President Obama's Afghanistan withdrawal timetable is running up against a hard reality: Afghan forces are nowhere near ready to take responsibility for their country's security.
Creating Afghan forces that can help win the war and take over responsibility from U.S. and international forces is only one element of President Barack Obama's new strategy in Afghanistan, but it is a critical one. So far, the results are mixed and raise serious questions about both the impact of trying to rush progress to meet political deadlines, and the failure of America's allies to provide enough trainers to create an effective and enduring force. A detailed analysis of Afghan force development, based on interviews, reports by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and in-country visits, indicates that significant problems remain in every aspect of the effort.
There has been significant progress in the development of the Afghan National Army (ANA), which will be ready to begin transition in mid-2011. Major challenges remain, however, in developing its combat elements and transforming it into a fully balanced force with the Ministry of Defense, higher command, training, specialized branches, and logistics and sustainability needed to transition from ISAF support to taking over full responsibility for military operations.
This does not mean that a critical pillar of the new strategy will fail, but this remains possible. It will also become probable if a rush to create larger force numbers is given priority over force quality and if the army's development is not given the time and resources needed to create a force that can survive combat and current rates of attrition.
The NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan (NTM-A) and the U.S. Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A) -- which are now integrated for all effective purposes -- remain seriously understaffed, and large numbers of the "trainers" now in place are U.S. troops with no specialized background or experience assigned to fill slots.
As recent reports from the training mission indicate, this situation will get worse before it gets better for both the ANA and Afghan National Police. Both forces face a massive shortage of specialized trainers. These trainers are vital to creating a force with the new skill levels needed to allow the army and police to operate on their own. Only nine skilled trainers (1.1 percent of the NATO/ISAF requirement) are now in place to meet a near-term requirement for 819, and 442 (54 percent) of the total have not even been pledged. It seems very doubtful that the army can become a force that is fully capable of independent operations and begin serving as the base for transition to Afghan-led operations by mid-2011. A time frame of 2012 to 2015 seems far more realistic.
Moreover, as the Afghan National army grows and matures, data on numbers trained become less and less important relative to reporting and mapping of where Afghan combat formations like the battalion-sized kandaks and "enablers" are actually present, effective, and not corrupt or tied to local power brokers. As critical as training is, the rapid cycle of training -- and continuing problems with attrition -- ensure that it is now how units mature in the field, how well they are partnered, and how well they retain their strength and combat effectiveness that count far more than the numbers trained or virtually meaningless data like the total number of ANA troops, regardless of quality or attrition rates -- a figure that threatens to win the latest "meaningless politicized metrics" award in Afghanistan. The new system for measuring the effectiveness of the Afghan national security forces, if honestly applied, seems to be a step in the right direction, but also holds the potential to become just another piece of meaningless propaganda.
The situation with the Afghan National Police is far more uncertain. It simply is not clear that current plans and resources for the development of the police are adequate. The most capable paramilitary elements (the Afghan National Civil Order Police, or ANCOP) are still part of a small force that suffers from serious levels of attrition, and it is not clear that an effective plan yet exists to create an enduring force of the size that is needed to cover the country.
More seriously, the overall mission effectiveness of the majority of the force (specifically the regular Afghan National Police (ANP) and Afghan Border Police (ABP) is extremely uncertain. The ANP and ABP are being structured in ways that make them unlikely to overcome the critical problems with warlords and corruption that often make them more of a threat than the Taliban and the tools of power brokers or whoever has political influence and money. Ther are no linked credible efforts to support the police with either the other elements of an effective justice system or the quality of civil governance necessary to win popular support for the police. To put it bluntly, the overall effort to develop Afghanistan's national police force seems to be a triumph of hope over experience.
These problems are disguised by an almost absurd ISAF reporting system that does not show basic information such as maps of the areas where the police are estimated to be present, functional, and not corrupt or tied to a power broker. In any case, reporting on police presence alone is meaningless as a measure of the ability to implement the new strategy unless it is tied to assessment of whether courts, the rest of the justice system, and governance are in place to make civil policing possible and tied to assessments of who controls the prompt justice system that most Afghan see -- and need -- from day to day.
Despite Obama's July 2011 "time frame" for beginning to shift responsibility to the Afghans, there is a significant probability that Afghanistan's national security forces will not be ready for any major transfer until well after 2011. Only an effective police force and a swift, trustworthy justice system will give President Hamid Karzai's government the ability to hold ground and build the support of the Afghan people. Unfortunately, Afghanistan is still far from producing either.
The good news is that the financial resources and the facilities necessary to create an effective Afghan army are now largely in place. The bad news is that critical problems remain in providing the training mission with all of the trainers it needs, both in terms of the number of trainers and their experience and quality. These problems might grow worse over the coming six months: ISAF countries often do not deliver on their pledges and "firm commitments," and specialized trainers may well not be available to give Afghan forces the new skill sets and capabilities they now lack. Equally serious problems exist in the quality of partnering and mentoring in the field, in developing effective systems to give Afghan units time to train and go on leave once they are committed, and in dealing with the problems of corruption and powerbrokers once units are in the field.
These problems can be overcome, but they require resources, patience, and focus -- qualities that have been in short supply during the nine long years of the Afghan war.
The most serious danger is that artificial political deadlines will cripple a development program that could otherwise succeed. The effort to create effective Afghan forces, particularly forces that can largely replace the U.S. and allied forces, must overcome nearly a decade of critical failures in force development and training, not to mention failures in the broader course of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan.
The United States and its allies will lose the war if they try to expand Afghan forces too quickly, create forces with inadequate force quality, and decouple Afghan force development from efforts to deal with the broad weakness in Afghan governance and the Afghan justice system. U.S. politicians, policymakers, and military leaders must accept this reality --and persuade the Afghan government and America's allies to act accordingly -- or the mission in Afghanistan will fail.
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