August 1, 2011  

On the eve of Afghanization

The war in Afghanistan is at an inflection point. The U.S., its coalition partners and the Afghan government have decided that, by December 2014, the Afghan armed forces will take the lead on security nationwide. The NATO nations have also decided that, while the expeditionary force will leave Afghanistan, the 33-nation NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) will remain as part of an enduring partnership. We are on the eve of Afghanization, a process made possible by the success of the current strategy. It can be an important step toward a better peace in Afghanistan.

While the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has been successful on many fronts, it is also approaching the limits of what a large expeditionary force can accomplish in executing a comprehensive counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy. ISAF’s operational and organizational successes contain the seeds of strategic change. Concerns over the U.S. budget deficit and the national debt will act as fertilizer for these seeds, as will one important fact of life: This war is Kabul’s to win or lose, not Washington’s.

From 2002 to 2008, coalition forces were relatively few in number and unable to manage the various lines of operation: combat operations, the development of host-nation security forces, the provision of essential services to the population, governance, economic development and information operations. Our forces were popular and seen as guests by much of the population. Over time, however, it became clear that the Taliban forces were regenerating faster than the allies could match them. Coalition arms, economic assistance, training and advice were too small, too slow to arrive and too inefficient. The allies had to surge to restore security and create momentum in the development of Afghan security forces.

Today, with 140,000 Western troops and thousands of civilian advisers and contractors in Afghanistan, our forces are capable of managing all of the lines of operation. Their presence, however, has generated war weariness in the West, resentment by some Afghans, and the perception of occupation in Afghanistan. The surge spurred development of Afghan National Security Forces — Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) — but too many night raids and counterguerrilla operations — all devastatingly effective — have had severe downsides. The ill effects are highly magnified by Taliban propaganda. In the field, what David Kilcullen has called “accidental guerrillas” have taken up arms to fight the “invaders,” even if the new fighters have no ideological affinity with the Taliban or al-Qaida. Poverty and unemployment in the countryside have added the “ten-dollar-a-day Taliban” to the ranks of the ideologically committed cadres. Our surge policies have also caused friction between the coalition and the ineffective but politically savvy Afghan leadership. Playing to his constituents, President Hamid Karzai has railed against civilian casualties — less than a fifth of which are caused by coalition forces — and the highly intrusive, unpopular night raids that are crushing the midlevel Taliban leadership.

A recent ISAF report on the results of night raids over a 90-day period tallied 1,600 operations that killed or captured 504 insurgent leaders and more than 3,000 insurgents. Gen. David Petraeus, the ISAF commander, is aware of both the salience and the sensitivity of these raids. He told me in a conversation at ISAF headquarters: “We cannot achieve our mutual objectives without night raids, but we can’t continue to achieve what we have without changing how we do night raids.” Afghan forces must move more into the lead on night raids and combat operations.

Despite their “issues,” the coalition and the Afghan government both still see the resolution of the conflict as a vital interest. There is still widespread agreement among all of the allies and the Afghan leadership on the key objectives that President Obama outlined in his December 2009 West Point speech: “We must deny al-Qaida a safe haven. 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.” In the short term, the death of Osama bin Laden, by itself, changes none of this.

The possibility for putting Afghan forces in the lead is in large measure a credit to the success of the night raids, excellent work by the Afghan-ISAF partnered units in the field, and the inspired work of the military and police advisory effort of the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A), commanded by Lt. Gen. William Caldwell. In late 2009, when this command stood up, it was stalled due to lack of resources. NTM-A’s first anniversary report noted that:

“Some training facilities were close to being shut down, with several at only 25 percent required manning. Trainer-to-trainee ratios were too high. … The training focus was on quantity over quality, and training standards were nonexistent. … [M]ost Afghan National Police (ANP) were recruited and assigned without training. The ANP were not paid a living wage. … In fact, in the fall of 2009 recruiting dropped to near record lows, including negative growth in the ANA and ANP in September 2009. Lack of solid and credible leadership was an issue, with many ANSF senior leaders being well past the age when their Western counterparts would have retired. … Finally, ANSF sustainment was struggling with respect to policy, procedure, training, accountability, and manning.”

Progress within the last 18 months has been remarkable. The NATO Training Mission has improved the quality of the force and drastically increased its size. According to Jack Kem, the command’s civilian deputy, the ANA has grown from 97,000 in November 2009 to 164,000 today, and will reach 171,600 by the end of this summer, three months ahead of schedule. Over the same period, the ANP has grown in manpower from under 95,000 to 126,000 today, and will achieve 134,000 by the fall. The total Afghan security force will soon top 300,000 personnel. Literacy training is a staple for police and army recruits, only 14 percent of whom are literate when they enlist. (I witnessed this training. Civilian instructors do a professional job, and the recruits take it very seriously. If nurtured, this program could have revolutionary effects on an Afghan society with so many illiterate adults.)

