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.