The Afghan military is “marginally” capable of repelling attacks from the Islamist extremists who antagonize large parts of the country, according to an internal Pentagon assessment that raises red flags for President Obama’s plan to withdraw the majority of US troops next year.
“In its present state of development and given the threat environment, we found the (system) to be marginally sufficient to respond effectively to insurgent attacks, like those experienced in Kabul in April 2012, and to conduct those effectively other short-term offensive operations,” the report said.
Obama has vowed to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan in 2014, ending a 12-year war to rout the Taliban and al-Qaida extremists. But Gen. John Allen, who recently stepped down as commander of allied forces in Afghanistan, and other top officials have said the U.S. will not pull out completely.
Afghan and U.S. military personnel, interviewed by the Washington Guardian, said that Afghan forces face numerous challenges from ensuring their own security to launching successful action against enemy forces.
Luke Coffey, a defense expert and Margaret Thatcher fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said closing the capabililty gap so the nation’s forces can manage their own internal security is essential to success in Afghanistan. Financial and material support is imperative to sustain Afghan security forces and to prevent a resurgence of al-Qaeda in the region, he added.
“The goal is to get the Afghan Army good enough to take on the fight against the insurgents without tens of thousands of NATO troops on the ground,” Coffey said. “Will they be able to do this? I think they will, but it will require continued U.S. support in the form of training, funding and equipping well into the future. After all, it is their country.”
The inspector general report, however, raised several red flags. It emphasized that Afghanistan’s National Army’s command and control “may be hampered or even reversed if a number of resource-intensive, high risk challenges are not properly addressed and resolved.”
Some of those challenges, the report states, include:
Teaching Afghan military officials to adapt to evolving organizational structures both internally and inside the insurgents they fight;
Giving the Afghan commanders the direct authority to remove ineffective senior officers;
Obtaining more equipment and skills and training personnel to carry out logistics, artillery, intelligence and surveillance, and counter-measures for Improvised Exposive Devices (IEDs).
A U.S. military official, who worked directly with Afghan forces in the region, said even after training Afghan troops to meet the basic levels of competence, the biggest threat facing those security forces is corruption by their own government. This, he said, was not addressed in the IG report.
“If the Afghan soldier doesn’t get paid when he’s supposed to, he will either leave or get recruited by the enemy,” the official said, speaking on on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. “We could send Karzai a billion dollars, earmarked for Afghan security forces, but there is no guarantee it will get there. Not only is there no guarantee, there is a track record that it will not get there.”
Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. William Speaks said although challenges remain, Afghan security forces are in the lead and the U.S. will continue to work to ensure their success.
“We will have about 18 months of Afghan national security forces fighting in the lead throughout the entire country before our combat mission ends,” said Speaks, referring to plans for Afghan security forces to take full control of the country in the next several months. “It gives us time to see what’s needed.”
Last month, Gen. Allen told reporters that the U.S. will continue to keep a military presence in Afghanistan beyond the 2014 deadline.
Omar, a resident of eastern Afghanistan, a region heavy with Taliban fighters, said the plan to have Afghan forces take the lead is not a welcome reality for many Afghans. “Many of us have made sacrifices as well, fighting along side U.S. forces to build a better nation,” said Omar, who used only his first name for fear of retribution and spoke to the Washington Guardian via the Internet. Recent attacks on Afghan forces have shaken the confidence of residents, he added.
Last week, Taliban fighters cut the throats of four Afghan soldiers they kidnapped while heading home for leave.At least 1,080 Afghan soldiers have been killed this year, and last year, nearly 1,000 were killed in either accidents or operations, according to the Afghan Ministry of Defense.
Another major issue plaguing the Afghan Army and security forces is the number of “green-on-blue” attacks, where Taliban leaders have recruited and embedded sympathetic Afghan soldiers to kill U.S. troops.
The IG report states that senior Afghan commanders have their hands tied when it comes to removing subordinate officers and “senior leaders needed appropriate, fair, and clearly detailed mechanisms to remove ineffective or incapable subordinates” without interference from the central government.
Neighboring Pakistan – with its own set of corruption problems, political instability and whose tribal belt has become a safe-haven for Taliban fighters — is already preparing for the possibility that Afghanistan will fall into civil war.
U.S. intelligence officials have accused Pakistan of aiding the Taliban and using the war in Afghanistan as a chess game against U.S. policy in the region.
Coffey said “there is no doubt that many will feel let down by the capabilities of the Afghan Army post-2014,” adding that “improving the capabilities of the Afghan Army is a process and not an event.”
“We will not wake up one day, either before 2014 or soon after 2014, to discover that the Afghan Army is one of the world’s premier fighting forces,” he said. “This was never the goal.”