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Afghanistan's National Security Forces

Author: Greg Bruno
Updated: August 19, 2010
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

Building Afghanistan's domestic security forces to the point that they can effectively take over the country's security is critical to the eventual departure of U.S. troops--a fact that U.S. President Barack Obama stressed in 2009 in his strategy for the beleaguered Afghan military campaign. But despite the promises and ongoing commitments, analysts say the process will likely take more time than expected. In July 2010, NATO nations agreed to support Afghan President Hamid Karzai's goal of Afghanistan assuming sole responsibility for its security by 2014, but even that goal may be lofty. Top military leaders in Afghanistan, such as former commanding Army General David McKiernan, say the handover of security to indigenous forces is "years away." And the new commander of international forces in the country, General David H. Petraeus, has quietly scaled back plans (Guardian) to hand over provincial security operations, a sign that confidence in Afghan units--while increasing--still lags far behind expectations.

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In March 2009, Obama announced the deployment of about four thousand additional U.S. troops to train Afghan soldiers, which, the president said, will "fully resource our effort to train and support the Afghan army and police" for the first time. Subsequent deployments, including a surge of thirty thousand additional forces announced in December 2009, have included pledges of extra trainers to assist in Afghan force development.

Senior U.S. military officials, as well as NATO and non-NATO partners, have embraced the concept that improving the capability of Afghan forces is the quickest way to draw down, and the overall training mission has become more streamlined. In November 2009, NATO assumed full control of training efforts, rolling the U.S.-led mission into a single NATO-run headquarters to improve unity of effort. "Our mission is about teaming with Afghans to build a bright, dynamic future for this sovereign nation," Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell, commander of NATO Training Mission for Afghanistan, or NTM-A, said at the time.

Security Force Components and Capabilities

Afghanistan's National Security Forces consist of three principle components: the Afghan National Army, the Afghan Air Force, and the Afghan National Police. Within these units, specialized personnel round out the country's security capabilities, including communications and logistical staff, border police, public protection forces, local police, and narcotics officers. But the effectiveness, professionalism, and state of readiness of this security apparatus is uneven. Within police units specifically, drug abuse, desertion, and violence remain persistent challenges. And the army faces issues related to ethnic factionalism and poor civilian oversight.

The growth of the security forces is presenting its own set of difficulties. In March 2009, with violence in Afghanistan at an all-time high, President Obama vowed to "accelerate our efforts to build an Afghan Army of 134,000 and a police force of 82,000, so that we can meet these goals by 2011." Those numbers have since been expanded (NYT), and by October 2011, the Afghan army is scheduled to employ 171,600 soldiers, while the police will count 134,000 in its ranks.

Discussions are underway to grow Afghan forces even more in coming years (PDF), says analyst Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But high illiteracy rates, years of subpar pay, and a shortage of international advisers complicate the expansion, as does the exponential cost of maintaining a massive Afghan security force. The U.S. government has spent over $25 billion (PDF) to train and equip Afghan army and police forces since 2001, with an additional $14 billion requested through 2011. The Afghan government contributes only $455 million for the period covering March 2010 to March 2011, according to the Pentagon (PDF).

Here is breakdown of each security component, and its current state of effectiveness:

Afghan National Army: This is widely seen as the most capable branch of the country's security forces. It recruits soldiers nationally and pays up to $240 a month, up from roughly $100 in past years, which is, notably, about the same that Taliban often pays insurgents (NYT). The size of the Afghan army is roughly 113,000, up from nearly 83,000 in March 2009.

Structurally, the army is divided into six ground-maneuver corps of two to four brigades. Each brigade is comprised of infantry kandaks (Afghan battalions), combat support kandaks, and combat service support kandaks. Since August 2008, the army has assumed lead responsibility for security in Kabul and is extending its reach into some provinces. Still, as of March 2010--the Pentagon's latest reporting period--only about a third of all Afghan combat units were able to plan and conduct operations without coalition support.

