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.

Howard LaFranchi/The Christian Science Monitor
Afghan National Police trainees conduct a training exercise at Camp Zimmerman outside Kabul, Afghanistan.
Howard LaFranchi/The Christian Science Monitor
Sgt. Nezamuddin Stanekzai, an Afghan soldier, is learning how to operate a new, US-supplied gun-mounted vehicle.

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.

"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.

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.

US forces in Afghanistan are already on track to fall by almost half to 34,000 by February 2014. Perhaps, then, an even more critical test for Afghanistan will come with national elections next April, when for the first time the Army and National Police will have total responsibility for the security of urban and rural voters casting ballots at some 7,000 polling stations.

Recent clashes with the Taliban give a mixed picture of the Afghans' ability to do the job on their own.

In May in Kabul, the Taliban launched a complex attack on the residential compound of a United Nations agency in the fortified city center. It involved both a suicide bomber, to breach security, and follow-on fighters to pour in amid the post-bombing chaos. An elite force of the National Police responded. While its performance was not perfect, according to international advisers, it was well above what the police have done in similar attacks in past years. Casualties and property damage were kept to a minimum – two people were reported killed – and hundreds of international workers were not harmed. On the other hand, the police took more than six hours to subdue what turned out to be six Taliban fighters.

Even with the security forces' progress, some NATO officials warn that a sizable international military presence will be needed beyond 2014 to hold onto recent security gains.

After 2014 "we will still need to develop Afghan capacity, [and] that will take between three and five years to achieve," says Lt. Gen. Nick Carter, deputy commander of the US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Ticking off a list of Afghan capabilities that "are not at the level where they need to be," Carter says individual countries, presumably with the US in the lead, will have to pick up where the NATO mission leaves off and "set the horizon out to 2018" for training Afghan security forces. Among the shortfalls: logistics (such as providing the right level of force in the right place at the right time), programs to counter improvised explosive devices (IEDs), Army-Police coordination, battle and budget planning, and air power and transport.

"Another five years is probably what's needed," Carter repeats, for emphasis.

Sticking with Afghanistan past 2014

That kind of timetable may not be what many Americans and their partners abroad want to hear. Opinion polls show that desire to be done with the war in Afghanistan is running strong, despite concerns about abandoning Afghan forces to a weakened but resourceful Taliban insurgency. The US alone has spent nearly $800 billion on the war since 2001 – and currently runs a tab of $7 billion a month. It has committed to provide $2.3 billion a year to help fund the security forces after 2014 (not counting the cost of keeping any US troops there after the NATO mission ends).

Many US partners expect the US to keep at least 8,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014, for training and counterterrorism purposes. President Obama has been in no hurry to decide anything about post-2014 US troop levels – and may not until after the summer fighting season.

That makes some Afghanistan experts apprehensive – and eager to push the US for longer-term assistance. "Our focus should be on locking in our gains as opposed to cutting our losses in Afghanistan," says Michèle Flournoy, a former undersecretary of Defense during Mr. Obama's first term.

Ms. Flournoy joined Gen. John Allen, the retired former commander of ISAF and US forces in Afghanistan, and Michael O'Hanlon of Washington's Brookings Institution in issuing a report May 31 that is upbeat about Afghans' ability to provide their own security and to keep their territory from again becoming a terrorist sanctuary.

The condition for that "successful outcome," the report says, is that the US and other international partners of Afghanistan maintain a significant financial and advisory commitment to the country.

The report, issued by Washington's Center for a New American Security, cautions that the ANSF, even with its "significant gains," may require a "bridging force" of US and international advisers to deliver "additional capacity" in certain areas – such as counter-IED capability, medical evacuation, and intelligence. Such a "bridging force" would be above and beyond whatever troops Obama decides to leave in Afghanistan after 2014 to focus on training and counterterrorism. Allen says he recommended a post-2014 US force of 13,600 before he stepped down from his Afghanistan post in February.

Conditions inside Afghanistan partly explain the remaining gaps in Afghan security forces. High desertion and dropout rates mean that training of replacement recruits is a constant, and low literacy rates and education levels impede preparation of modern security forces.

But the ISAF must assume some responsibility for the shortfall in preparedness. It was the ISAF that decided in 2009 to focus first on quantity – building up to what is to be an Army and National Police force of 352,000 by the end of 2013 – rather than on the quality of recruits. That explains why some of the more elite units that require higher skills and more training – such as the Mobile Strike Force or police rapid-reaction units – are just getting off the ground now. And Afghanistan still hardly has an air force to speak of.

That emphasis on force size also explains why the ISAF – which consists of the 28 NATO members plus 22 other countries – is only now shifting focus to start developing the capabilities of the Afghan officer corps and key ministries including Interior, which is responsible for the National Police, and Defense.

