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.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A policeman keeps watch in a Kabul neighborhood. The city still needs help rebuilding its infrastructure after almost 10 years of US occupation.
Anja Niedringhaus/AP
An Afghan soldier joins in a training session at the Kabul Military Training Center outside the capital city. The Afghan National Security Forces will be asked to provide security after the last international troops pull out in 2014.

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.

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."

Even top US officials in Kabul, while more optimistic, offer cautious predictions of what Afghanistan's military and police will be capable of by the time international forces leave in 2014. As the US ambassador to Kabul, Ryan Crocker, says, the ANSF should by then be able to defend an Afghanistan that is "basically secure, basically stable, basically democratic, [and] that can look after its own interests."

The assessments of Afghan security forces that run from modest to bleak suggest why President Obama is focused on securing a Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) with Afghan President Hamid Karzai over the coming weeks. With no hope on the horizon of defeating Afghanistan's insurgency, the administration will settle for an agreement that allows the US, after its 2014 combat departure, to pursue its terrorist-hunting interests in the area while standing back in a reserve capacity. The US would help out – for example, with air power – when the Afghans get swamped. NATO countries would maintain some military training. In exchange, President Karzai will get the funding to prop up a state with meager revenues.

The SPA, Dr. Fair says, "is really our ticket out of there."

Still murky is what happens between September, when the US will have withdrawn 23,000 of about 90,000 forces in Afghanistan, and the end of 2014. The US military is likely to call for the remaining combat drawdown to be back-ended to give the ANSF more time, while the US public and many regional experts press for front-loading the withdrawal from what they see as a corrosive engagement.

Gen. John Allen, the US commander of NATO forces here, recently hinted to Congress that he was unlikely to recommend any further cuts in the 68,000 US forces remaining after September until well into 2013. Mr. Obama has said he wants to set a "gradual pace" of withdrawal.

Yet whether the withdrawal of international forces is steep or gradual seems almost immaterial to prospects for Afghan security forces to maintain stability, since so many of their problems are internal and resistant to a quick fix.

Turncoats in the Afghan forces

With nearly a fifth of the 96 international forces killed in Afghanistan this year killed by their Afghan counterparts, much of the attention on Afghanistan in recent weeks has focused on these incidents. Their growing frequency suggests a fraying relationship between the Afghans and the international security force.

The US-led mission said in early April that lapses in Afghan screening of recruits had failed to weed out turncoats, while adding that new countermeasures have been taken. For example, Afghan soldiers are increasingly disarmed when entering coalition bases, and international and Afghan forces who once lived together are now more often kept in separate quarters.

Yet as vital as that issue may be, it has also obscured the rising problem of Afghan-on-Afghan violence within the security forces, and what those growing tensions could portend for the post-NATO Afghanistan of 2015.

Two incidents in late March underscored the deep worries about long-term Afghan unity, as well as about the care with which the Afghan Security Forces are being assembled. First, nearly a dozen suicide vests were found inside the Ministry of Defense in Kabul, and several Afghan soldiers were arrested. More chilling was the case in Paktika Province where a policeman drugged, then shot dead, other officers.

In the Paktika incident, a known Taliban fighter who claimed to have repented was allowed to join the Afghan Local Police, a new force that with US assistance is being developed to use local recruits to provide security in their own villages. The former Taliban was allowed after only a few weeks of training to join the force and begin work in a village outpost – where on March 30 he killed eight sleeping colleagues and one visitor before fleeing.

It was the kind of fratricidal act that has many Afghans wondering where more than three decades of war have left them.

"I would say the international forces can never leave Afghanistan; if they do it will expose a divided country that cannot defend itself," says Baktash Syawash, the youngest member of the parliament's lower house. "If the Americans left Kandahar tomorrow, it's Talibanization.... [I]t shows you that what we suffer from is a lack of vision for the future of our country."

Against such downbeat assessments, the leaders of the international presence here, civilian and military, generally offer more optimistic views of Afghanistan's evolution and of the ability of ANSF to take on the Taliban, deny havens to Al Qaeda, and keep a lid on civil war.

Ambassador Crocker notes that half the Afghan population is already under full Afghan security control, and he expects that share to jump as the "transition" of responsibilities from international forces to the Afghans accelerates. "I suspect that by midsummer, 75 percent of the country will be looking to Afghan forces for their immediate security," he says.

A weakening insurgency?

On the military side, commanders say a decrease in insurgent-initiated violence compared with last year points to a weakened insurgency. (But the Afghan NGO Safety Office found an increase in such violence last year, and the United Nations says civilian casualties are up.)

