Afghanistan war: Are Afghan forces loyal enough to take control by 2014?

The beheadings of six Afghan police have raised questions about the true loyalties of some Afghan forces during a crash program to recruit and train more locals in the Afghanistan war.

Bob Strong/Reuters
Members of the Afghan Army take part in a joint patrol with US Army soldiers with the 82nd Airborne Division in Arghandab District, north of Kandahar, July 5. Questions have been raised about the loyalty of Afghan soldiers to take over prosecution of the Afghanistan war by 2014.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Tuesday that his country will be ready to take full control of Afghanistan's security by 2014, but recent attacks on Afghan security forces and problems with continuing literacy and Taliban infiltration in the ranks are showing how tough a task that will prove to be.

President Obama wants Afghan forces to take the reins – in at least some provinces – here by the middle of next year, and plans are currently being drawn up by the Afghan Defense and Interior Ministries to so.

But the $27 billion effort to train Afghan soldiers and police for most of the past eight years has been judged by outside observers to have churned out soldiers and police forces that aren’t ready to fight on their own. And with June the war's deadliest month for international forces, the fight is very much a hot one.

Signs pointing to lack of commitment

Evidence of that came on Tuesday, as senior diplomats from dozens of countries gathered for the Kabul conference in a show of international donor support for the Karzai government. Also on Tuesday, in Baghlan Province, Taliban fighters overran a police post in a district capital and beheaded six Afghan policemen.

"This incident once again demonstrates the brutal, barbaric, and senseless acts committed by the Taliban," Col. Rafael Torres at the international forces headquarters in Kabul said in a statement. "We remain committed to serving alongside our Afghan partners to improve security and development.”

That sign of commitment is not being reciprocated by all Afghan troops.

In Mazar-e-Sharif, in the north, an Afghan sergeant opened fire on his trainers Tuesday, killing two American contractors and wounding a NATO soldier before being killed himself.

That was the second incident in a week of an Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier attacking foreigners he was working with. On June 13, an Afghan soldier attacked the British Royal Gurkha Rifles at a patrol base in Helmand Province, killing two Gurkha enlisted men and a British officer. The soldier made his escape, presumably to join the Taliban.

In a little-reported incident two weeks ago, an Afghan police post in Arghandab District in Kandahar Province, a Taliban stronghold, was overrun after most of the police there deserted. “One of the guys stayed behind and was killed,” says a Kandahar government official, who asked not to be identified. “We’re not sure what happened – if they went over to the Taliban or were just scared.”

Though fratricide happens in almost every army in the world, the incidents have raised questions about the true loyalties of some Afghan soldiers in the midst of a crash program to recruit and train more local forces that is ahead of schedule to reach a target of 134,000 Afghan soldiers and 109,000 Afghan police by September.

The quality of those forces is an open question

In a highly critical June report, the US inspector general for Afghan reconstruction found that NATO trainers here have consistently overstated the capabilities of Afghan forces, and pointed to high rates of desertion, corruption, and drug use among trainees and officers. The report found that even top-rated Afghan forces “have not indicated a capability to sustain independent operations.”

“There are people who will quite rightly say ‘what were you doing the past eight years?' ” says Col. Stewart Cowan, the spokesman for the NATO training mission here. “But performance has improved, training has improved, and I think 2011 will be a year of increased” ANA capacity.

Cowan says that most of the criticisms in the inspector general’s report had already been taken on board and addressed before it was published, making the document a reflection of the past, not the present.

Aid and corruption

Rampant corruption here – a theme touched on at Tuesday’s Kabul conference, with international donors saying they will channel more aid through the Afghan government if it demonstrates it can limit theft – has also hampered force development.

NATO forces here have taken steps to stop officers taking part of their soldiers pay by setting up electronic transfers to individual accounts, and in some instances have added blue dye to the fuel at depots to limit pilfering. A NATO officer says another problem is that “provincial police chief posts come with a price tag” since they’re valued for the patronage opportunities they generate.

 In a Tuesday report for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington Anthony Cordesman, a former head of intelligence assessment for the US secretary of Defense, wrote, “[T]here is a significant probability that [Afghan security forces] will not be ready for any significant transfer of responsibility until well after 2011.”

Dr. Cordesman writes that “bitter strategic mistakes” have been made in the past eight years, among them a failure to “see the need for Afghan forces that could be effective partners … until at least mid-2009” and “treating the Afghan army as a low-grade auxiliary force that was effectively used up in ongoing operations, and leaving the police under-armed and under-trained.”

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