December 7th, 2012
12:09 PM ET

U.S. has work cut out to make sure Afghan forces are combat ready

By Javid Ahmad, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Javid Ahmad is a program coordinator for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed here are his own.

Now that President Barack Obama has been reelected for a second term, the White House is reportedly reevaluating its mission in Afghanistan, once again igniting the debate over the level of residual American forces that will remain in the country after 2014. That date marks the point when the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) – which includes the army and the police – take the lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s security. And, while the exact size of the post-2014 deployment is still unclear, it seems the number of residual American troops might range from between 10,000 and 15,000, in addition to a few thousand international troops.

The transition process is incredibly delicate, as it will be important to ensure that the Afghan army and the police are in a position to manage Afghanistan’s security. This means determining the precise role of residual troops, the type of missions they will conduct, the number of bases they will require, and just as importantly, the nature of their relationship with the Afghan government, the ANSF, and the Afghan people. Some of these ambiguities will be clarified in a bilateral security pact between Kabul and Washington, expected to be concluded by May 2013.

But of more immediate importance is to establish whether the ANSF is combat ready. Many of the problems that the ANSF faces today can be attributed to the inordinate focus the United States paid to the quantity, rather than the quality, of the force. Yet the Afghan National Army, in particular, has come a long way. Around 70 percent of all combat operations are now led by Afghan soldiers and nearly 80 percent of all training activities are undertaken by Afghan troops themselves. Pay reforms have improved recruitment and minimized corruption, tactical skills in the field have improved, and continued training and international exposure have increased the professionalism of the leadership.

While international forces partner with Afghan units “outside the wire” to build capacity, the United States still does most of the “inside the wire” training of the Afghan troops. However, along with a continuing shift away from combat missions, there must be a corresponding commitment to continue the training and sustenance of Afghan soldiers in order for them to remain operational in at least parts of the country. Several important challenges might undermine the prospects of a successful military transition.

One such challenge is the alarming number of casualties the Afghan soldiers endures every month in the battlefield. Fatalities in the Afghan army and police exceed 500 every month, much higher than those in NATO forces. This troubling trend will most likely worsen as the combat missions are turned fully over to the ANSF, and is a problem exacerbated by continuing Taliban infiltration and the recent uptick in insider attacks, which has only undermined NATO’s trust in their Afghan partners.

Another important challenge is high attrition and desertions rates. With fewer re-enlistments, nearly a third of the Afghan army and police are reportedly replaced every year. Problems could be exacerbated by the planned reduction in the size of Afghan troops from 350,000 to 230,000 to make them more affordable. However, downsizing returns militarily trained Afghan men into a weak job market, risking their recruitment by insurgents or the drug mafia. Washington must at least ensure an alternative employment plan for those who are demobilized to avoid unnecessary surprises.

And finally, factors such as the ANSF’s ethnic makeup, corruption, and illiteracy continue to hamper their ability to function efficiently. Pashtuns – the country’s largest ethnic group – are underrepresented in the Afghan army and police in favor of ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. Officials in some key Afghan security agencies, meanwhile, increasingly marginalize Pashtun officials by carving out their own ethnic fiefdoms. If the Afghan security forces falter – or worse yet, splinter along factional lines – it could have devastating consequences for America’s exit strategy. Washington can help reduce the likelihood of this scenario by encouraging more Pashtuns to join the Afghan security forces and by supporting leaders who pursue a pan-Afghan agenda rather than encourage ethnic politics. Furthermore, the highly factionalized Afghan police force is riddled with Augean corruption. In some areas, insurgents even enjoy the patronage of local police. And, equally worrying, as many as 70 percent of Afghan soldiers are functionally illiterate. Many cannot operate sophisticated weaponry or equipment.

Despite its extraordinary growth over the past few years, the ANSF will remain fragile and inefficient without sustained international support. Washington’s assistance can still avert a damaging outcome in Afghanistan. When combat missions end in 2014, the U.N.-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is likely to phase out with all post-2014 international training and support coming from NATO’s new mission – the International Training and Assistance Mission (ITAM). In the months ahead, the United States must specify the responsibilities of its own military and those of its allies. As Washington charts its way ahead in Afghanistan, it will be critical to relay the right narrative regarding its future support for Afghan forces so as to ensure the country’s future stability.