"I am confident that by the end of 2014 we will be able to hand off security [to Afghans] to deal with a still-active but continuously diminishing insurgency," says Lt. Gen. Adrian Bradshaw, the British deputy commander of the international force here.

Some military officials also insist that the "reintegration" program designed to bring Taliban fighters back into Afghan society is registering successes after years of difficulty. This is true now, they say, because Afghan forces increasingly play a lead role – thus denying the Taliban the line that they are fighting an occupation.

"They say they were fighting to provide security to their families and to get rid of the foreigners," says Bradshaw, referring to interviews he says were conducted with some 3,000 reintegrated ex-Taliban. "But now we're seeing that a combination of a security presence that is more and more Afghan, plus the pressure we've kept up on the Taliban leadership, is creating a shift."

However, some former military personnel who were involved in the reintegration effort say its successes have been played up, while others are even more dismissive. "It's a flop," says Georgetown's Fair. "The most that can be said is that it has brought in some people from the [insurgency's] very lowest rungs."

A key aim of the upbeat assessments of high-level officials like Crocker and Bradshaw is to pave the way to NATO's May summit in Chicago. There, alliance and partner countries will be asked to commit to more than $4 billion in annual funding for the ANSF for up to a decade. Cementing such a commitment would send a strong message to both Afghanistan's enemies and its neighboring countries, foreign officials say, that the international community will remain committed long after combat troops have left.

What NATO wants to head off is the "rush for the exits" by the international community that Obama recently warned against. To do that, officials with the international forces are not trying to minimize the storm of recent incidents in Afghanistan – the burning of Qurans and ensuing riots, the killing of 17 Afghan civilians by a rogue US soldier, the multiplying renegade assaults – but instead to suggest that in a more fragile setting, the reverberations of such incidents would have been worse.

ANSF shows 'steadiness under pressure'

Afghan forces efficiently handled the Quran-burning unrest, they argue, and the Afghans have taken measures to reduce the opportunity for inside attacks on coalition forces.

"What we've witnessed is a very strong indication of their steadiness under pressure," Bradshaw says.

Perhaps more important, officials say, despite Karzai's outburst that he was "at the end of the rope" with the US over a March massacre by a US soldier, US-Afghan talks on the SPA were not ruptured.

Both Afghan and foreign officials say a US-Afghan SPA would send a strong message in multiple directions – to Afghans, to the Taliban that cut off nascent peace talks, to neighboring countries, and to Chicago – that the US will remain on the ground well into the future.

A key target of that message is Pakistan, where Afghan Taliban fighters continue to find refuge. The US wants the SPA to signal that it is not abandoning Afghanistan and that Pakistan's interests do not lie in an unstable neighbor. Some experts counter that Pakistan worries more about archrival India's expanding economic and political footprint here.

Karzai is insisting that any accord must confirm Afghanistan's sovereignty, a sticking point.

An example is the practice of night raids. US and NATO military officials say that continuing the raids would be essential. Officials note that the vast majority of night raids – which have been successful at capturing Taliban leaders and dismantling bombmaking – are already under Afghan leadership. One option under consideration is to require a warrant from an Afghan judge to carry out a raid.

To underscore the country's "positive trajectory," NATO points to upbeat numbers on ANSF recruiting, training, and retention. As of March 1, the NATO Training Mission says the Army, at 188,000 strength, is on track to reach its goal of 195,000 by October. Attrition rates run from 1 to 5 percent per month, depending on the corps, the NTM says, but it says those numbers are made up for by strong recruitment. The National Police is also expected to reach its October goal.

But such rosy figures gloss over the security forces' shortcomings, some experts say. Anthony Cordesman, an international security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says NATO officials have resorted to "spin" in past reports on training and attrition numbers, and he joins other experts in insisting the problems are worse than NATO suggests.

Mr. Cordesman's conclusion? While enough Afghan security forces may be ready to "contain" the insurgency in key areas by the end of 2014, he says 2016 is more realistic – and then only if Afghanistan's partners fund the forces and continue their training. Left on their own, Afghanistan's still-consolidating forces are likely to lose whatever nascent national spirit they have and to split along ethnic and regional lines that may doom the country to civil war.

That may be a gloomy prognosis for two "partners" who, after more than a decade of war, are tiring of each other's company. But the alternative may be worse. As Shahgul Rezayee, one of the 69 female members of parliament, says, "We all prefer a strong Afghanistan standing on its own feet, but unfortunately we are not at that moment. And until then, yes, we will need some foreign presence."

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