Back in the summer of 2013, I embedded with a company of U.S. paratroopers in Eastern Afghanistan. Attached to the company of U.S. soldiers was a kandak (battalion) of the Afghan National Army. Back then, I was quite impressed by the professionalism of the Afghan soldiers and wrote a glowing article titled “Afghan Forces Not Worried About US Departure.” Today, with Afghan security forces dying at a rate of around 100 per week (this only used to happen during the “hottest” periods of the annual fighting seasons), I am a less optimistic. Despite that, I still believe that Afghan forces will be able to hold their ground – for at least the next three years.
The major, if scaled down, objective for the newly launched NATO Training Mission “Resolute Support” is to train Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to the point where they will be able to control the country’s population centers and strategically important assets, such as major roads and mountain passes after 2017. The more ambitious goal of pacifying the entire country is now passé. Afghan forces have reached a maturity level where they are able to control about 80 percent of the population and where insurgent forces will not be able to dislocate them from key geographical positions.
Experience has shown that developing forces need three things to succeed: effective local leadership and governance to provide popular support; outside training and partnering that lasts long enough to ensure they are truly effective on a self-sustaining basis, and the resources necessary to keep fighting long enough to win. Each of these three factors need to be supported by institutions staffed with competent technicians, together with adequate structures and organizations. In this regard, the ANSF presents a mixed picture at best.
While progress in local leadership and partnering is steady, resources post-2017 are largely undetermined. The oft-cited annual ANSF budget of $5.1 billion (first introduced at the NATO Chicago Summit in 2012, later increased to $5.1 billion at the NATO Wales Summit in 2014) is not backed by an adequately reviewed cost model and donor support post 2014 – despite pledges – is still largely undefined. What is very much needed is an adequate unclassified post-2104 campaign plan linking ANSF resources to objectives and further linking this plan to the gradual withdrawal of ISAF forces in order to garner the necessary political support in donor countries.
I posit that military progress in the field before 2017 can only be undone by substantially cutting the ANSF budget below $2.7 billion (the current annual operations cost of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Uniformed Police (ANUP)).
Here are three examples from a tactical, operational and strategic perspective.
The U.S. M224 60 mm mortar might be a tactical “game changer” on the battlefield since it dramatically reduces the need for air power assets and increases the mobile firepower of the ANA. Almost all Afghan National Army (ANA) infantry kandaks (battalions) are now equipped with the weapon and basic mortar training (“mortar academies” set up by NATO advisors) has been somewhat successful in teaching ANA soldiers the necessary combat skills. This weapon has dramatically increased the ability of ANA units to withstand ambushes and pursue insurgent forces withdrawing from the battlefield.
There have been some good initiatives to reduce desertion and attrition rates. Evidence suggests that one of the principal reasons why Afghan soldiers go AWOL is that they do not return from home leave, which they take to share their salary with their families. With the increasing introduction of electronic banking among ANA and ANUP units there has been a sharp reduction in home leave and a concomitant reduction AWOL rates, according to a few senior-level ANSF leaders I spoke with. Yet, there is no publicly available comprehensive declassified dataset for soldiers and policemen going AWOL in 2014 to support this assertion.
Because of sparser resources, ANSF commanders are looking for alternatives to establish a modus operandi with insurgent forces in strategically less important areas. There has been an increase in tacit agreements (for instance, in Zormat district in Paktia Province where I was embedded for two summers), between ANA, ANUP, and local insurgent commanders, whether Taliban, Haqqani network, or local criminal gangs. These agreements still leave ANSF in control of population centers and major highways. One can observe that in areas where there are tacit agreements in place ANSF are still aggressively patrolling cities and highways, resulting in high casualty rates on both sides.
Tactical training at the squad, platoon and company levels is still inconsistent across units. While it is true that the firepower and combat effectiveness of the ANA units has increased dramatically in the past three years, the results are still mixed with some units doing better than others. The inability to retain experienced people past the three-year contract that ANA soldiers sign will be an ongoing challenge.
The ANSF still cannot move freely in the country. There are areas that are a no-go for the ANSF, others where they will only go with U.S. air support, and others where they will go on their own. Major population centers fall into the last category. No-go areas are remote geographical areas located around villages with a strong local criminal presence in addition to foreign insurgent fighters. This will not change in the years to come and may increase the number of safe havens for insurgents, should the U.S. decide to further scale back air support between 2015 and 2017.
Cooperation between ANSF elements is still a problem. The ANA is generally the most effective force, but has critical problems in retaining trained personnel, sustainability, and consistency. Only limited elements of the police – like the ANCOPs – are consistently effective, and corruption and ties to local power brokers remain critical problems. The Afghan Local police (ALP) and other local security forces are vital when it comes to holding territory, but very erratic in quality.
Logistics is still a challenge. The reason is the highly centralized logistics and acquisition system where funds are tightly controlled at the Afghan Ministry of Defense level. Resources only slowly trickle down to corps, brigade and kandak level. Corruption remains widespread. This is especially acutely felt in funds for informants, ammunition, and explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) equipment. Thus, it is fair to conclude that a lack of administrative competence, especially in the higher ranks among staff officers, as well as over centralized command and funding structures, still hampers military performance.
Of course, the elephant in the room is the political situation in Afghanistan – which could undo battlefield progress in a matter of months or even weeks.
Nonetheless, I am confident that the ANSF will be capable of prevailing on the battlefield against insurgents until 2017. It is important to understand that the insurgency is still very limited in its military capabilities and has been severely weakened by an aggressive coalition air campaign. The long term ANSF funding situation remains critical but is unlikely to change until 2017. ANSF will be able to control all major population centers and transit routes until then.