- By Dan De LuceDan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. He joined FP in June 2015 after working as Pentagon correspondent for Agence France-Presse. Prior to that, Dan reported for the Guardian from Iran until he was expelled by the regime in 2004. After the end of communist rule in Eastern Europe, Dan worked as a freelance journalist in Prague. He later covered the war in former Yugoslavia for Reuters from 1993 to 1995 before serving as Sarajevo bureau chief after the conflict. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Dan lives in Washington with his wife, journalist and author Caitriona Palmer, and his four children.
Without NATO troops at their side, the Afghan army and police are struggling and often failing on the battlefield against the Taliban and Islamic State extremists, despite $64 billion in assistance from the United States since 2002. That’s the sobering conclusion of the U.S. official in charge of auditing aid money for Afghanistan, John Sopko.
The capability of the Afghan security forces has deteriorated since the bulk of U.S. and coalition troops withdrew in 2014, and several provinces are now under serious threat of falling to the militants, according to Sopko, who testified before a congressional panel on Friday.
Many of the billions in U.S. assistance for the Afghan army and police has been spent inefficiently or squandered, he said. And since the departure of most American troops, it has become increasingly difficult to exercise real oversight over the program, or to get a clear picture of the state of the forces, as Washington has to depend on unreliable information provided by ministries in Kabul, according to Sopko.
Neither U.S. nor Afghan officials are even sure how many soldiers or police officers are available for duty, he said. Last year, Sopko’s office found that the United States was paying salaries to “ghost” Afghan police officers who existed only on paper.
Although the Afghans have fought valiantly, and suffered thousands of casualties, “the information we have suggests that Afghan forces are facing a crisis because they still lack the capability to effectively hold off the insurgency on their own,” Sopko said in his written testimony.
The fall of the provincial capital of Kunduz to Taliban insurgents in September underscored the vulnerability of Afghan troops, he said.
While Afghan forces — backed up by American air power — “were eventually able to clear the city of insurgents, the fact remains that the Afghans needed help from U.S. forces to retake Kunduz only 10 months after the end of U.S. combat operations,” he said.
Sopko, who has filed a litany of damning reports about U.S. aid as the special investigator general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said he was troubled that the American military chose not to conduct its own inquiry into the setback in Kunduz to gauge whether the “train and advise” mission needed an overhaul.
“The fall of Kunduz after 14 years of U.S. support for the (Afghan security forces) deserves serious examination by the U.S. military,” he said.
Building up the Afghan army and police into an effective fighting force was the foundation of America’s — and NATO’s — strategy in Afghanistan over the past 15 years. But despite an investment of $64 billion, Sopko said the effort could be doomed.
“If recent developments are indicators of what is to come, we may not be on course to achieve and sustain for the long term the U.S. national security objectives in Afghanistan,” he said.
Another costly effort to arm and train an army virtually from scratch ended in failure in Iraq. The United States spent roughly $25 billion on Iraqi forces that were supposed to provide security for the country after American troops could withdrew in 2011. But the army suffered a string of humiliating defeats at the hands of the Islamic State in 2014, and is still trying to claw back territory seized by the extremists.
Sopko’s pessimistic findings echoed a warning last month from the next general nominated to lead the war effort in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. John Nicholson, who told lawmakers that “in some areas we have years to go” before the Afghan army and police will be ready to fight without American help.
From Helmand province in the south, to Kunduz in the north and Nangarhar in the east, security has begun to unravel in the months since most U.S. and American troops pulled out. A U.S. force of about 9,800 troops remains on the ground. President Barack Obama canceled a plan to have the whole contingent withdraw by the end of the year, precisely because of the Taliban’s resurgence.
U.S. commanders are deploying several hundred troops to Helmand province to help shore up the Afghan forces there, amid reports the Taliban was poised to regain control of the area. A large force of U.S. Marines was stationed in Helmand five years ago and fought bloody battles to push back the Taliban insurgents in a number of towns and villages.
The Afghan forces battling the militants have suffered sky-high casualties over the past two years, with about 16,000 army and police killed or wounded in 2015 alone. That was up from roughly 12,500 casualties in 2014, according to Pentagon officials. That compares to more than 2,300 U.S. troops killed and more than 20,000 wounded in Afghanistan since 2001.
Coinciding with ramped up pressure from the Taliban, militants who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State are posing a growing threat in the country’s east. The spokesman for the U.S. military command in Afghanistan, Brig. Gen. Al Shoffner, told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday that there are between 1,000 to 3,000 ISIS fighters active in the eastern province of Nangarhar along the Pakistani border.
Those fighters are mostly Afghan Taliban who have broken from the group, or members of the Pakistani Taliban, or TTP, Shoffner said, though “we’re not exactly sure what their motivation is” for the shift. The U.S. has “significantly increased“ airstrikes against the group in recent weeks, he added, but would not provide more details.
Under the current rules of engagement, U.S. forces are prevented from attacking the Taliban and other insurgent groups unless they pose a direct threat to American troops. But al Qaeda extremists have been legitimate targets since the end of the NATO combat mission on Jan. 1 2015, and under expanded authorities granted to U.S. commanders late last year, Islamic State fighters are also fair game.
FP reporter Paul McLeary contributed to this report.
Photo credit: Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images