What’s the Plan? The Afghan National Security Forces
Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of articles based on insights gleaned from Jason Campbell’s recent NATO-sponsored trip to Afghanistan that featured meetings with senior NATO and Afghan officials, members of Parliament, representatives from a number of international organizations, and prominent members of Afghan civil society. Read the first two articles in the series on the Afghan government and the NATO coalition.
It has been a trying year for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) as they bore the brunt of the drawdown of coalition forces. As of October 2014, the Afghan National Army (ANA) had conducted over four times more independent missions than it had through the same time in the year prior. This resulted in casualty rates one senior coalition official described to our group as “unsustainable.” Still, the year is broadly viewed as a positive one by those in Afghanistan as national elections took place with fewer disruptions than anticipated, and insurgents were unable to hold territory despite attempts to do so. Going forward, as the coalition continues its drawdown, the challenge will be to build on these successes. As a senior NATO official declared over dinner one evening, “Now we are focused on building confidence within the ANSF to convince them that they can do this.”
A shake-up is coming. As I noted in a previous article on the plans of the Afghan government, President Ashraf Ghani is pushing hard to demonstrate positive change quickly, and the security services are not immune. One Ministry of Interior official stated that, currently, deadlines on presidential directives are measured in hours, not days. Among his early priorities is a thorough reassessment of sitting ANSF senior leadership, to include the Ministries of Interior and Defense . A senior Afghan official conceded that chronic management issues continue to plague the ANSF: “We probably have the best soldiers but not the best leaders,” he said. And while Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah are still outlining the traits they want in senior leaders, one will definitely be a willingness to improve coordination among the various security entities. As a senior International Security Assistance Force official noted, “During the Karzai years, the ministries were doing whatever they wanted.” Of the Ministries of Interior and Defense, he said they “were not communicating and resentments grew.” A lack of synchronization between the ANA and the Afghan National Police is a concern often cited by both Afghan and coalition officials. The new government, looking ahead to a 2015 fighting season that will see the ANSF operating truly independently (i.e. without coalition troops providing direct assistance), is appropriately making improvements in this area a priority.
The ANSF’s general officer corps also appears to be facing an overhaul. Ghani has voiced a desire to rotate the assignments of corps commanders who have been in their positions for three-to-five years and to reassign generals who have been based in Kabul for more than three years to the provinces. Another human resources issue in the ANA is the glut of general officers who are long past retirement age, not filling specific billets, and loath to retire largely due to a lack of retirement benefits. There are an estimated 60 to 70 such officers currently on the books and prodding them toward retirement is a challenging but necessary task that will need to be handled delicately. If successful, this will create new opportunities for younger and more competent officers to take charge.
Situational awareness and messaging a huge concern…or at least it should be. One of the realities of withdrawing tens of thousands of coalition forces from the battlefield is that NATO leadership will have to rely increasingly on Afghan sources to maintain situational awareness. In the past few months, there have been increased reports of Taliban groups numbering in the hundreds attacking ANSF checkpoints and villages in various parts of the country. These reports come from Afghan officials, be they civilian or ANSF. Numerous coalition figures we met with, however, stated that in most cases intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions revealed that these reports were either exaggerated or completely false. While such inflated accounts are nothing new in Afghanistan, with coalition forces confined to only a handful of regional bases after January 1, NATO’s ability to verify such reporting will be considerably reduced.
The coalition is not alone in its rising dependency on Afghan reporting. While our group was in country, the BBC, citing local officials, released a story that hundreds of Taliban fighters launched deadly attacks in Ghor and Laghman provinces. While we did not ask specifically about these incidents, over the next four days no mention was made of either of these episodes. Moreover, these incidents appear not to have been independently reported by other media outlets. In sum, a diminished coalition footprint means journalists will have limited access to much of the countryside, resulting in a higher degree of unreliability when it comes to media reporting.
With ANSF units operating away from coalition forces and with significantly fewer resources, a tendency to over-report enemy numbers is understandable. Yet this works against the coalition and Afghan government on many levels. Domestically, it threatens confidence in the ANSF and artificially inflates the capabilities of the Taliban. Beyond Afghanistan, at a time when NATO countries are war-weary and questioning a long-term commitment, the mental image of Taliban hordes overtaking villages is detrimental to international confidence in its Afghan allies. What makes the issue so confounding for the coalition is that it cannot dismiss such reports out of hand since there have been major insurgent offensives in some parts of the country (for instance in Sangin district, however insurgents were ultimately unable to hold ground they tried to seize). Thus, the coalition must take more measured steps to convince those ANSF officials with whom they maintain contact that curbing inflated incident reporting is in everyone’s interest and must be prioritized. This is especially the case at lower echelons where the tendency to engage in this is highest and the ability to verify is most restricted.
Problems persist, but the new government is taking notice. Despite significant positive strides, the ANSF still faces many challenges. A common deficiency is a lack of aptitude in necessary support elements such as intelligence, communications, and logistics. A related and underreported shortcoming is the persistent inability of senior ANSF leaders to understand how to utilize such specialized capabilities properly. Both of these issues were cited as priorities for the coalition during the winter lull in fighting. This is also indicative of a broader and increasingly noticeable divide between the typically Soviet-trained older guard and the more tech-savvy, Western-trained younger officers. With each trip to Afghanistan, I become more and more impressed with the enthusiasm and competence displayed by junior members of the ANSF. It appears for the first time that Afghan leadership is taking notice and looking to make significant changes. Retaining capable young soldiers will require broad reforms that create real opportunities.
Another commonly heard criticism of the ANSF is that they are too reactive and reluctant to conduct more forward-looking planning. “The signature weaknesses of the ANSF are clarity and coordination,” said one senior Afghan official. While this remains a concern of the coalition, senior Afghan leadership has signaled this may soon change, starting with the creation of Afghanistan’s first National Threat Assessment. The goal will be to lay out clear lines of command and clarify how the various elements of the ANSF will be expected to work together in different scenarios. There is also an unabashed self-preservation aspect to this among those concerned about the coming total withdrawal of coalition forces. According to the senior Afghan official, “The hope is that it will…function to convince our international partners that the current two year plan is insufficient.”
Final analysis. The ANSF remains very much a work in progress. In the coming months, the resiliency and cohesiveness of these forces will be put to the test as the coalition transitions to a non-combat mission. Growing pains can be expected. Already, there have been reports of increased civilian casualties as troops “not as talented,” to use the words of a senior official with an international organization, replace the most well-equipped and capable forces in the world – those of NATO. While striving to damage the Taliban and take back territory, it is imperative that the ANSF also focus on confirming the accuracy of battlefield reports to avoid derailing international support.
For at least the next two years, the coalition will continue to provide vital professional and monetary support to the ANSF. This, coupled with a new presidential administration with an ambitious agenda to increase professionalization and accountability, are positive steps. But whether two years of continued international support is sufficient remains to be seen.
Jason H. Campbell is an associate policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
Photo credit: isafmedia