"We have 20 months of good hard work ahead of us" to strengthen the ministries and their administration of the security forces, says Lt. Gen. Kenneth Tovo, who commands the NATO training mission focused on developing Afghanistan's security institutions.

The ISAF commander, US Gen. Joseph Dunford, has placed a priority on building the Afghan security forces' institutions and officers' ability to carry out the tasks of a modern army, from the battlefield to the central bureaucracy. NATO commanders say the areas in which the Afghans still need help range from how to organize a battle – when to call in "fires" and how to match artillery coordinates to enemy positions – to how to resupply a force in the field.

Challenges for the Afghan Army

The Afghan Army in particular has suffered from high attrition rates, as soldiers assigned to duty far from home, and with no assurances of when and how they will ever again go home, simply drop out. But many Afghan Army regional commands have lately established assignment schedules that include predictable leave periods – a move that is helping to reduce AWOL (absent without leave) rates.

"We have a problem of transportation; the soldiers get frustrated if they can't get home," says Lt. Gen. Sher Mohammed Karimi, the Afghan chief of Army staff. But his most recent report indicates that desertions have fallen to fewer than 800 a month, from as high as several thousand a month in the past.

Battlefield losses pose another problem – as might be expected as the Afghans take over more of the fighting. But the losses are being compounded by an inability to evacuate many of the wounded in a timely manner – a situation that is sinking morale.

The casualty rate has jumped in the past year as US forces continue to draw down, along with the American helicopters that had been evacuating the wounded from battlefields. The Afghan military has only a few dozen helicopters, any number of which might be out of commission at a given moment.

Last winter, Karimi informed his commanders that, as a result of the US drawdown, they would have to prepare to rely on ambulances to transport the wounded. Afghan soldiers in the field are already reporting the outcome: Their comrades are dying as they wait for ambulances that may be too far away or that don't dare travel over roads that are heavily mined.

"It takes a toll on their confidence to go and fight," says Brig. Gen. Gunter Katz, an ISAF spokesman.

National Police still a 'weak link'

The Afghan National Police has long been considered a bigger problem than the Army, in part because corruption has strained police relations with average Afghans. The ANP remains the "weak link" in Afghanistan's emerging tiered security structure, according to the report by the Center for a New American Security. Continued problems with the ANP, including an inability to establish itself in some hostile rural areas, led to creation of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) – essentially armed local peacekeepers or militias.

The ALP system has its advantages, such as greater security in remote areas, and its drawbacks, including a tendency to abet tribal factionalism.

But the ALP system seems likely to expand in the coming year, some Afghan security experts say, especially if the National Police force is still having trouble covering the whole country.

At Camp Zimmerman, the Afghan National Police Central Training Command in Kabul, Commandant Col. Abdul Basir says improved training and a higher quality of recruits – as each year offers a larger pool of better-educated young Afghans – are producing a better police force.

"Before, there were more problems with police who were not well trained, who were involved in illegal activities. The police are more professional now, but they are also fighting more," Basir says, noting that 1,700 officers were gravely injured or killed last year.

Recruits here work with both Afghan trainers and Italian Carabinieri, who have been in Afghanistan since 2010, on a program that offers a mix of police and military instruction. Basir praises the training but laments that, after the recruits graduate to the streets, "they are not properly equipped to take on an insurgency."

The plan is that the police force will eventually be dedicated to law enforcement. While that's already its main role in northern Afghanistan and to some extent in the west, it is still called upon in the east and the south to confront the primary "threat" of the Taliban insurgency, Allen says. One challenge for the future, the retired general says, is "getting the police to where we want it to be."

Allen sees progress, as when the police act to safeguard Afghan civilians – as they did when repelling the Taliban's May attack on the international compound in Kabul.

"They're learning about managing the use of force to reduce collateral casualties," he says. "Before, it was all about firepower."

Recruits at Camp Zimmerman are taught to manage their use of force, says the chief of the Carabinieri trainers, Lt. Col. Alessandro de Ferrari. "They are trained perfectly not to use their weapons unless it is a last-ditch resort," he says.

Challenges facing the camp's police recruits are as extensive as those confronting every other unit of the Afghan security forces. But spirits here are high and confidence among trainees is readily apparent.

"I am very anxious to finish my training so I can serve my country and be a good police for the Afghan people," says Hezatullah Ahamadi, a recruit from Laghman Province, east of Kabul.

His main worries? That the Taliban in his region are known to threaten families of police officers, by way of pressuring police to quit the force. He also laments the starting salary – about $400 a month – saying it is not enough to support a family.

But he says none of that will deter him from honorable service to his country. "I have seen police officers who take bribes, but that is a shame for them," Mr. Ahamadi says. Standing taller and squaring his shoulders, he adds, "Those who love their country will not take bribes!"

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