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Ready to Stand?

What a worrisome new Pentagon report says about the state of the Afghan security forces.

In his December 2009 speech to cadets at West Point, President Obama committed to sending 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan, while laying out the closest thing to a war strategy that we’ve had since 2001. “We must deny al-Qaida a safe haven,” he said, and “we must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future.” The first two points were familiar—they essentially continued the Bush administration’s under-resourced and vaguely defined agenda in the country—but the third point, a serious commitment to training the Afghan army and police, was something relatively new to both the mission and the American people.

After the killing of Osama bin Laden, momentum has increased from nearly all corners of the political spectrum for an accelerated withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. But before the United States can consider a responsible exit, it must first take stock of its efforts to train the Afghan security forces it hopes will stand up in its stead—and by almost every measure, it’s becoming eminently clear that the effort to recruit and train a competent Afghan National Security Force has thus far been scattershot, uncoordinated, and ignored.

Since operations began in 2001, the United States has invested more than $50 billion to help stand up a central government in Kabul and fund reconstruction projects around the country. About $29 billion of that has gone to the Afghan security forces, with an additional $11 billion set aside to be spent this year alone. All that cash has helped stand up an Afghan Army boasting 159,000 soldiers (approaching the United States’ goal of 171,600 by October) and a police force that fields 125,000 officers (on its way to a planned 134,000), giving the Afghan government a projected total of 305,000 security forces by October.

But according to a biannual Afghanistan progress report that was released to little fanfare by the Pentagon last week, the attrition rate among Afghan army and police recruits (a figure which includes both personnel who have been killed and those who desert their post) is dangerously high. The problem is grave enough, the report tells us, that “if the levels of attrition seen throughout the last five months continue, there is a significant risk to projected ANA growth.”

Exactly how bad is it? Each month, since October 2010, has seen at least 4,000 Afghan soldiers melt away—many presumably taking their weapons and equipment with them. To put that in some perspective, if the U.S. Army had a similar attrition problem, it would lose an entire Brigade Combat Team (of which the Army has forty-five) every month. Even General William Caldwell, who runs the NATO-Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A), the outfit that is tasked with finding, training, and fielding these forces, admitted late last year that, given current attrition rates, for the Afghan forces to reach 305,000 personnel “we will need to recruit and train … approximately the same number as the total strength of the Afghan National Army today.” At the time, that meant the NTM-A still had to recruit 141,000 soldiers just to increase the size of the Army by 56,000. The rest could be counted on to melt away at some point.

Another troubling factor that’s further impeding progress is the fact that this massive training undertaking is being carried out at half strength. At the start of 2011, Caldwell’s command had only 900 of the 2,800 trainers it said it needed to do its job, with another 1,000 “pledged” by NATO allies. The Pentagon’s progress report, meanwhile, reveals that there are still 740 empty instructor slots—550 of which are for the army and police—with 667 “confirmed pledges” from NATO. Yet there is no timeframe for when those pledges will actually show up for duty.

Finally, while by all accounts some units of the Afghan security forces have been acting more professionally—and some are capable of standing their own ground without (much) American or NATO support—at this point not a single army or police unit has yet been rated capable of independent action. What this means, in terms of an Afghan solution that is good enough to solve Afghan problems, is still unclear—but nonetheless deeply worrisome.

Is the mission doomed? Hardly. But the challenges are enormous: Even with these newly trained soldiers and cops—or perhaps because of them—the number of enemy-initiated attacks, roadside bombs found or detonated, and civilian and military casualties during the traditional winter lull in fighting this year were all sharply higher than any summer “fighting season” at any point in the war up until 2010. And Oxfam has also reported this week that serious abuses by Afghan forces continue to occur, with corruption and abuse of civilians and children the most common issues. Now that summer, with its promise of more record-breaking violence, is about to begin, the upcoming months will be a critical test for the Afghan security forces. Let’s hope our trainers are up for the task as well.

Paul McLeary is a Senior Editor of Defense Technology International magazine.

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