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Afghan Defense Chief Unhappy with Obama Plan

Interviewee: Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak, Minister of Defense, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
Interviewers: Greg Bruno, Staff Writer, CFR.org, and Robert McMahon, Deputy Editor, CFR.org
April 16, 2009

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Last month, U.S. President Barack Obama unveiled a new strategy for winning the war in Afghanistan, shifting focus to economic development and a regional approach to security. Key to that effort will be the training and resourcing of Afghanistan's security forces. But Afghan Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak tells CFR.org in an exclusive interview that Washington's commitment on this front falls short. For one, Wardak says, President Obama's call for standing up 134,000 Afghan National Army soldiers and 82,000 National Police by 2011 does not represent an overall increase in numbers or pacing; those benchmarks had been planned for months. While Obama "left the door open" for future force expansions, Gen. Wardak says he was expecting increases now. "It was a big surprise" when the president made his announcement, the general says. Another area of potential concern surrounds military enablers. Gen. Wardak says he has repeatedly asked U.S. and NATO allies for help securing better equipment, but so far, his requests have largely gone unanswered. "At the moment we are still lighter than light infantry," the minister says. "I was much [better] equipped when we were fighting the Soviets" in the 1980s.

President Obama recently announced a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan. But beyond plans to add roughly four thousand U.S. troops assigned to train the Afghan army and police, the president's strategy is arguably short on specifics. What do you see as the best way to improve the capabilities of the Afghan military, to bring stability, and to win back areas from a resurgent Taliban?

One of the problems that we have been suffering from the beginning is that the combined forces of coalition, ISAF [International Security Assistance Force], and the Afghan Army are not in the proper ratio to the population which needs to be protected. So there was a big lack of forces. And our expectation was ... that there will be a new ceiling for the Afghan National Army and National Police defined in the new strategy [President Obama on March 27 vowed to "accelerate our efforts to build an Afghan Army of 134,000 and a police force of 82,000; many military experts expected the numbers to be far higher]. Now, the policy last week, the figures which were mentioned in the policy, 134,000, is actually 122,000 [12,000 of the army forces are to be trainees and students].

I mean, it was nothing new. The police is already almost 99 percent of its strength. So, what difference will it make except the trainers will come and train them better? I am puzzled. We had the plan to grow. Initially, the plan [to grow] to 134,000 was [to be completed by] 2013. I pressed hard to cut it short. In all my speeches in NATO Defense Ministerials, I cut it short myself by two years, and now they say that they cut it short by two years.

What were you expecting in terms of numbers for the army and police?

Based on the experiences of Bosnia and Iraq, what they are suggesting is twenty security forces--army, police, and the rest of security forces--per thousand of population. Because we always had the question of sustainability, we were not thinking that we would go up to twenty, not even to fifteen. We would have been satisfied by somewhere between thirteen, fourteen, something like that.

Which would come out to what?

Somewhere around 400,000 [soldiers and police combined]. The best scenario was 450,000, and the worst scenario was 400,000 total.

Why do you think in his new strategy the U.S. president didn't make that commitment?

"Most of the Afghan Army is in pickup trucks and that doesn't give them any protection. I mean, a small mine hits them and they are gone."

He left the door open. Initially, I thought that he didn't want to mention it unilaterally so that to get some commitment from NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization], ISAF, and other countries to help, so that the United States should not [assume] the entire burden. But now the way I see it, it is puzzling me because we are getting four thousand trainers. We could have accelerated the process of more boots on the ground and unfortunately, they are telling us that they will make decisions in the future. I have been saying all along from 2003 that to enable the Afghans is the most economical way. It will save a lot of money and it is politically less complex because there has been a lot of times that some European countries they have problems with the deployment of their forces. I have gone myself twice to the Dutch parliament to convince them so that they can stay in Afghanistan. So politically, it will be less complex and the governments--the friendly and allied governments--will not be under pressure by the opposition or public opinion. And it will save lives.

A rough calculation, for example, if seventeen thousand more U.S. troops come, the monthly expenses of the United States will be about $3.2 billion a month. So in a year it will make about $40 billion. And if the rest of the international community--that is also a rough calculation--they spend half of what the United States spends, it would make $60 billion. Raising the Afghan army and police to that level will cost somewhere between $16 and $20 billion, and then if you want to sustain that force it will cost another $3 billion a year. So only the expenses of one year will be equal to having 400,000 troops, equipment, and all the facilities and the rest that is required, plus that money for sustainment for ten more years. So I really hope that they will soon come up with some figures so that we also can accelerate and have more forces on the ground because at the moment we don't have any enablers. We can clear any space which we want but the problem is holding.

What happens if the Afghan Army were to grow to the numbers that you envision as necessary? Who would sustain that force? Whose responsibility would it be?

Afghanistan at the moment cannot sustain it. Based on the agreement which we had in the London Compact, every year as our economy grows we take a bigger share. So in the short term for a while we will need help for sustainment from the international side.

So perhaps some sort of a fund to pay salaries of troops and maintain equipment?

