a key tactical shift the coalition hopes will enable local forces to quell a rising insurgency. Picture taken February 16, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani       TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTX283UI

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to our continuing coverage of the upcoming 15th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

We begin with a look at the country where the attacks were planned, Afghanistan. The U.S. and NATO deposed the Taliban government in the fall of 2001, but 15 years later, American troops continue to fight and die there, while trying to help the Afghans stand up an army to take on a resurgent Taliban.

From Kabul, special correspondent Jennifer Glasse reports.

JENNIFER GLASSE: At the Regional Corps Battle School in Laghman Province in Eastern Afghanistan, these Afghan soldiers, many with years of battlefield experience, have been learning leadership skills from coalition forces.

It’s an Afghan-run school with U.S. soldiers and NATO troops serving as advisers. Part of the lesson plan, U.S.-style military organization. After completing seven weeks of training, these men become noncommissioned officers, a rank that had been exclusive to the United States military.

Adam Weiner is an adviser.

2ND. LT. ADAM WEINER, Leadership Advisor, U.S. Army: We have a strong leadership in the officer and NCO side, and we see the benefits that that has for our Army. And so we have tried to instill that into their training as well to empower their noncommissioned officers to take a bigger role in leading soldiers alongside their officer counterparts in their units.

JENNIFER GLASSE: Some of these Afghan soldiers fought alongside U.S. forces in Eastern Afghanistan. With only a few American special forces still in the country, Afghans must rely on U.S. airpower when things get tough.

MAN (through translator): When the air support comes, every soldier, every fighter has better morale. They are refreshed and fight with new energy against the enemy. Also, in some districts, there are high mountains, and we can not go there. So we need the airplanes to target the enemy.

JENNIFER GLASSE: But after 15 years of U.S. and coalition efforts on the ground and least $65 billion, Afghan security forces are still a development project.

The task of building a military here didn’t start until 2009, with a commitment from President Obama to do the hard work needed to help Afghanistan stand on its own, and reducing the need for U.S. troops.

General John Nicholson is the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. He’s served here before, but now commands an international force far smaller than years past.

GEN. JOHN NICHOLSON, Commander, US & NATO Forces, Afghanistan: We’re trying to build an airplane while in flight, OK? So they’re fighting a war while we’re trying to build an army. This is very hard.

And when you look at the histories of any of our Western coalition force members who are here, they have had a similar long journey to build the professional armies that we have today. And so this is primarily the challenge, casualties, the need to develop leaders, the need to develop systems where none previously existed. So, it does take time.

JENNIFER GLASSE: Sergeant 1st Class Philip Nixon is serving a second tour here. In 2010, he was fighting in Southern Afghanistan. Now he’s the platoon leader of the Guardian Angels, a mix of U.S. and NATO troops charged with protection of the military advisers and their bases across the country.

SGT. 1ST CLASS PHILIP NIXON, U.S. Army, “Guardian Angel”: Compared to when I was here in Afghanistan six years ago, the Afghan army, the ANA have come a long way. They are — the facilities are much better. Their soldiers seem to be doing a lot.

I think what we’re able to do here with the train, advise, and assist mission has improved drastically from the last time I was here.

JENNIFER GLASSE: A lot has changed in six years. The U.S. policy in Afghanistan remains focused on counterterrorism, but now they’re relying on the Afghans to execute most of that mission.

American troops on this base are part of the main mission of U.S. forces here in Afghanistan to train, advise and assist Afghan security forces. There’s an Afghan base just next door, and there are bases like this all over Afghanistan, like Shorabak in Helmand Province, Southern Afghanistan, where Afghan trainers and U.S. advisers are putting the Afghan 215 Corps through their paces.

American and British forces left Helmand in 2014. After the Taliban made considerable gains in the absence of coalition forces, hundreds of U.S. troops have returned. Now, with new leaders in the Afghan corps, the coalition is teaching them new tactics to fight a resurgent Taliban.

Within the past year, the Taliban briefly captured Kunduz city in the North this summer, this summer besieged Lashkar Gah in the south, and this week threatened Tirin Kot in Central Afghanistan.

GEN. JOHN NICHOLSON: When you look at the population and district control, the Afghans control about 68 percent of the population and about 62 percent of the districts. The Taliban control about 10 percent of the population and 10 percent of the districts; 25 percent of the country is contested. It’s in play.

JENNIFER GLASSE: And the fight isn’t just on the battlefields. The Taliban strikes wherever it can.

Just behind me is the Ministry of Defense. A few minutes ago, there were two explosions, the police and security forces, you can see, out in full force. They’re moving the people back. This is a very busy market area. And it is one of the busiest parts of the day, as businesses let out, as offices let out, so the streets were very, very full.

The police say some suspicious men went over there, so they’re moving everybody as far back as they can. This is the kind of security problem that Afghans face on a daily basis.

This Taliban attack in Kabul was particularly brutal and deadly. First, a remote-controlled bomb went off. Then, as help arrived for the wounded, a suicide bomber dressed in an Afghan army uniform detonated himself in the crowd of helpers. At least 35 people were killed, including an army general and three senior police officers. More than 90 were wounded.

And the Taliban aren’t the only threat in Afghanistan.

GEN. JOHN NICHOLSON: Of the 60 designated terrorist organizations that the U.S. has identified, 10 of them reside in this region. So, our presence here enables us to keep pressure on those organizations and prevent another 9/11.

JENNIFER GLASSE: Both al-Qaida and the Islamic State are in Afghanistan. The U.S. commander got expanded authorities this year to fight both ISIS and the Taliban directly.

So, again, U.S. forces are fighting here, supported by American planes. But the Afghans remain on the front line. They have a new air force, but it will take years before its at full strength and capacity, and Afghan ground forces continue to take punishing casualties.

Last year, more than 5,500 died and 14,000 were wounded. Casualties this year are up an estimated 20 percent, the price of defending a country they got back from the Taliban 15 years ago.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jennifer Glasse in Kabul.

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