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Topics: Afghanistan • Taliban • Terrorism

soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. Hate Wins

    Middle East fighters are just as brave and when trained just as capable as any other warriors on earth. They have a problem though from information found in book and articles. "Not an expert in the least". They do no trust each other it’s a tribal and religious trait that’s been there for thousands of years. Shiites fight Sunnis both fight Christian’s, Jews, and Buddhist etc. But mainly they fight each other. Tribes "A & B” have a "Hatfield & McCoy" feud that’s been going on for 200 years or longer. Tribe "C" will do its best to inflame it more for its on gain, tribe "D" waits in the wings to take the spoils when all sides are destroyed. Almost like gangs in the drug war. Until they learn to live with each other how can the live with the rest of the world.

    December 7, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Reply
  2. Hate Wins

    I should have added and equipped to the warrior abilities.

    December 7, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Reply
  3. USN Ret.

    I read a book back in the late 70's called "Fire and Movement" if I remember correctly. The author said almost the same thing about the Arab army’s arrayed against Israel in the 1967 and 1973 war.

    December 7, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Reply
  4. USN Ret.

    I readed a book... Miss type

    December 7, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Reply
    • Derpa....Derpa

      Derpa.......Derpa. Readed a book. Purdy gud fer er redneck (or is that a readneck?) wit 2 collage degreas. da tuk r jaaabs!!!!!!!!!

      December 7, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Reply
  5. Simon Eissen

    The main 'problem' for Afghanistan and the rest of the world is the desperate poverty of Afghanistan.

    Without an economy and a tax base to support it, the Afghanistan government can never deploy a military or a security service that can secure it's borders or fight off a foreign supported insurgency from any of the 'hostile' forces coming in from beyond it's borders.

    And the same goes for the construction and maintenance of an infrastructure and a civil service that would make for it being able to attract foreign investment that could provide for economic growth.

    The country lacks the resources for an industrial economy, especially lacking is a literate workforce – a result of it's miserable education system.

    There may be some prospect for extractive industries for rare minerals but the lack of security and infrastructure creates a chicken vs egg situation – they need to invest in infrastructure and education in order to attract the investment needed to develop the industries that would produce the income that would provide the revenue needed for the investment in infrastructure and education.

    Unless some legal market can be found for poppies and/or the drugs that can be derived from poppies, Afghanistan may be doomed to be a pawn in the struggle and disputes among it's more powerful neighbors for the foreseeable future.

    December 7, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      The big problem for the U.S. and it's NATO allies in Afghanistan is the the so-called "Afghan" forces have to be paid to fight whereas the Taliban fight purely for Islam and it's laws. Of course the U.S. plans to keep forces in Afghanistan well after 2014 in order to both command and train these pro-Western mercenaries. In fact, the real purpose of our being in Afghanistan in the first place is to exploit it's underground mineral resources. This, the right-wing news media never talks about! The bottom line here is that the Communists should have won there some 30 years ago and this mess wouldn't be taking place today!

      December 7, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Reply
      • JamesOnThePotomac

        Now yours is the most sensible post here yet. Thank you, Joseph.

        December 9, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • vonrock

      It's Morphine, it's what the majority of westerners die from, why do you think they still grow it.

      December 8, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Reply
  6. Hate Wins

    Simon Eissen
    Very good post:)

    December 7, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Reply
  7. ronvan

    The answer is in hate wins comment! We could stay there for another 20yrs. but when we leave their traditions, hate taught from birth, will again raise its head. We have trained them long enough! And do not leave them our weapons!
    Which actually brings up another problem on, which country would provide the group THEY support, with weapons, for their personal gains?

    December 8, 2012 at 9:04 am | Reply
  8. j. von hettlingen

    Indeed fatalities in the Afghan army and police are high, which are the biggest employers of the country. Some $1800 are paid out to the family of each dead serviceman. A smaller Afghan force, estimated to cost some $4.1bn a year, would be what the international community was ready to provide for and what the Afghans could provide for themselves after 2014. No doubt there will be problems with the disbanded servicemen, should the ANSF be reduced.

    December 9, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Reply
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