As End Looms, US Warns Afghan Troops Taking ‘Unsustainable’ Casualties

By Ben Watson

November 5, 2014

This past year has been shaky for Afghanistan. The massive NATO drawdown is well under way. Former President Hamid Karzai is out and a new president now shares the spotlight in Kabul along with his election rival. But the greatest and most telling development this year could be the unprecedented scale of casualties that Afghan army and police are taking as they transition from “in the lead to full responsibility” for Afghanistan’s security in 2015. It’s the sort of pressure on the force that a top U.S. general in Afghanistan flagged Wednesday as “unsustainable.”

The [Afghan National Security Forces, or ANSF] have sustained about a 6-and-a-half percent increase in casualties this year—4,634 this year versus 4,350 killed in action last year,” Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, chief of ISAF’s Joint Command, said in a briefing from Kabul.

They do need to decrease their casualty rate… Those numbers are not sustainable in the long term,” he said. “The issue they’re having between attrition—they’re averaging around [or] their goal is around a 1.2 percent AWOL rate between the army and police. The army’s gone down some, the police have gone up some. But the bottom line—their first priority right now is to get their recruiting back up… The police are about 89 percent and the army’s about 81 percent filled.”

The ANSF have led their own security operations during a year that Taliban-initiated attacks declined by 25 percent to roughly 18,000, Anderson said. Afghan army and police are initiating their own offensives on insurgents on average of four to five times more frequently than 2013, which Anderson called “very, very significant… We expected [the ANSF casualty number] actually to be much higher based on the role they’ve played and where they’ve been.”

Today there are about 352,000 security forces working for Kabul, with the number split almost evenly between the army and police.

The Sangin response could also be seen as an optimist’s window into how major problems can be tackled in the future—provided the force isn’t degraded through attrition.

Lessons from Helmand and the Election

Despite a shaky start to the summer in western Afghanistan, troops have been able to reclaim territory lost to the Taliban, Anderson said. Afghan security forces took significant losses in Helmand province last June, where fighting between insurgents and Afghan police in Sangin went on so long that many police ran out of ammunition.

Right after the runoff,” Anderson said, “some of the checkpoints that had been established for the election had been abandoned. They did get to make some in-roads in terms of the district center—principally in Sangin. But through a collaborative effort of the ANSF in early July [to] mid-July, that was retaken.”

That counteroffensive involved nearly every security force Kabul could throw at the restive district—including Afghan commandos, the border police, the “civil order police” (a sort of Afghan “SWAT” force), and more locally derived Afghan Uniformed Police. The Sangin response could also be seen as an optimist’s window into how major problems can be tackled in the future—provided the force isn’t degraded through attrition.

To complicate the security forecast further, insurgents this summer were bolder than in previous months, massing in large groups openly as American air support is drawn down along with the rest of ISAF’s mission. Anderson cautioned this could be a bigger problem in the coming weeks and months because, “What’s yet to be defined explicitly will be coalition assets in support of ANSF based on what types of operations they’re doing and again what the strategic consequences may be.”

The future of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan had been up in the air for most of the year as the government concluded the drawn-out elections process. This, Anderson said, may actually have help put Afghan security forces more firmly on their feet.

It may have been all the more better in terms of command and control, combined arms integration,” Anderson said. “All that process cost them more money, it cost them more time. But what it did demonstrate time and time again through all the security—way back from the Loya Jirga back in November of ’13, to the Ghazni Islamic festival, Nawruz, the opening of parliament, election, run off, audit process, the presidential inauguration—through all of those major events throughout the year they maintained steady and capable in the midst of the fighting season nonstop.”

Afghanistan’s own internal intelligence network helped beat back symbolic attacks on Kabul by Haqqani insurgents, too, Anderson said.

The 9,800 number is the number, and that’s the number that we’re moving towards on December 31st. And anything beyond that number is not in my ballpark.
Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, chief of ISAF’s Joint Command

The Haqqani network is focused more on the high-profile attack, like the large vehicle-borne explosives, those types of attacks,” he said. Afghan security forces are focused on the Haqqanis, as are ISAF’s special operations forces, tackling the semi-autonomous Taliban faction that largely operates in the eastern Paktika and Khost provinces bordering Pakistan. In some cases, Anderson said, pre-emptive attacks on weapons caches appeared to disrupt Haqqani ambitions on the capital—not that they are apt to drop that goal any time soon.

Basically there’s about six today—about six threat streams based on that network trying to work their way into Kabul. They’re very Kabul-centric,” he said. “They are fractured like the Taliban is. That’s based pretty much on the Pakistan ops in North Waziristan this entire summer and fall. That has very much disrupted their efforts here and caused them to be less effective in terms of their ability to pull off an attack here in Kabul.”

Protecting highways into Kabul, as well as the main traffic route Highway 1—portions of which run through the hot spot eastern provinces of Wardak and Ghazni— remains a challenge to ending the insurgency in “some of the more contested areas: northern Helmand, northern Zabul, southern Ghazni, Kunar, Konduz,” said Anderson.

No Delays In the Drawdown

But Afghan troops are increasingly securing those highway checkpoints and straight-stretches between outposts as ISAF has been scaling back its interventions and support for Afghanistan’s army and police ahead of the looming drawdown, which has already involved the transfer of about $620 million in equipment to the Afghan forces.

We started with 86 [ISAF bases] at the beginning of the year; we’re down to 26 and we’ve got one more down next week and we’re done,” Anderson said. “We started out with 54,000 service members here when I took over in January from 48 nations; we’re now down to 38,000 soldiers from 44 nations—[27,000] of which are American. We’ll get down to 12,500 here by the end of the year, which will be the 9,800 U.S. commitment.”

Asked if that number was likely to rise in spite of casualties and attrition, Anderson said, “The 9,800 number is the number, and that’s the number that we’re moving towards on December 31st. And anything beyond that number is not in my ballpark.”

(Read More: As Afghanistan War Ends, Congressional Appetite for Oversight Wanes)

The mission’s not done,” Anderson said. “We expect about 26 other nations to provide… a mixture of advisors, force protection soldiers and enabler providers, like close air support and [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR].”

Future pressures on Afghanistan’s security are going to increasingly fall on “cross-coordination between the army, police and [Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security] working their intelligence systems and processes, and the continued development with the Afghan air force.”

Until then, the date Kabul can look forward to taking, as Anderson called it, “full responsibility” for the war in Afghanistan is less than two months away.

By Ben Watson // Ben Watson is news editor for Defense One. He previously worked for NPR's “All Things Considered” and “Here and Now” in Washington, D.C. Watson served for five years in the U.S. Army, where he was an award-winning combat cameraman and media advisor for southern Afghanistan's special operations command during the 2010-11 surge.

November 5, 2014