By Josh Smith
KABUL (Reuters) - As Afghan troops were preparing to take on Taliban militants without NATO combat support in 2014, U.S. officials shelved plans to provide them with hundreds of potentially life-saving armored vehicles, documents reviewed by Reuters show.
The decision not to supply around 300 extra vehicles, taken largely for budgetary reasons, remains a sore point, as local forces struggle to implement a U.S.-led push to get them off bases and into active battle against a resilient insurgency.
Since 2002, the United States has allocated more than $68 billion to train and equip Afghan security forces, with a view to eventually withdrawing from the country. Yet serious shortfalls in personnel and hardware remain.
Masoom Stanekzai, acting defense minister before being approved by parliament recently as intelligence chief, told Reuters the Afghan government was still trying to obtain more armored vehicles from the United States.
After Washington approved a large shipment of cargo trucks not requested by the Afghans, Stanekzai wrote a private letter to coalition commanders last year in which he said he needed more armored vehicles, including so-called Mobile Strike Force Vehicles (MSFVs).
"In the type of fighting we're facing, the MSFV is more effective than the Humvee," he said in an interview, referring to the smaller, less well protected vehicle more commonly provided to Afghan troops.
Most important, in Afghan eyes, is the MSFV's "V-shaped" hull and extra armor, which reflect advances in engineering widely adopted to better protect troops, especially from roadside bombs favored by Afghan insurgents.
So while most local troops still travel in Humvees and regular pickups, coalition soldiers rarely leave bases unless they are in more heavily protected vehicles.
In 2013, the Afghan army already had 600 MSFVs, and they are still used in many of the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan.
At the time, U.S. military planners agreed on the need for almost 300 more, and sent a request to Congress for around $900 million to cover the cost.
"It provides the ANA with an armored force that has more mobility, survivability, and lethality than regular infantry units," the Pentagon wrote in its pitch to lawmakers.
Congress approved the money, but the order was put on hold in early 2014.
Shortly after that, Afghan army chief of staff Sher Mohammad Karimi wrote a memo to coalition commanders outlining the military's need for better armored vehicles.
"Mines continue to account for nearly 90 percent of the ANA (Afghan National Army) casualties for the past year and we anticipate this will continue to be a favorite tactic of our enemy for the foreseeable future," he said.
In the end, the U.S. military scrapped the MSFV order "to address overall concerns about long-term sustainability and affordability" of Afghan forces, Pentagon spokesman Adam Stump said in a statement to Reuters.
Instead, U.S. officials decided to provide additional upgraded Humvees as a way to provide more armored vehicles, he added.
BETTER VEHICLES SAVE LIVES
U.S. advisers have been pressing Afghan troops to leave their bases and launch more offensive operations.
Afghan leaders say those efforts to build a more mobile army are undermined by an over-reliance on lightly armored vehicles like the Humvee, not widely used in combat by U.S. troops for nearly a decade.
U.S. military officials have said thousands of American lives have been saved in Afghanistan and Iraq by switching from Humvees to "mine-resistant, ambush-protected" vehicles (MRAPs) considered better able to withstand roadside bomb blasts.
That point has not been lost on Afghan soldiers and police, who suffered more deaths last year than coalition troops did in 15 years of fighting in Afghanistan.
"We have observed over the past decade the coalition provided its forces with improved armored vehicles based on the same threat reality," Karimi wrote in his 2014 memo.
Karimi said more MSFVs, which have MRAP-level protection, could allow the Afghan army to become a smaller, more flexible fighting force.
More than 3,500 international troops have died in Afghanistan, at least 1,400 of them killed by roadside bombs. Last year as many as 7,000 Afghan soldiers and police are estimated to have died.
The number of roadside bomb casualties among Afghan soldiers has slowly declined as they take better protective measures, according to the Pentagon, but it remains the second most common type of attack after direct fire.
That can also take a toll on troops riding in lightly armored vehicles.
U.S. military officials say they are trying to help the Afghans field more armored vehicles, and are reducing the army's overall fleet by nearly half in an effort to make it more manageable.
"We continuously assess what their need is for the fight they are in," said U.S. Major General Daniel Hughes, who oversees military aid to the Afghan government.
MSFVs and similar vehicles come with their own drawbacks, as they are large, harder to maneuver, and expensive.
Hughes said he considered the MSFV a "very specialized capability" of limited use to the Afghans, noting that MSFVs already in Afghanistan are often only used defensively.
Planners opted to order 1,600 replacement Humvees this year, which at around $280,000 apiece are cheaper than nearly $1 million for each MSFV, Hughes said. About 50 additional MSFVs were ordered last year to replace losses.
U.S. commanders first take into account combat needs, but ultimately they can only provide what they can afford under budgets approved by Washington, he said.
"I'm General 'No.' I add the fiscal reality. You can't just say yes to everything, you have to judge it on the financial piece ... because the ultimate goal of this is that Afghanistan supports its own military."
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Mike Collett-White)