The size of the Afghan army has been a point of contention for U.S., Afghan, and NATO allies. President Obama called for an expansion of the Afghan army to 134,000--a figure that was to include twelve thousand trainees--as early as December 2011. But these benchmarks, set by Obama in March 2009, were originally approved by the U.S. military in late 2008, leaving some Afghan officials to question the U.S. president's commitment. Officials closest to the U.S.-led training effort had expected a greatly expanded force (NYT)--in the combined four hundred thousand ballpark--much sooner. Major General Richard P. Formica, the former head of the U.S. unit responsible for training Afghan forces, acknowledged in a press call to reporters that his unit had considered "nearly doubling" the size of the Afghan army, a plan some U.S. lawmakers, including Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT), have long advocated. Jack Kem, deputy to the NTM-A commander, told CFR.org in August 2010 that while some in Congress have advocated for a larger Afghan army, there are currently no plans to expand beyond the 171,600 target.

Timeline: U.S. War in Afghanistan

Oversight and sustainability issues continue to plague the forces' near-term development. A May 2010 report (PDF) by the International Crisis Group found many lingering structural concerns, including weak civilian oversight that "could risk the army's disintegration after the withdrawal of international forces." A February 2009 analysis (PDF) by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that roughly 17 percent of the small arms, mortars, and grenade launchers supplied to the Afghan security services since 2002 were unaccounted for. The equipment the Afghan army does possess remains a limiting factor, military officials say. While coalition trainers in 2010 were in the process of augmenting the Afghan forces with up-armored HUMVEES, equipment has been slow to arrive. As of March 2010, just over half of the promised HUMVEES had been delivered, according to the Pentagon. "I was much [better] equipped when we were fighting the Soviets," the Afghan general said last year.

The army's ability to operate independently has been delayed by these limitations, U.S. military officials acknowledge. According to the Pentagon, twenty-two Afghan units were able to operate independently in May 2009, but high attrition rates and low retention, coupled with increased combat in operations, slowed training considerably; the number of independently operating units remained at twenty-two in March 2010.

This pace is expected to quicken as U.S. and international trainers surge into the country. But even a rapid expansion of the Afghan army will not necessarily bring U.S. involvement to an end. As CFR defense expert Stephen Biddle cautions, building an Afghan army capable of beating back the Taliban will cost billions of dollars a year in support, money and time that could prove politically "much more problematic" for American strategists.

Afghan Air Force: Formerly the Afghan National Army Air Corps, the Afghan Air Force remains in its infancy. By March 2010, the force had grown to 3,100 personnel and forty-six aircraft, including twenty-five MI-17 helicopters and eight fixed-wing propeller-driven cargo planes. Pentagon planners say the Afghan Air Force will eventually provide Afghan forces with helicopter air support and reconnaissance capabilities. Development of light air attack and close air support aircraft capabilities is also being considered, but implementation is years off. A 2009 summary of international activities (PDF) in Afghanistan by NATO reported that the air corps aims to employ seven thousand personnel and 126 aircraft-by 2016.

Afghan National Police: Afghanistan's national police looks solid on paper, with the Afghan Uniformed Police responsible for general enforcement and public safety; the Border Police patrolling the country's borders and conducting counter-smuggling operations; the Civil Order Police responsible for disturbances in urban areas; and a number of more specialized police units conducting operations like counterterrorism missions, criminal investigations, and counternarcotics patrols. But the Pentagon has acknowledged (PDF) development of Afghanistan's police force "has been hindered by a lack of reform, corruption, insufficient U.S. military trainers and advisors, and a lack of unity of effort within the international community."

As of March 2010, there were 102,138 police officers (PDF). Current plans have the force expanding to 134,000 by October 2011, up from 76,000 in 2008.

Military strategists estimate the proper ratio of police to people in peacetime is around 1 per 400 citizens, while stability operations call for much high ratios (PDF). Afghanistan, with an estimated population of 29 million, will have a ratio of 1 to 216 police once the force is fully staffed--a significant improvement from past ratios.

