Are Afghan security forces ready to keep order as US draws down?

As Afghanistan votes, recent high-profile attacks – including the killing of a Western journalist today – have intensified questions about Afghan capabilities in a year of political and military transition.

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
Afghan soldiers stood guard as presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai held a rally for thousands of supporters at the Ghazi stadium in Kabul, Afghanistan, April 1, 2014.

Afghan security forces are mounting an unprecedented security operation across the country, deploying at least 200,000 personnel to ring polling stations and protect a presidential election tomorrow that will crucially shape Afghanistan's future.

The Taliban have pushed aggressively to disrupt the vote with a string of high-profile attacks in Kabul and an intimidation campaign in the provinces. Afghan special forces and police have fought back, exhibiting increasing skill at racing to attacks and taking on gunmen and suicide bombers.

But the shooting today of two veteran Western journalists by an Afghan police unit commander in eastern Khost Province – an attack that killed photographer Anja Niedringhaus and wounded reporter Kathy Gannon, both with the Associated Press, as they joined a convoy of election workers – illustrates the risks of insecurity that will persist beyond the election, and after the withdrawal of US and Western combat forces by the end of the year.

The dangers of a resurgent Taliban have raised the fear of renewed civil war in some quarters, posing a central question: Are Afghan security forces ready to keep order on their own, during a year of political and military transition?

The challenge is grim: United Nations statistics indicate that 2013 was an especially violent year, with the 2,959 civilian death toll a 7 percent rise over 2012, which “reverses the decline” seen in 2012, according to a February UN report. Though use of improvised explosive devices was the “main factor” in the higher number, a “new trend” of “increased ground engagements” between Afghan forces and insurgents caused 27 percent of all casualties, the UN reports.

Despite high levels of violence, US commanders say that Afghan security forces have shown themselves relatively capable since being put in the lead for the summer 2013 “fighting season.”

“You could make the case there was a relatively flat line in enemy-initiated attacks” from 2012 to 2013, says US Brig. Gen. Eric Wesley, a strategic planner on Afghanistan for more than four years.

“So here you had a pretty well-established, experienced coalition of 50 nations in the lead the year before, and the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] in the lead in security of the main population areas [in 2013] … and it was about the same,” says General Wesley. “That is a significant step.”

But the summer 2013 performance was only one sign of readiness, says Wesley. Last November, a high-profile meeting of elders discussing the future US force footprint in Afghanistan saw no major incident, despite “lots of threat streams that the Taliban wanted to attack.” In December, Afghan-led operations found 52 caches that included 1029 improvised explosive devices, while clearing 286 villages.

Afghan forces have also carried out the "overwhelming majority" of work delivering ballots and registration material to 395 district locations with "minimal support," notes Wesley. And this week, they uncovered 22 tons of explosives in a northern province that Afghan officials say could have been used in “hundreds” of attacks.

“What we are really observing here is a leadership that is capable of having an effect with a trained force,” says Brig. Gen. Mike Wehr, the US forces chief engineer. “By identifying caches and taking these out, we are well ahead of the traditional process the Taliban would use of [hiding] materials and try to set them up when the season is warmer.”

Bilateral Security agreement at issue

The state of Afghan forces after years of building – and the Taliban's ability to challenge them – has been open to interpretation. Doomsayers have been plenty, arguing that the Western withdrawal is premature and will leave the nation vulnerable to Taliban influence and advances.

But some argue that the Taliban have proven incapable of capitalizing on the weakness of state institutions, and remain little match for improving Afghan forces.

“The increase in ‘ground engagements’ in 2013 … would count as a serious achievement for the insurgents only if it translated into proportional strategic gains,” wrote Borhan Osman last week, in an Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) report.

“Although the Taliban’s current asymmetric warfare is not meant in the first place to establish an absolute control over territories, they do strive to expand their influence over as many areas as possible,” writes Mr. Osman.

Key for Washington is signing a US-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), which envisions a residual US force of 10,000 or more troops staying on for at least a year to further train and assist Afghan units. Some 57,000 ISAF troops are now in Afghanistan, just under 33,000 of them American. Outgoing President Hamid Karzai has not signed the BSA, which American commanders say would allow that residual force to help weave together specialty intelligence, air, and mobile strike units.

But every candidate vying to become president has said he will sign the BSA. The BSA is “crucial because it’s tied to continued funding and presence and assistance to security forces here, and that’s the long pole in the tent,” says Matt Sherman, political adviser to the ISAF Joint Command. “All the Afghan leaders know that.”

A vastly changed landscape

The decisions are being made in a country that has experienced fundamental change in the past decade, from widespread cellphone use to big boosts in education. The political elite have much more to lose from any unraveling than in decades past. And the US is also much less involved politically than it was during the fraud-tainted 2009 election, which resulted in 2-1/2 months of political limbo.

“I truly don’t think the Taliban are going to rise to power, like a lot of people have preconceived notions of,” says Mr. Sherman. “Their biggest weakness is that they actually have a track record…. They’re not going to have a popular uprising in their support, in order to resume the reins.”

Osman of the AAN notes that the Taliban have today shown few of the characteristics that enabled them the take control of much of Afghanistan in the late 1990s, or that led to mujahideen success against the Soviets in the 1980s.

But still there is risk, and questions about the most effective way for Afghans to take complete control of their nation's security. 

“We as a coalition have to be willing to step back … and allow [Afghan forces] to get into the lead,” says Wesley. “Every time we’ve done that, they’ve demonstrated proficiency. Some of the incidents around the capital in the last two weeks are instructive. Their response has been good, they’ve been very effective in getting on it.”

** Please follow Scott Peterson on Twitter at @peterson__scott **

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