Forget the Troops, Can the Afghan Government Lead?

Afghan Army soldiers outside of Kabul rest after a training session

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Afghan Army soldiers outside of Kabul rest after a training session

Sure, the Pentagon hypes Afghan forces taking the security lead, but there’s a “gigantic truth that we keep missing.” By Stephanie Gaskell

Shona ba shona, which means “shoulder-to-shoulder” in Dari, has been the catch phrase of coalition troops training alongside Afghan security forces for years. Now that Afghan troops and police are technically in the lead of their own security, a new phrase has emerged: integal, meaning “transition.”

It’s semantics, for sure, much like the Obama administration’s assertion that the Afghan National Security Forces are in charge of all security operations, or how much of the war’s success rides on how well the army and police can perform by the end of 2014, the deadline for most coalition troops to exit.

A better metric, and a more alarming one for some, is the actual readiness and capability of Afghanistan’s government and leadership, not its troops.

Last month’s announcement that the army and police have taken over security for the entire country was hailed as a major milestone in the 12-year war. “This is a historic moment for our country and from tomorrow all of the security operations will be in the hands of the Afghan security forces,” Afghan President Hamid Karzai said during a June 18 ceremony in Kabul marking the final security handover of the “fifth tranche” of transitions from NATO to Afghan control.

That would be a great accomplishment, if it were completely true. There are still many Afghan army units that are capable of planning and executing their own combat missions, but most still rely on the help of coalition forces, particularly for anything requiring air support, as well as basic logistics and maintenance. Meanwhile, Karzai publicly has agreed to retain nine U.S. bases across Afghanistan, while negotiating a bilateral security agreement that will allow the Obama administration to keep troops in the country to train and advise Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism operations.

In a recent briefing with reporters at the Pentagon, Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said while it’s important to have a strong Afghan force, it’s the upcoming presidential election that will pave the way for long-lasting success in Afghanistan.

“Once the elections take place in the spring of 2014, from my perspective, at that point, we have a trajectory that really is in a very positive direction and I’ll have a lot of optimism about the post-2014 environment,” Dunford said. “If what I believe is going to happen this summer happens, and if we’re able to have inclusive, free — free and fair elections, secured by Afghans in 2014, and also I think that’ll be a significant point.”

Afghans are widely concerned about security around next year’s presidential elections and just how heavy of a hand Karzai will play to preserve his legacy.

“It’s not just about the safety of the election from the Taliban. It’s about the safety of the election from the government. People need to be protected from hostile forces from all sides,” said Sarah Chayes, senior associate in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who was a special advisor to Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Many of them experience the Taliban and the government as equally hostile to their interests. This is the gigantic truth that we keep missing.”

So why all the fuss about Afghans being in the lead?

For one, it fosters confidence among the soldiers and police who have stepped up to fight. Maj. Gen. James McConville, commander of Regional Command-East, worries most that the Afghan forces will give up after the majority of coalition troops leave. “As long as they don’t lose confidence, they can win,” his spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Juanita Chang, told Defense One.

But confidence has rarely been lacking within Afghan fighters. Instead, there are complaints that the Afghan Ministries of Defense and Interior aren’t doing enough to support them.

“What they’ve done is put key Northern Alliance leadership throughout the Army,” said Chayes. “The issue isn’t the tactical ability to lead raids on the ground, the issue is: what orders are going to be given and by whom?”

Another worry is that the ANSF becomes more capable only to find out that the Taliban was just biding its time until coalition forces pull back. Moreover, can the 340,000-strong force hold the entire country, particularly the treacherous mountains in the east and the Taliban strongholds in the south, without a strong Air Force?

“I think it’s very possible that not just isolated outposts but much of the south and east come under Taliban domination, either militarily or by way of some sort of de facto deal,” Chayes warned.

Afghan Army Chief of Staff Gen. Sher Mohammed Karimi confided to the Washington Post recently: “I cannot cover every inch of the country. The Afghan army isn’t big enough.”

The ANSF have certainly taken on more of their own security and are paying a heavy price to exact it — Dunford said the Afghan casualty rate usually tops more than 100 soldiers and police a week.

So while the Obama administration mulls how many U.S. troops will stay past 2014 — if any — commanders must assess the performance of Afghan forces on the ground during this fighting season. But more likely it won’t be until after next spring’s presidential election will a clearer picture emerge of whether Afghanistan can stand on its own.

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