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.