Afghan forces take the lead but still need U.S. help
President Barack Obama promised in his 2008 campaign that he would train and equip Afghan forces in order to put "more of an Afghan face on security" in the wartorn country.
The security situation in Afghanistan remains dire. The Taliban is the strongest it's been since before the United States invaded in 2001, and the country saw more than 5,000 civilian casualties in the first half of 2016, the most since 2009. About 10,000 U.S. troops remain. However, Afghans are the primary security force in the country.
"Instead of being in the lead against the Taliban, Americans are now supporting 320,000 Afghan security forces who are defending their communities and supporting our counterterrorism efforts," Obama said Dec. 6, 2016, in his final address on counterterrorism as president. "Now, I don't want to paint too rosy a picture. The situation in Afghanistan is still tough."
Obama surged U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 100,000 in 2011 before drawing them down to current levels. As the U.S. presence has shrunk, the size of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces has grown dramatically — from 140,000 when Obama took office in 2009 to about 320,000 in 2016.
Since the 2001 invasion, the United States has spent about $68 billion training Afghan forces.
The United States and NATO officially handed over the security reins to domestic forces in December 2014, when Obama announced an end to the United States' combat mission in Afghanistan.
Most of the U.S. soldiers remaining in Afghanistan have a mission to "train, advise and assist" Afghan forces, while about one-fifth of them are engaged in counterterrorism combat, according to a November 2016 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
Despite their growth in numbers, the Afghan forces still face difficulties with retention and are lacking in many support functions, such as intelligence, reconnaissance and specialty teams like medical evacuation, wrote Brookings Institution senior fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown, in a June 2016 report. Political instability and the Taliban's momentum threaten the Afghan military's sustainability, she wrote, though commending the forces for not yet quitting or splintering.
As the Taliban have picked up ground in the past year, Afghan forces still lean on U.S. troop support for assistance in some extreme combat situations. For example, the United States provided airstrikes to help the Afghans push the Taliban out of the city of Kunduz in 2015 and again in 2016.
"It remains vital to maintain and expand U.S. air support for the Afghan forces, including direct application of U.S. kinetic firepower beyond in extremis support, to prevent similar Taliban offensives," Felbab-Brown wrote.
But in other ways, Afghan forces are gaining more independence.
In about 80 percent of their missions, Afghan special forces now operate without American or NATO support. And in the ones where U.S. special forces do participate, they typically only go so far as the "last covered and concealed position prior to the objective," General John Nicholson, commander of U.S. Forces - Afghanistan, told the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
Afghanistan is still unstable, and the war there isn't over. Afghan forces are struggling to keep the Taliban at bay, and they lean on the United States for support. However, Obama and NATO have succeeded in pushing Afghan troops to the frontlines through training and funding — doubling the size of the Afghan National Special Defense Forces over the past eight years, while pulling back U.S. troop presence.
We rate this a Promise Kept.
White House, "President Obama on His Approach to Counterterrorism over the Last Eight Years," Dec. 6, 2016
Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, quarterly report, Oct. 30, 2016
Congressional Research Service, "Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy," Nov. 8, 2016
Brookings Institution, "Blood and Faith in Afghanistan," June 2016
Senate Foreign Relations Committee, testimony of Richard Olson, State Department Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Sept. 15, 2016
New York Times, "Afghan Security Crisis Sets Stage for Terrorists' Resurgence," Dec. 2, 2016
New York Times, "2 U.S. Soldiers and 30 Afghans Killed in Kunduz Battle," Nov. 3, 2016
New York Times, "U.S. Role in Afghanistan Turns to Combat Again, With a Tragic Error," May 8, 2016
Significant gains in Afghanistan training, but many weaknesses remain
President Barack Obama promised that he would increase training for Afghanistan's military and police so that Afghans would take an increased role in maintaining security. The United States spent about $43 billion in the past ten years to recruit, arm and train military and local police forces. Another $11 billion was appropriated for 2012 alone.
That money has put some important pieces in place.
"In January 2009, there were roughly 140,000 total ANSF -- Afghan National Security Forces,” said Carl Moog, a Defense Department spokesman. "Now, we are nearing 352,000 total ANSF. Today, 75 percent of the population in Afghanistan resides in areas that are under transition to Afghan security lead.”
Several independent observers affirm that progress. Max Boot, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told House lawmakers that the ANSF "has indeed made impressive strides over the last several years.” At another congressional hearing, Vanda Felbab-Brown with the Brookings Institution said, "The standing up of the ANSF has been one of the brightest spots of the transition process.”