On the institutional end, NTM-A is helping the Afghans to transform the decision-making processes and the business practices of the defense and interior ministries. The command has also put billions into building a physical infrastructure for Afghan security forces. It has also stressed Afghan-compatible logistics procedures and strict accountability. In a U.S. inspector general-directed inventory, the Afghan defense and interior ministries accounted by physical inspection of vehicle identification numbers for more than 99 percent of the 50,000 vehicles that they had in their inventory.

How are the Afghan police and army personnel doing in the war against the Taliban? Afghan soldiers and policemen generally get high marks in combat. Sadly, the combined casualty rate of Afghan soldiers and police officers exceeds that of both the U.S. and total coalition forces. Afghan security forces were lauded for their recent success in beating back a major Taliban attack in Kandahar. The leadership of the army and police are eager to take the lead in providing security in 2014. They are also acutely aware of their shortage of enablers — air support, logistics, transportation, counter-improvised explosive device capabilities — that must be redressed or worked around. This summer, Afghanistan will take over the security function in seven geographic areas that contain about 20 percent of the Afghan population.

The Taliban are under great pressure, but they are not down and out. They are less likely today to fight as units, but have great facility in terrorism and the use of IEDs. In one month’s time this spring, a Taliban suicide bomber infiltrated the Ministry of Defense in Kabul, another caused more than 20 casualties to trainees at the Kabul Military Hospital, and a third in a separate action killed a senior Afghan police general and wounded both a provincial governor and a German Army general officer in a once-peaceful northern province. Around the same time, attacks in Kandahar and against the Herat Provincial Reconstruction Team failed to achieve any lasting results on the ground.

The ANSF is already conducting most of its own training. U.S. and coalition advisers assist with program design and assessment. On the police side, the leadership of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Italian carabinieri and the French gendarmerie stand out among the advisers from more than two dozen nations. I witnessed excellent police training in Wardak and in Kabul at a facility for the Afghan National Civil Order Police, the Afghan version of the gendarmerie.

ANA training and adviser personnel are commanded by a Canadian general with many years of experience in special operations in Afghanistan. Among the key resources for the ANA, the huge Kabul Military Training Center has already trained 150,000 soldiers. The sprawling complex does basic training, noncommissioned officer training, officer training and artillery training. At the smaller Gardez Regional Military Training Center, I saw training designed by energized junior officers and conducted by tough NCOs, and “black hat” master trainers. This small center will turn out well-trained soldiers. The raw material for Afghanization already exists.


Serious problems remain in Afghanistan. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, finishing a fifth year in his third senior appointment in Afghanistan, noted that “islands of excellence” in the field often find ministries and a national government bureaucracy that are less than responsive to their needs. Some police and army units that I witnessed are commanded by experienced officers who do not have the energy or mental agility to succeed against an adaptive enemy. The appointment and assignment processes are not yet professional and are still in some areas subject to corruption. Enablers are in short supply among Afghan security forces. The coalition and the Afghan security forces will have to work hard to field the capabilities needed. At the same time, force developments need to be Afghan-compatible and, in the long-run, Afghan-affordable.

In Washington and European capitals, war expenditures are under fire. Deficit spending is one issue, but another is the vast expenses for the war — more than $110 billion in fiscal 2011 — when compared with the returns to date or to the value of a stable Afghanistan. Since the value of a successful end-state is hard to calculate, many experts often compare Afghanistan’s annual GDP to the vast expenditures going into the war. This is a faulty metric, one that makes the war in Afghanistan appear to be a bad investment, perhaps as bad an investment as the vast sums that the U.S. and its United Nations partners expended on the Korean peninsula from 1950 to 1953. Decades later, a prosperous, democratic South Korea, built on the rubble of a terribly destructive war, has validated the United Nations’ initial investment of blood and treasure.

The overall pressure on defense spending will inevitably put downward pressures on spending in Afghanistan. Afghanization, however, will reduce expenditures. Many observers criticize the $10 billion to $12 billion spent by NTM-A over the last year to train, advise, equip and house the Afghan forces and their associated ministries. This $1 billion per month, however, stands in stark contrast to the $9 billion per month that it costs to support the U.S. expeditionary force there. Beyond 2014, recent studies suggest that the steady state costs of supporting the ANSF may be as low as $4 billion per year. By fiscal 2016, overall U.S. expenditures — for reaction forces, security assistance, economic assistance and all U.S. military activities — will likely be less than a fifth of the 2011 total. An orderly build-down of forces and reduction of expenditures is in order and in the works.


