Is Afghanistan ready to defend itself?
Evidence is mixed as to the readiness of Afghanistan's Army and National Police to assume the lead in planning and fighting – with the summer combat season likely to be the first big test.
The expression on the face of the Afghan National Army sergeant makes this much clear: He couldn't be prouder of the spanking-new, million-dollar, gun-mounted vehicle that NATO trainers are teaching him to operate.Skip to next paragraph
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"My main goal is to learn very well the operation of these vehicles and their guns so I can defeat our enemy," says Sgt. Nezamuddin Stanekzai as he leans out its door frame, his maroon beret adjusted to sit on his head just so. "I am ready to defend my country!" he declares, signaling two thumbs up.
Stanekzai, radiating confidence as he trained recently at the sprawling Pol-e-Charkhi army base outside Kabul, probably is ready. He is among those Afghans who tested high enough to land in the nascent Mobile Strike Force unit – a $1 billion program designed to leave Afghanistan with a top-notch rapid-reaction force.
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Now, the United States, NATO, and the Afghan government itself are gambling that the rest of the country's 344,000 security forces are also ready – or ready enough – to take the lead in defending the entire nation from Taliban forces and Islamist insurgents. As of June 18, NATO turned over to the Afghans the security lead for 100 percent of the country, and US and NATO troops officially shifted to an advise-and-assist role throughout Afghanistan – a role set to draw to a close with the end of NATO's combat mission in December 2014.
Evidence is mixed as to the readiness of Afghanistan's Army soldiers and National Police to assume the lead in planning and fighting the war – with the summer combat season likely to be the first big test. There's been progress, to be sure. Most of the Afghan Army brigades – as many as 20 of 26, NATO officials claim – are capable of working on their own, up from one a year ago. And the Afghan people are becoming more confident in the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), polls show.
"The people are getting more confident, and part of that is what they have seen from the ANSF" in the initial weeks of the summer fighting season, says Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, chairman of the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program.
How ready the Afghan forces actually need to be may depend in part on reconciliation talks expected to begin soon between the government of President Hamid Karzai and representatives of the Taliban. Qatar has agreed to host the negotiations, which Mr. Karzai announced June 18 and which US officials described as an "Afghan-led, Afghan-owned initiative." If talks proceed apace – Karzai was already expressing misgivings about the talks the day after announcing them – fighting and violence on the ground in Afghanistan may diminish, easing the demands on the Afghan government's forces and perhaps smoothing the path to a US-NATO exit, some American officials have suggested.
On the other hand, advancing peace talks could mean more violence, at least in the short term, as fighters look to advance bargaining positions – or if some aim to derail the talks, some US officials and experts warn. On Tuesday, for example, Taliban gunmen launched an attack near the presidential palace and CIA offices in Kabul, reportedly killing three security guards after using fake security passes to gain entrance to the highly-secured diplomatic zone. It was the first "complex attack" since reconciliation talks were announced last week.