Increasingly, Afghan forces are able to plan and carry out their own missions. When the Taliban attacks, they have proved that they can respond with minimal American support.
But despite these gains, fundamental weaknesses remain.
"We should not be fooled by the rhetoric about Afghan competence and control coming from the administration,” Boot said. "This is largely happy talk to appease both the government of Afghanistan and American voters who want to see the U.S. role in Afghanistan decrease.”
In the complex world of military operations, Boot said the Afghan army still relies on Americans for many things that matter. The list includes planning, logistics, gathering intelligence, medical evacuations, air support and more. The Government Accountability Office reported that just 7 percent of army units and 9 percent of police had achieved the highest level of readiness, and even those numbers were questionable because the Defense Department had lowered the bar and redefined readiness from "independent” to "independent with advisors.”
The isolated attacks by individual members of the Afghan forces on their American partners have exposed a very fragile situation. So far, at least 53 international troops have been killed by people they thought were their allies. Taliban infiltration is blamed in some cases; in others, personal grievances and battle fatigue seemed to play a role.
The quest to double the number of security forces as quickly as possible might be part of the problem. Anthony Cordesman with the Center for Strategic and International Studies told members of the House Armed Services Committee that numerical goals mean little when fundamental codes of conduct are in doubt.
From top to bottom, the Afghan forces "present major problems in terms of unity, leadership, corruption, loyalty, and abuses that alienate the population,” Cordesman said.
"The Afghan National Police remains notorious for perpetrating many crimes,” Felbab-Brown said. And the police have largely been trained not in everyday policing, but in counter-terrorism. "Crime -- murders, robberies, and extortion -- are the bane of many Afghans' daily existence. The inability of the Afghan government to respond to such crimes allows the Taliban to impose its own brutal forms of order and justice.”
Obama said he would increase training for the Afghan military and police so that they could play a larger role in maintaining security. The administration achieved its numerical goals, and the Afghan forces are much more capable than before.
However, independent analysts express little confidence that Afghans will be able to fend for themselves by the time American and NATO combat forces leave in 2014. Plus, there is great concern that the Afghan military and police will themselves prey on the public and undermine what little stability exists in the country today.
We rate the promise Compromise.
Interview with Carl Moog, spokesman, Department of Defense, November 6, 2012
Council on Foreign Relations, Testimony before House Armed Services Committee, Afghan National Security Forces: Resources, Strategy, and Timetable for Security Lead Transition, June 29, 2012
Brookings Institution, Testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Afghan National Security Forces: Afghan Corruption and the Development of an Effective Fighting Force, August 2, 2012
Center for Strategic and International Studies, Testimony before House Armed Services Sub-committee on Oversight and Investigations, Afghan National Security Forces and Security Lead Transition: The Assessment Process, Metrics, and Efforts to Build Capacity, July 24, 2012
Special Inspector General of Afghanistan Reconstruction, Afghan National Security Forces facilities: Concerns with funding, oversight and sustainability for operations and maintenance, October 2012
Government Accountability Office, Long-standing challenges may affect progress and sustainment of Afghan National Security Forces, July 24, 2012
Washington Post, Afghan security force's rapid expansion comes at a cost as readiness lags, October 20, 2012
CBS News, Apparent Afghan insider attack kills NATO troops, October 30, 2012
Trainers in Afghanistan now
President Barack Obama promised that he would increase training for Afghanistan's military and police so that Afghans would take an increased role in maintaining security.
Earlier this year, Obama authorized more U.S. troops for Afghanistan, and as part of that effort he also authorized additional military trainers.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before the Senate Committee on Armed Services on Sept. 15, 2009, about the status of military training in Afghanistan.
Mullen said Obama authorized approximately 4,000 additional trainers, who were expected to be in place in Afghanistan by the end of September, bringing the total authorized training force to about 6,500. Mullen said he thought it would take two to three years to train the forces appropriately, though the army was farther along than the police.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the Democratic chairman, urged increasing the targets for the numbers of Afghan military and police.
"We need to expand the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police well beyond the current target of 134,000 soldiers and 96,000 police personnel by 2010," Levin said. "Most of the members of this committee urged four months ago in a letter the establishment of a goal of 250,000 Afghan troops and 160,000 Afghan police by 2013. Hopefully that goal will be adopted and the target set for the end of 2012."
Mullen said that higher goal would take between 2,000 and 4,000 additional trainers.
We'll see how these goals develop over the next few years. For now, we rate this promise In the Works.