The South Asia Channel

Transition to nowhere: The limits of “Afghanization”

The strategy of having the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) take over the security burden from the U.S and NATO forces is now a centerpiece of President Obama’s Afghanistan policy. But as decision makers continue to push hard for a speedy "Afghanization" of the conflict, serious thought should be given to the current policy paradox ...

ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images
ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images

The strategy of having the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) take over the security burden from the U.S and NATO forces is now a centerpiece of President Obama’s Afghanistan policy. But as decision makers continue to push hard for a speedy "Afghanization" of the conflict, serious thought should be given to the current policy paradox of trying to rapidly expand an already unmanageable indigenous military force structure while aggressively pursuing informal security organs, namely static militias and various community defense forces.  And with the Afghan government’s total annual revenue hovering around $1 billion and the Obama administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2012 of  $12.8 billion to train and equip Afghanistan’s expanding army and national police force, it will be extremely difficult for Afghanistan to manage and sustain a force of that size and expense over the long term without protracted external financial and material support. Realistic expectations and level foresight regarding the physical limitations of these pursuits are required if any sort of security or stability equilibrium is to be achieved in Afghanistan before the eventual scale down of international forces in 2014.

The U.S. handover of security responsibilities to the Karzai regime begins this July with a transition to ANSF predominance in the cities of Lashkar Gah in the south, Herat in the west and Mazar-i-Sharif in the north and the relatively stable provinces of Bamyan, Panjshir and Kabul (except Surobi district). Afghanistan’s national security services are increasingly viewed as the strategic fire escape to allow the scale-down of international forces preceding the larger withdrawal scenario.  The key instrument in this transition is the Afghan National Army (ANA), especially given the fact that the Afghan National Police (ANP) in many parts of the country is a hated institution because of their abusive, predatory and illegally extractive reputation.  The ANP in Kandahar, for example, are known to at times provide vehicles to local insurgents for kidnappings and assassinations.

The United States has spent an astounding $18 billion on reconstructing the ANA since 2002, but it remains difficult to get accurate numbers on the actual size of the force "present for duty," a fact that makes it difficult to gauge what condition Afghanistan’s national force structure might look like in late 2011 or beyond.   

U.S. Senators Carl Levin (D-MI) and Jack Reed (D-RI) recently stated in the Washington Post that Afghanistan added "about 70,000 troops in 2010," and that "the Afghans are on track to meet goals of 171,000 soldiers and 134,000 police officers by October [2011]," but a staggering attrition rate and a serious gap in quality recruits and leadership positions belie the veracity of such claims.  At the current attrition rate of around 32 percent for the ANA (25 percent for Afghan police), only 70,000 of the 110,000 men that were recruited in 2010 remain engaged in some aspect of the national army according to U.S. Lieutenant General William Caldwell, the commander of NATO’s training mission in Afghanistan.

Again, according to Senators Levin and Reed, the Obama administration is currently considering a proposal that seeks to increase Afghan security forces by about 30,000 soldiers, and a similar number of police, bringing the estimated total Afghan security force levels to about 378,000 by the end of 2012. But is this goal even possible considering the available and qualified manpower pool?  And how was this level of forces decided upon?  Does this equate to some ratio of security providers per population or was this number pulled out of a hat?

The Defense Department often uses the vague phrase of "trained and equipped" when referring to ANA troop strength in press releases, a number that is not the same as troops actually present for duty.  In many respects, the number of trained and equipped ANA service members is irrelevant because of desertion, attrition and other dynamics.  When one of the authors recently asked a senior U.S. government manager involved in ANA training in Kabul what the official figure the U.S. uses when assessing those ANA "present for duty," it was answered that 75 percent of the ANA force is assumed "present for duty" at any particular time.  When this figure was relayed by the authors to senior U.S. Government analysts, they were dumbfounded and suggested they believe that the number of ANA "present for duty" was much smaller – between 40 and 60 percent. 

It is estimated that at least one third of the ANA evaporates every year through desertions and non-reenlistment. A member of the U.S ANA training mission in Kabul told the authors that in an unpublished report, the U.S. Army’s Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, had a professional statistician analyze ANA growth and attrition rates in 2005. According to this same source, the report  concluded (p. 6) that the ANA could never grow larger than 100,000 men, because at that point the annual attrition losses would equal the maximum number of new recruits entering the force each year. 

In addition to the quantitative problems faced by the ANA in fielding an adequate force, it is confronted with a wide variety of qualitative problems ranging from illiteracy to drug use and medical problems, to name but a few.

Recruitment also  remains a particularly divisive issue as far as ethnic diversity and quotas are concerned. Officials from the Afghan Ministry of Defense, the United States Armed Forces, and the International Crisis Group undertook independent inquiries into the ethnic demographics of the ANA between November 2009 and January 2010.  The "template" approved by the Ministry of Defense for recruitment use attempts to recruit based on ethnicity – maintaining that the ANA should reach a personnel quota of 42 percent Pashtun, 27 percent Tajik, 9 percent Uzbek, 9 percent Hazara, and 13 percent others,  such as Arab, Baluch and Nuristani. The goal of using ethnic quotas to balance the ANA comes "even at the expense of quality," according to the Combined Training Advisory Group’s U.K. Brigadier General Jon Watson, as reported in Jane’s Defense Bulletin.  Rigid ethnic recruiting goals on behalf of the coalition and the Afghan government, ignores the socio-political and historical realities of Afghanistan, which include Western partnerships with non-Pashtun groups like the Northern Alliance and more favorable security environments in non-Pashtun areas that make recruitment and the retention of troops less difficult than in places like Afghanistan’s Pashtun south.