Reintegration of Taliban fighters and reconciliation with larger groups — both of which can reduce expenditures — are moving slowly. Again, the death of Osama bin Laden has yet to show any positive effect on these processes. While reintegration has great potential, reconciliation is likely to be slow and fractionated.

The Taliban is a conglomerate of three separate but cooperating parts. Local bands of fighters are also very independent. It is unlikely that a unified Taliban will come to the table as a single entity. Even if it did, it might not be able to deliver or control its “constituents.” Peace in parts may be our best hope. Decades hence, there may well be small groups of Taliban dead-enders in the field, wielding their conservative religious ideology as a cover for the criminal activity that has become such a major part of their modus operandi. Afghan forces will be able to handle them.

To bring this war to a successful conclusion, the Afghan government and its coalition partners will have to deal with a series of uncertainties, ultimately turning them into assets in the search for a better peace. First, Pakistan makes the right noises, but it continues to support or tolerate the Afghan Taliban, while dodging its own homegrown radicals. More pressure on Pakistan to do the right thing is warranted, as is respect for Pakistan’s legitimate security interests.

At the same time, the allies — and in particular, the U.S. — will have to clarify their post-2014 commitment to Afghanistan. It is important to think rigorously on the issue of preparing for 2014, but Afghans need to know that 2014 will not be like the early 1990s, when the U.S. quickly walked away from a then-successful Afghan resistance and its ally, Pakistan. For reassurance, Washington must make completing the strategic partnership agreement with Kabul a first priority. Afghans will also push for a status-of-forces agreement which, as in Iraq, will make sense as they move more and more into the lead.

In a similar vein, U.S. diplomats need to continue to work hard on our NATO allies and others to share the financial burden. The Afghan government, with only $2 billion per year of revenue, must increase its revenues. The booming economy in the cities clearly has room for luxury taxes, especially on the growing number of its well-to-do citizens. The licensing fees for the extraction of strategic minerals will also help in the long run.


Transition in the security sector will continue to require careful management. There is a 3½-year period before the Afghan National Security Forces will take over security nationwide. Afghanistan and its coalition partners must carefully balance time, the withdrawal of coalition combat forces, the amount of territory under the management of Afghan national security forces and the expenditures of resources. If the coalition mismanages the transition, it will jeopardize all of the gains of the past two years.

The situation today argues for a measured start to Afghanization, one that will preserve the pressure on the enemy and allow for the government of Afghanistan to develop its forces. Constant, continuous and concentrated pressure on the enemy will help to foster reconciliation and convince the enemy that reintegration or reconciliation is his best option. The last thing the coalition should ever want do is to hold back drone strikes or night raids to earn the enemy’s good will.

There is another, more subtle reason for the coalition to throttle back slowly on its troop strength and its expenditures. The vast sums spent in Afghanistan by the coalition’s comprehensive COIN campaign are an integral part of a significant Afghan economic boom. Rapidly drawing down the tens of billions spent in Afghanistan could have severe recessionary effects on the developing economy of Afghanistan. A rapid, unexpected economic downturn could jeopardize security gains, add to unemployment and indirectly aid the enemy.

As time progresses, the coalition will be faced with complex decisions about what types of forces to withdraw from which locations. Over time, special operations forces — U.S., coalition and Afghan — are likely to become even more valuable than they are at the present for both strike operations and training. Among their current tasks, there is none more valuable than training the Afghan Local Police (ALP) recruits, who are learning to defend their home villages. In addition to the regular Afghan National Police, the programmed 30,000 ALP “guardians” should go a long way toward blocking local Taliban inroads.

Throughout the process of transition, the U.S. must fence the resources devoted to the advisory and training units that are engaged in building the capacity of Afghan forces. It would be highly dysfunctional if the forces that are making the ANSF more capable have to compete with the shrinking combat forces for money. As we close in on December 2014, the worst of all worlds would be to take resources from those developing Afghan capacity to keep essential combat units in the fight. These drastic choices can be avoided if the Congress appropriates for the Defense and State departments the right amount of funds to keep the strategy in our exit strategy.

In the end, the next phase of this war effort needs not an Afghan “face,” but an Afghan essence. The Afghan government, the U.S. and the North Atlantic Council have fashioned a skeletal plan for Afghanization, with 2014 being the target date for the withdrawal of coalition combat forces. NATO advisers, trainers and support personnel will remain behind to aid our Afghan partners after the withdrawal of combat elements. Those advisers will make the down payment on a new U.S-Afghan strategic partnership that should be as productive in 2040 as it is in 2014. AFJ

JOSEPH J. COLLINS teaches at the National War College. A retired Army colonel, his latest book, “Understanding War in Afghanistan,” will be published this summer by the National Defense University Press. This article is largely based on his recent trip to Afghanistan, where he toured police and military training establishments in Kabul, Wardak and Paktiya provinces.