Throwing Afghan Security Forces Under the Bus

President Obama made the security hand-off to Afghan forces beginning July 2011 the linchpin to his surge-and-exit strategy.   But Obama’s strategy is a quick way to abandon the fight leaving the Afghans unprepared for the mission.

Last week, in his West Point speech outlining a new strategy, Obama promised that his 30,000 man surge of troops “…will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.”  

To bolster his argument Obama resurrected the apparent successful “security transition in Iraq.”  But he failed to mention a glaring difference between the countries — pre-war Iraq had a professional army and police force to build on; Afghanistan’s security institutions disintegrated prior to the U.S. occupation.  

Six years ago, the allied coalition began building the Afghan army and police forces from scratch.  Today, the Afghan National Army (ANA) is doing much better than the Afghan National Police (ANP), but neither force will be ready to assume the mission for perhaps five years, as expressed by Afghan president Hamid Karzai in his recent inaugural address.

Even Democratic Congressman John Tierney, who chairs the oversight and government reform subcommittee on national security, disputes Obama’s Afghan turn-over timetable.  “Nothing in our experience over the last seven to eight years suggests that progress at such a rapid pace is realistic,” Tierney said.

The challenges associated with preparing the ANA and ANP to assume Afghanistan’s security mission will take far more than Obama’s 18 months.  Consider some of those challenges.

It appears Obama intends to build a smaller than required Afghan force to fit his politically-inspired hand-over timeline.  Though he didn’t announce an ANA target size in his speech, two days later, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a congressional panel that Obama is aiming for 170,000 soldiers by July 2011.  But Afghan officials and Obama’s field commander have much higher targets in mind.

Afghan interior minister Hanif Atmar said his country needs 450,000 soldiers and policemen combined, which is 50,000 more than Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Obama’s field commander, recommended.  In his August assessment, McChrystal recommended more than doubling the force to 240,000 soldiers and 160,000 police. Obviously, more personnel will require more preparation time.

There are time-consuming trainer and trainee challenges.   The ongoing shortage of trainers could increase training time or compromise quality.  Obama promised more trainers in his speech but the U.S. military, which does most of the fighting in Afghanistan, doesn’t have extra personnel to accelerate training due to other global commitments.  Additionally, our NATO allies consistently fail to meet their training team commitments by as much as half and their trainers’ quality often falls short.  

Obama’s promise to accelerate training, given the trainer shortfall, will either tax an already overwhelmed system by stretching out the training time or compromise quality by cutting the length of courses.

There are demographic realities that prolong training.  Only 28 percent of Afghans can read and write which poses a particular challenge.  By contrast, 84 percent of Iraqi men are literate.  The few literate Afghans avoid security service to take better paying jobs which leaves only the illiterate for the army.   And teaching illiterate soldiers military skills takes more time than training a literate force.  Then there are time-draining language difficulties for new soldiers forced into diverse units. Afghanistan has two official languages (Dari and Pashto), two Turkic languages and 30 minor languages.

Possibly the most significant challenge to rapidly expanding the army is the lack of competent leaders at all levels.  The ANA already suffers from an inadequate number of competent leaders.  Grow the army too fast and the leader production problem will exacerbate this deficit, especially in a counterinsurgency environment which is “leader-centric.”  

Cultural differences between trainers and trainees can contribute to time delays.  Few westerners could imagine the need to delay training to repair barracks.  But press reports tell of Afghan recruits ripping sinks from barracks walls and using them to wash their feet before praying.  Others built fires on barrack floors for heating and cooking, even in buildings with furnaces and kitchens.  

A U.S. Army sergeant in Afghanistan succinctly captured the time-to-train problem: “Putting a uniform on a soldier does not make a soldier.”  It takes lots of time and more so in Afghanistan.  Perhaps that’s why Gen. David McKiernan, Obama’s first Afghanistan commander, acknowledged shortly before he was fired this spring that the handover of security to the Afghans is “years away.”

Afghanistan’s police are in far worse shape than the ANA.  The International Crisis Group (ISG), a non-governmental organization, found the ANP’s misuse of power is so pervasive that “Afghanistan’s citizens often view the police more as a source of fear than of security.”  

In 2009, Mark Schneider, ISG’s vice president, testified about the “…total collapse of the national police, with a widespread culture of impunity.”  There are reports of theft and unauthorized resale of weapons by policemen such as an Afghan police commander who allegedly sold weapons to the enemy.   It’s not surprising that a 2009 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report states 46,000 weapons given to Afghan forces can’t be found.

Another GAO study found none of the 433 police units were fully capable of stand-alone performance, which might explain why policemen are four times more likely to be killed than Afghan soldiers.   And a fifth of all policemen are absent from duty on any given day and another 17 percent are actually dead or wounded, but remain on the rolls “…so their families will receive a paycheck.”

The ANP warrants a make-over which will slow Obama’s hurried strategy.  
Besides the Herculean issues outlined above the ANP make-over must address growing pains common with the ANA such as size (92,000 to 160,000), literacy and language.  Also, there is little national level supervision, no apparent vetting for human rights violations and a limited training history.

Only one in four Afghan policemen ever attended the eight week training course taught by some 400 European Union Police.  That course is criticized for being far too short and lacking in the paramilitary training necessary for policemen operating in an insurgency.  Haitian policemen, by comparison, attend a 28 week course.  

There’s also an unexplained disconnect between the ANP and the judiciary.  A GAO report found “…few linkages exist between the judiciary and the police, and the police have little ability to enforce judicial judgments.”  That report also found that police training curriculum “…does not include instruction on criminal law and procedure.”

President Obama told his West Point audience that he wants to “…accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces … [by] … July of 2011.”  Then he promised “We will continue to advise and assist Afghanistan’s security forces to ensure that they can succeed over the long haul.”  But is he really setting them up for success?

The ANA and ANP need far more than 18 months to grow competence in order to secure Afghanistan from radicalism which took the U.S. there in 2001.

Likely, Obama wants to quickly exit Afghanistan for domestic political reasons and is willing to throw Afghan security forces under the bus by under preparing them for success.