If size is one issue, lack of professionalism is another. An International Crisis Group report in December 2008 found little had changed from a 2007 report that showed the national police force's misuse of power is so pervasive that "Afghanistan's citizen's often view the police more as a source of fear than security." Attrition is a problem, as is a lack of effective training and equipment. Drug abuse remains rampant (in March 2010 the Pentagon reported that 14 percent of active officers have tested positive for hash, opium, or methamphetamines). And as field reports leaked in July 2010 by WikiLeaks.org make clear, cases of police officers shooting each other and other Afghan forces are not unheard of. Even more troubling are reports that the Taliban is targeting police officers (PDF); the death rate for police is now significantly higher than soldiers in the Afghan army.

There are some signs of progress. The number of units considered capable of independently planning and conducting operations is rising, albeit more slowly than the Afghan army, Pentagon data shows. Training initiatives led by the U.S. military have brought personnel to Kabul for advanced mentoring with international law enforcement experts; future training efforts will focus on countering improvised explosive devices (IEDs), along with communications upgrades, intelligence advances, and enhanced border surveillance. Afghan Defense Minister General Abdul Rahim Wardak says Afghan officials have also implemented changes to improve police professionalism, such as restricting officers from serving in their home districts to reduce the risk of favoritism to immediate family, extended family, or "the big-shot tribal guy."

The Afghan Public Protection Force: Another element of Afghanistan's security forces is the tribal protection force, an experimental militia program in Wardak province modeled after a successful local security force program in Iraq. In 2009, President Obama vowed to "support" this local initiative, which some observers liken to a neighborhood watch (LongWarJournal). General Wardak said these units are recruited and vetted by regional leaders, who assume responsibility for their performance and discipline. But some experts of Afghanistan's tribal structure, like Thomas Johnson of the Naval Postgraduate School, warn that arming local tribes could awaken deep-rooted tribal blood feuds and do more harm than good.

Moreover, the program's future is in question. In March 2010, the Pentagon announced it had no plans to continue support for the undertaking due to its high cost and resource needs. But the Afghan Ministry of Interior reported in its March 2010 National Police Strategy (PDF) that the Afghan Public Protection Force would continue to operate throughout the country, protecting key infrastructure, facilities, and personnel, with an ultimate aim to "gradually replace private security companies." This Backgrounder examines the program in detail.

New Approaches, Lingering Questions

President Obama has pinned high hopes on Afghanistan's security forces, and is committing additional U.S. troops to improving their lot. General Petraeus, in his first directive (PDF) issued to international forces after assuming command in July 2010, called on troops to partner with Afghan National Security Forces as if they were family. "Live, eat, train, plan, and operate together," Petraeus wrote. "Depend on one another . . . Respect them and listen to them. Be a good role model."

Aware that quality leaders are an integral part of an effective force, NATO has sought to expand training opportunities for army and police recruits. Coalition forces have broken ground on a dedicated official development school, the Afghan Defense University. The university will serve as many as seven thousand students and faculty once it opens. NATO trainers have also begun to require English proficiency for incoming soldiers and police officers.

The changes--real or pledged--come at a crucial time. The U.S. military provides the bulk of the training to Afghanistan's security forces, but available advisers remain in short supply (as of August 2010, the current shortfall as roughly seven hundred trainers, Kem told CFR.org). NATO training teams have also been in historically short supply. NATO's 2009 assessment (PDF) of allied efforts in the war noted that by December 2010, the security bloc will require up to eighty-two training teams, nearly double the 2008 allotment. By late 2010, the expansion of Afghan army and police forces will have created a shortage of 125 training teams, according to Pentagon planners, at a time when the Obama administration has made security force training a top priority.

But even more pragmatic challenges than international trainers loom. The Afghan police, for instance, face endemic training and equipment shortfalls; as many as 50 percent has never received any formal training. The country's justice system is inept, posing hurdles to enforcing the rule of law. Inside the army and the Ministry of Defense, years of failed training coordination, ethnic friction, and political factionalism have "stunted the army's growth" (PDF), the International Crisis Group reports. Progress in rooting out corruption at the ministerial level has also been slow, and "a lack of quality leaders, middle-level staff, and efficient bureaucracy" (PDF) continues to hobble development, NATO reported in May 2010.

Taken together, failure to correct these and other endemic challenges could prove devastating (PDF).

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