The Cable

Watchdog: Afghan Army Far Weaker Than Initially Believed

A Pentagon miscount led to an overestimation of the Afghan army's strength. Could the new count influence U.S. withdraw plans?


In January, General John F. Campbell, the top American military commander in Afghanistan, abruptly classified a number of key data points connected to the capabilities of the Afghan army that had been public for years. He might have had good reason to hide the numbers: now that the data has been released, it’s clear the Afghan army is far weaker than originally thought.

The data, which was released Tuesday only after objections from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, paints a damning picture of the strength of Afghanistan’s armed forces. They are likely to influence America’s reconsideration of plans to withdraw U.S. troops as the numbers shows a far-from-stable Afghan force. The inspector general also said a DoD “accounting error” led American military planners to overestimate the strength of the Afghan army for most of 2014.

In the last year, the Afghan army lost some 20,000 soldiers to deaths, desertions, and discharges, the Afghan watchdog said in a report released Tuesday morning. It also found the number of troops in the Afghan National declined by 15,636, or 8.5 percent, since February 2014. It now has 169,203 personnel, the lowest force size since 2011.

The new report also deepens the mystery over how and why the Afghan force data was classified in the first place. It took just days for the general to reverse his decision. But the watchdog said Tuesday it was informed just hours before it planned to issue a supplemental report that DoD had provided it with incorrect information due to an accounting mistake on the part of the Pentagon.

“Accurate ANSF strength numbers are vital to informing U.S. strategic policy decision-making, especially as President Obama’s administration reviews the pace of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan,” the oversight group said in its Tuesday report, using the Pentagon acronym for the Afghan national security forces.

The White House formally declared an end to the American combat mission at the end of last year, and the U.S. troop presence there has declined from its high of 100,000 in 2010 to roughly 10,000. Most of those troops are slated to depart at the end of the year, but new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has been lobbying the Obama administration to keep them there longer. The White House has hinted in recent weeks that it might be willing to be more flexible on the withdrawal timeline, and the new report could provide grist for those inside and outside the Pentagon who believe that Afghan forces aren’t yet up to the job of securing their own country.

Pentagon spokesman Maj. Brad Avots referred Foreign Policy to a statement made by Col. Brian Tribus, a spokesman for the NATO-led Resolute Support mission, who attributed the mistake to the double counting of the number of civilians who work for the Afghan army.

In addition to bad data on troop strength, the Afghan watchdog also found the Afghan police count to be inaccurate. It determined Afghanistan has 325,642 police officers, some 34,000 under the U.S. target.

Photo Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images


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