WASHINGTON—Next month, President Obama will begin withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan, which currently number about 100,000. The Obama administration is deliberating how fast and how many troops to pull out. In making these assessments, the Department of Defense will have to consider the progress and readiness of the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF), consisting of the army, police, and air force, to assume responsibility for its country’s security.
On June 7, Obama said, “It’s now time for the U.S. to recognize that a big chunk of our mission is accomplished and it’s time for the Afghans to take more responsibility.”
By part of the mission accomplished, likely Obama was referring to the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and coalition forces being able to reverse the Taliban momentum.
The Afghan government is slated to take full responsibility for the defense of the country by December 2014, as agreed at the NATO conference in Lisbon last November. When the American and coalition forces pull out, domestic security forces will have to be capable of repelling any Taliban resurgence and preventing Afghanistan from becoming a refuge for al-Qaeda terrorists again.
Speaking at the Brookings Institution on June 6, Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, commander of the NATO training mission in Afghanistan, said he thinks the Afghan army and police have made “incredible progress” since he arrived in November 2009.
“There’s a much greater sense of nationalism being exhibited, especially through the army force than there was 20 months ago, and they are beginning to take the lead for security in very small select areas and in the lead for training in very small select areas,” he says.
“I can sense an incredible difference from the fall of 2009 when we barely had 800 recruits coming into the army to today where we have over 8,000 to 10,000 every month signing up wanting to serve their country.”
His assessment stands in stark contrast to many military and civilian observers who point to deep weaknesses in the Afghan security forces including high rates of desertions, poor or no training, appalling literacy rates, conflicting loyalties, police corruption, and an unwillingness to fight insurgents.
To these critics, Caldwell poses a question: “When were they last there?” If it was even 10 months ago, Caldwell says he would concur with what they are saying, but not now. “A transformation literally occurred in the ANSF.”
In 2009, the national police were poorly paid, poorly led, poorly trained, and poorly equipped. They earned half the wages of an army private and 50 to 60 percent had never received formal training. They were also dying at twice the rate of the army, Caldwell said.
In 2009, there was no comprehensive plan at the central government level to build a professional force. Without that, Caldwell said, it should not be a surprise there are problems. Same goes for the army.
Now, pay has increased to the point where Afghan soldiers are paid a wage that is “competitive” with Taliban pay, about $250 a month in combat zones, wrote former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan (2005–2007) Ronald Neumann, and Michael O’Hanlon from Brookings, in USA Today, in April.
Desertions, Illiteracy, Corruption
ANSF has grown by almost 100,000 soldiers and police since he came in November 2009. Currently, at a total force of 296,000, ANSF is on its way to the goal of 305,000 set at the Lisbon conference. None of this would have been possible without massive U.S. and allied aid, and an extensive training program at 70 training sites in 21 of the 34 Afghan provinces.
One challenge has been the high attrition rates due to desertion and combat losses. The problem is most acute in the army where soldiers engaged in active combat have to be replaced.
Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates was quoted in the New York Times in Dec. 7, 2009, saying “Attrition is higher in the areas where combat is heavier. The reason is that there aren’t enough of them. And they essentially fight until they die, or go AWOL.”For the police, the annualized attrition rate has come down to about 18 percent, which is normal for the region. For the army, it has dropped to 2.3 percent per month, roughly 30 percent annualized. That means nearly one-third desert on top of those that leave at the end of their tours.
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