Yes. Sustainment cost is not that much.

We've heard from multiple U.S. military officials that the number of Afghan army soldiers and national police officers President Obama committed to in his March 27 speech was lower than expectations. Any idea why?

I really don't know, to tell you the truth. We were told to go and work, figure out a number. We gave the number and we were told, "Listen to the speech on Friday." I was asked by the [Afghan] parliament a day before for some hearing, and over there I gave the good news to the parliament, I complimented them that as a result of your help and assistance, I think now we might get what we were asking for. Once it comes like that [with far fewer troops than expected], it was a big surprise.

You've spoken in the past about enablers, equipment, and resources for the army and police. Can you talk about your current capabilities, and what these forces need?

"The Taliban pays about $300. Our soldiers, when they come in, their salary is only $100. They have some incentives, but still, the maximum they will make is $150 or $160."

You see at the moment we are still lighter than light infantry. We are suffering too much from IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. We don't have much protected mobility. Most of the Afghan Army is in pickup trucks, and that doesn't give them any protection. I mean, a small mine hits them and they are gone.

I was much [better] equipped when we were fighting the Soviets, much heavier weapons. We had all different types of very sophisticated equipment which were supplied, like Stingers, burst communication, and frequency hoppers [advanced communications systems], all that.

Recruiting and retention--how is recruiting done, and how effective are retention programs? Is there a concern that when soldiers are being stood up that they might be former insurgents, or have ulterior motives?

We had those reports from the beginning ... that the enemy will be trying to infiltrate. So anybody who wants to recruit he has to be watched by some respectable members of that society in which he is living or if there is somebody from the government. That is one way. In the meantime, we are really careful within the army to identify if there is such element. I have issued three or four instructions that each soldier should watch everyone, and if they see anything unusual, they should report it. But still that always remains a possibility.

Is it more of a challenge in the Afghan National Police?

In the police there has been mostly [local recruitment], so there is more chance. Even if they are clean at the beginning, later on they can be influenced. But now everybody is very careful, so we don't have many problems. In most of the provinces where there is a lot of trouble--Kandahar, Helmand, Oruzgan, Zabul--we actually get less recruitment. Some of these places which are economically a little bit better, they don't really want to come to the army. It is the poor that come in.

Do you have anything on the books that requires recruits to serve outside their home district, to avoid possible conflicts of interest like, for example, investigating family or tribal members?

Yes, that is mostly with the police side. [In the United States] you have local police. But the same principle does not work [in Afghanistan]. In the United States people don't know their neighbor, but over there, in Afghanistan, it is a very close society. Everybody knows everybody. So the result is that if you are from the same place, in the same place there is a young man of twenty or twenty-two years old, he will be under the influence of his family, immediate family, then his extended family, and then the big shot tribal guy. And also if there is any political party he will be under that influence. It will make it difficult for him to work. So the result is now changing. They are trying to get more and mix them so we have no problem.

On retention: The Taliban pays about $300. Our soldiers, when they come in, their salary is only $100. They have some incentives, but still, the maximum they will make is $150 or $160.

But we still have no problem of recruiting. Also retention has increased: Last month it was 89 percent. Retention means that people who serve their two or three years, they recontract. And AWOL rate is about 6 percent.

There is another program that has been discussed and President Obama has supported--the Afghan Public Protection Force. Talk a bit about this force and speak specifically to some of the concerns Western experts have expressed over the arming, training, and enabling of tribal militias to protect their own areas.

The Afghan military "was much [better] equipped when we were fighting the Soviets."

We have actually addressed all those issues, so they are not going to be like militias. Initially they were thinking that they will give them normal clothing and they will have just something to identify them. But we decided they will have police uniforms. They will have officers and chain of command, and these officers will come from the Ministry of Interior. And then they will be reporting to the local police in the area.

But the tribal relationships in Afghanistan are so strong. How can you be so confident that this central command structure you describe will be able to usurp the strong local structure?

The key to success over there is that usually they will be recruited from districts. The district will have a council of about forty to fifty people who are respected by the whole society around. They are tribal chiefs; some of them are religious figures. Some of them are rich people that have influence. Or some of them can be people which have served their community well and are respected from different points of view. So the people coming to this force will be vetted first by that council. And the council will be held responsible for the behavior of this force.

So the people--whether it is a tribal leader, village chief--will then answer to the Minister of Interior--that will be the command structure?

Yes, that is one. But once they are created as a unit, then there will be the second command structure, so it will be double.

And there is no concern that that these Minister of Interior units will compete for influence or control with Minister of Defense units? There is no concern that there will be crosscurrents or competing interests?

No. We have created coordination centers in every province, and these coordination centers are headed by the army. There is police also in it, NDS [Afghanistan's intelligence service] is in it, and if there are ISAF forces [stationed nearby], they are also members of it. These forces, if they come under attack, will call the army to come and help them. There was also the worry that if you don't have communication coordination, you might kill them. Because of that, they will be coordinated properly with the army units and the rest of the police and also with the coalition and ISAF forces in the area.

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