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Afghanistan's Struggling Security Services

Author: Greg Bruno
Updated: July 7, 2008


Afghan President Hamid Karzai threatened to invade Pakistan last month if militants continue to cross the border into his country, and Islamabad responded with indignation. "Under no circumstances will foreign troops be allowed to operate inside Pakistan," the Pakistani government declared in a statement (Reuters). Few expect military action by Afghanistan anytime soon. But lost in the rhetorical war between neighbors was a tactical reality—Afghanistan's security services remain incapable of self-defense, let alone hot pursuit across the border.

Seven years after the United States toppled the Taliban, Afghanistan's security forces remain underfunded, underequipped, and poorly organized, military analysts and government auditors say. A June 2008 report on Afghan security by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, finds that despite $10 billion in U.S. aid, only two of 105 Afghan National Army (ANA) units are judged "fully capable" (PDF). None of the 433 units of Afghanistan's National Police (ANP) are capable of conducting independent patrols, and only twelve—3 percent—are capable of leading operations with coalition support, the GAO says. Weakness of Afghan security services was exposed in a July 7 blast that leveled the Indian mission in Kabul (NDTV), killing dozens.

The grim tally comes as violence in Afghanistan climbs, and as NATO countries continue to balk at increasing their troop commitments. A June 2008 Pentagon report on stability in Afghanistan finds that despite some gains by coalition and Afghan forces, the Taliban is regrouping in the south. A second insurgency in the east, dominated by al-Qaeda, Hizb-i-Islami, and various Pakistani militant groups, is "prepared to cooperate with the Taliban's Kandahari-based insurgency," the Pentagon report estimates. June was the deadliest month for U.S. soliders in Afghanistan since the war began (WashPost), and U.S. officials say attacks on coalition forces in the eastern part of the country were up 40 percent over the first five months of 2008, compared with the same period last year. Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, the top U.S. commander in the eastern region, says the spike in violence is due in part to a change in militants' tactics. They are targeting schools, roads, and anything else the coalition is building to "improve the quality of life for the normal Afghan citizen," Schloesser told reporters on June 24.

Despite the poor assessment, there are signs the Afghan army is improving. A June 2008 Pentagon plan lays out a long-term strategy for sustaining the forces' fighting and policing capabilities, including the creation of fifteen light infantry brigades, an air corps, and command and control units. Antonio Giustozzi, a research fellow at the Crisis States Research Centre of the London School of Economics, acknowledges aspects of the army's rebuilding effort have been successful. He writes that retention rates have increased, and the army has become a "reasonably well behaved" force that is "quite popular throughout most of Afghanistan." A March 2008 update on Afghanistan security by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon adds that militants are changing tactics due to "the superiority of Afghan and international security forces in conventional battles." Currently 58,000 strong, the Afghan army has been authorized to grow to 80,000 by 2011, though Afghanistan's own defense minister has advocated for at least 150,000 (AP).

The ANP has bigger issues than force size to confront. According to the Pentagon's own analysis, the Afghan police have "not been sufficiently reformed or developed to a level at which it can adequately perform its security and policing mission." The Pentagon blames corruption, a dearth of trainers, and a lack of assistance from the international community. Independent analysts, meanwhile, take a different view. The January 2008 Afghanistan Study Group Report (PDF) urged the United States to "play a greater role" in training and expanding the ranks of the national police, a responsibility presently spearheaded by German forces in the country. Among the ANP's deficiencies identified by the study group's co-chairs, retired Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones and Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering, are a dismal payroll system and sectarian divisions that make the ANP "a greater cause of insecurity than the Taliban" in some parts of the country.

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