Even with a seemingly balanced representation throughout the ANA according to the above ethnic breakdown, ethnic Tajiks still dominate the officer and NCO ranks. According to Afghanistan scholar Antonio Giustozzi, approximately 70 percent of Afghan kandak (battalion) commanders are Tajik, a legacy of the role the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance played in the fall of the Taliban in 2001.  Having one ethnic group dominate the leadership positions in an ethno-linguistically fragmented society has helped discourage certain other groups, especially southern Pashtuns, from joining the ANA, though there are a host of reasons explaining the imbalanced recruitment to ANSF.   

Since 2005, amid a deteriorating security situation and increased Taliban presence throughout southern and southeastern Afghanistan, the Afghan government found itself battling against profound recruitment deficiencies among southern Pashtuns. Southern Pashtun families who sent sons to join and fight with the ANA were often intimidated, threatened and physically targeted by Taliban and insurgent factions, leaving other ethnicities and communities to fill this recruitment void. For instance, in the southern province of Zabul, one of seven Pashtun-dominated provinces  suffering from a surge in anti-government activities, U.S. Embedded Training Teams (ETTs) indicated in 2009 that only 5 percent of the ANA kandak responsible for the province was Pashtun.  Furthermore, U.S. ETT personnel in Zabul estimated that 70% of all kandaks are commanded by Tajiks, a finding supported by additional field research conducted by the International Crisis Group (p. 20). Even in the Pashtun province of Zabul, there are only two Pashtun kandak commanders out of a total of six. Similar observations were found in most of the rural environs of Kandahar Province.   And in a 2009 trip to Kandahar, the authors observed that in the Dand district many ANSF personnel passed themselves off as Pashtun to the local International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), but were in fact Tajiks from as far north as Samangan Province, many of whom chose security positions in the south because the monthly salary topped security wages in the north.

The lack of Pashtun participation has led to several controversial proposals, including a return to forced conscription and the mobilization of community defense forces, of which several pilot programs have already been attempted, including the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF) in Wardak and Logar Provinces, and the Afghan Local Police (ALP), implemented throughout many provinces including Kandahar, Uruzgan, Helmand and Kunduz.  But the organization of these programs often fails to deal with persistent questions such as how such informal security organs will transition into formal Afghan security forces in the future. Currently, there is no feasible plan in place to streamline the reintegration process of informal security forces into the national security structure, or to track the government-ordered demobilization of Afghan private security contractors, which collectively employed over 40,000 armed individuals by 2010. The last thing Afghanistan needs is a reincarnation of mobilized, dysfunctional, well-armed thugs extracting and abusing local citizenry, as the warlordism and disparate militia rule of the early 1990s was one of the primary reasons for the political rise of the Taliban in the first place!  NATO and Kabul are both faced with a serious number of grievous limitations and challenges to this strategy of establishing and maintaining parallel security forces, as well as eventually transitioning these forces to central government control.  

Moreover, as pressure mounts to increase the size of the ANA, looser vetting processes, shorter military training courses and insufficient resources provided for coalition military trainers will only increase the pool of inadequate and unsatisfactory recruits culled from the lowest strata of society. These new recruits will undoubtedly include those already addicted to drugs, thieves, murderers and criminals.   Training courses for new ANA recruits have already been reduced from ten to eight weeks for basic infantry requirements in light of the new expansion efforts. In contrast, as Lester Grau and Michael A. Gress noted in their book, The Soviet Afghan War: How a Super-Power Fought and Lost, during the Soviet-occupation of Afghanistan, drafted soldiers underwent a one-month boot camp, and training for sergeants and specialists lasted three to four months.

Additionally, logistics and clerical duties throughout the ANA are likely the weakest cog in rebuilding and reorganizing the force, especially given the endemic illiteracy rate that hovers around 90 percent among ANA personnel and staff. The lack of technical specialists and a "maintenance" culture is nothing new to Afghanistan. Currently, both ANA and ANP mentors report severe deficiencies in the Ministry of Defense supply system, referring to the system as a "fill or kill" process in which requests are made and then disappear. Even the top-rated unit of the ANA, 1st kandak, 2nd Brigade of the 203rd Corps, indicated (p. 17) that their supply process is "a failure."  This deficiency simply increases the primary dependence of U.S. and NATO soldiers to remedy supply issues. Members of the ANSF often complain about where they will get their next meal, which begs the question of how they will get ammunition and other supplies when they are most needed.

Additionally, an overemphasis by the international community to instill an infantry-centric approach in rebuilding the ANA in a post-Taliban environment has led to a severe shortfall in non-combat training, especially among specialists in logistics, supply and maintenance. Almost all logistic units have miserable Capability Milestone (CM) ratings (the metric used to determine combat readiness).  U.S. and NATO logistics mentoring programs did not begin until late 2008, according to findings by the Inspector General of the U.S. Defense Department published in 2009; further evidence that the ANA will not be able to support its own growth especially given the intense focus by NATO to expand the ANA.

Naturally, there is no clear cut answer on how to best overhaul, maintain, and field an Afghan National Army given the current unstable environment and complexities regarding Afghanistan’s larger contemporary conflict, now entering its 33rd consecutive year.   Although conventional wisdom suggests the ANA are far more professional and trained than other ANSF units, the ANA, Afghan government and NATO allies have a long road to travel before a professional, capable, and sustainable National Army emerges.   

Thomas H. Johnson is a Research Professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the Naval Postgraduate School and  the Director of the Program for Culture & Conflict Studies, where Matthew DuPee is a Research Associate.

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