Defending Afghanistan: are Afghan forces ready?
An extended occupation and ever-shifting objectives could leave Afghanistan shakier in 2014 than when US-led forces arrived.
The dirt roads through Balaqala in the Charhasya Valley south of Kabul are oozy with mud after recent rains, and the fruit trees just beyond low earthen walls are about to blossom and demand tending. Still, many of the village's 1,000 inhabitants have come out to hear what Brig. Gen. Said Abdul Karim, commander of the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command, has to say about the 15 Afghan elite troops who have set up camp in a nearby empty farmhouse.Skip to next paragraph
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Karim says his men will help provide security for their families, while acting as liaisons to government agencies on education, health, and farming issues. But Karim also offers a broader vision of his forces' role.
"Through the work of these brave soldiers of Afghanistan," he says, "we want the people to understand who is standing with them, and who the enemy of the country really is."
Already, Afghanistan is demanding and taking more responsibility for itself. Today in Kabul, US forces granted the government of President Hamid Karzai oversight of controversial night raids that have been a favorite tactic of US forces. NATO is ending its combat role here at the end of 2014, which will leave the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) largely on their own.
Perhaps if more of the ANSF – expected to consist of 195,000 Army soldiers and 157,000 National Police by this fall – were like Karim's men, there would be fewer doubts about the future.
But his maroon-bereted Special Ops troops are only a sliver of Afghanistan's growing but still formative security forces. In the Army, and more glaringly in the National Police, problems range from insufficient vetting of recruits to widespread illiteracy, from low morale to ethnic ties overriding national identity. Corruption is especially rampant among the National Police, the corps in closest contact with the people.
All these issues, which have shown little improvement as the United States has poured billions of dollars into Afghanistan, place question marks over the ability of the security forces to hold off a weakened but still active Taliban post-2014. Perhaps even more grave is the threat of Afghanistan returning to civil war after international forces leave – a prospect that preoccupies many Afghans.
It may have been mission impossible all along for outside forces to expect to build in a matter of a few years a modern and united national security force in a country as poor, illiterate, and ethnically and geographically divided as Afghanistan. The countries of the international coalition didn't help by persistently failing to provide the number of needed trainers.
But for some experts, the extended foreign occupation and its shifting objectives – counterterrorism here, counterinsurgency there, creating national security forces, then turning to developing militias – will leave Afghanistan shakier than when the NATO-commanded, US-led forces arrived.
"I don't think there's any way to come out of this that Afghanistan is going to be more stable than when we went in," says Christine Fair, a South Asia security expert at Georgetown University in Washington. "A lot of people, including me, expect another civil war."