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. Follow him on Twitter @ahmadjavid. The views expressed are the author’s own.
On Tuesday, the U.S.-led coalition completed a five-stage security transition process in Afghanistan that began two years ago at the NATO summit in Lisbon, allowing the Afghan forces to take the security lead across the country for the first time in more than a decade. Yet despite NATO’s insistence that it will not abandon Afghanistan, the allies are seemingly struggling to agree on just what that engagement might look like.
At the recent NATO defense ministerial meeting, the allies endorsed a new Afghan National Security Forces training mission called “Resolute Support” that will involve a multi-national international force after 2014. While Washington wants the allies involved in the new training mission to supply a smaller force to sustain the ANSF, none want to see that engagement turn into a reduced version of the currently huge Afghan campaign.
But although the alliance’s timely agreement on these issues is critical, there are at least three other important challenges – and lingering doubts – that could disrupt the security transition and undermine Afghanistan’s broader democratic transition in 2014.
The first challenge is the possibility of U.S. generals on the ground recognizing that the ANSF is not yet combat ready. The ANSF, which includes the army, national and border police, air force, and other branches, was rapidly built up from less than 50,000 soldiers six years ago to its present size of 350,000 troops by American and allied forces with a focus on the quantity rather than quality of the force. Despite its remarkable growth rate, the force has faced soaring casualties, rising attrition and desertion rates, Taliban infiltration, illiteracy and corruption. With a desertion rate of as much as 10 percent, according to AP, thousands of Afghan soldiers need to be trained by allied forces every year to fill the gaps.
In addition, elements of the ANSF are riddled with sexual and drug abuse, extortion, routine kidnapping, and they are often complicit in insider attacks. Meanwhile, only a handful of ANSF brigades are able to operate independently without outside support, and there is a lack of sufficient airpower, medevac support, aerial surveillance and logistics support.
The question of continued financial support to Afghan forces to remain operational also looms, and it is an issue that could likely impact the planning of the post-2014 training mission. Until early this year, NATO allies had been working towards retaining a downsized Afghan force of around 250,000 soldiers after 2014. However, Washington now appears to want to maintain the current force level of 350,000 troops through at least 2017, which means the $4.1 billion yearly ANSF training previously endorsed by NATO allies might need to be increased. With cuts in defense spending in Washington, combined with Europe’s own financial woes, it is unclear how much Western assistance will be forthcoming.
Another challenge is the possibility of growing warlordism as a result of the growing anxiety and uncertainty surrounding Afghanistan’s future beyond 2014. As 2014 draws closer, Afghans are beginning to feel the effects of the withdrawal of international forces. Many warlords, former jihadi leaders and other war profiteers are taking preparatory measures to rearm and mobilize their personal militias. Earlier this week, an armed militia belonging to Gen. Rashid Dostum, a notorious Uzbek warlord, reportedly staged an attack on the governor of Jawzjan Province. Others, including a current minister, Ismail Khan, have called on their supporters and other factional leaders to reprise their former roles and position themselves against any possible Taliban return. Such drastic measures – and the illegal distribution of weapons triggered by faltering confidence in the ANSF – should not be taken lightly. The challenge for NATO allies is to deter the growth of such unhealthy practices to ensure it does not demoralize the traditional role of the ANSF, which could make it particularly difficult for the transition to succeed.
Finally, all this will only boost the insurgency if President Hamid Karzai continues his anti-Western rants, makes hasty decisions by removing U.S. forces out of strategically important areas, and bans the ANSF from calling in airstrikes. Ultimately, Karzai’s intransigence over reaching a timely security deal with Washington, which will determine the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after 2014, risks jeopardizing the prospects of the Afghan government surviving after international forces leave next year. Indeed, angered by the perceived lack of involvement of his government in the peace talks that led to the opening of the Taliban’s political office in Doha, Karzai on Wednesday suspended negotiations with Washington over the security pact.
In the months ahead, the combat readiness of the ANSF will have to be carefully scrutinized to ensure that the international drawdown does not leave behind a destabilizing force in Afghanistan. Continued training and assistance, especially timely air and logistical support, are critical if the ANSF is to remain functional, and spending cuts in Washington must not be allowed to jeopardize a more than decade-long effort to stabilize Afghanistan.
The ANSF may not be perfect – but the West must surely prefer it to the alternative of maintaining their own forces on the ground.