- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
As U.S. President Barack Obama considers a request from his top general in Afghanistan to commit more U.S. troops, the senior U.S. Army general training Afghan fighters says the president should also authorize a dramatic increase in indigenous force numbers. Maj. Gen. Richard P. Formica, who has headed the training of Afghan forces for the last eleven months, says his team has concluded that long-term stability requires a near doubling of Afghan army and police.
"We acknowledge that the [Afghan National Security Force] is not big enough, and we need to grow both the Afghan National Army and the police," Gen. Formica said from his headquarters in Kabul. The general says he has formally requested the increase in Afghan army and police forces as part of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategic assessment, submitted to the White House in September. "If at some point you really want to give this responsibility...to the Afghans, you’ve got to give them the capability," Gen. Formica says. "And the current numbers that they’ve programmed for are just not enough boots on the ground to accept that responsibility."
There’s much discussion in Afghanistan and Washington as to what strategy the Obama administration will approve going forward -- counterinsurgency (COIN) or counterterrorism (CT). Training the Afghan National Security Forces will be a key element of either approach. Broadly speaking, what’s the status of the training mission -- the current size of the Afghan force, the planned end strength, and current capabilities of the forces?
We’ve always believed that building the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) was an essential part of the mission, and we [have] plans to build sustainable capacity and capability. It’s more than just end-strength numbers, though end-strength numbers are important. That said, the [Afghan] army is generally on track as an institution. It’s building to 134,000 by the end of October 2010. That growth is accelerated; the 134,000 was originally programmed for 2013. My predecessor agreed to accelerate it to 2011, and then as part of this strategic review we accepted that we could probably accelerate it to October 2010. The police were originally programmed at 82,000, and as a result of a requirement to get additional policemen on the ground in time for the August elections, we got approval from the capitals [of the coalition effort] and the international community to grow an additional 14,800 police throughout the country, which gives us a new end-strength of 96,800.
Now we acknowledge that the ANSF is not big enough, and we need to grow both the Afghan National Army and the police. We have formally proposed growth in both and that has been incorporated in Gen. [Stanley A.] McChrystal’s strategic assessment. So we hope to get a decision to grow the Afghan National Army beyond 134,000 and to continue to grow to 240,000 by the end of October 2013, and to grow the Afghan National Police to 160,000 by the same time frame.
So far there has not been any decision from the White House on those numbers, correct?
"If at some point you really want to give this responsibility, the security and stability in Afghanistan, to the Afghans, you’ve got to give them the capability. And the current numbers that they’ve programmed for are just not enough boots on the ground to accept that responsibility."
No. The capitals [of the coalition effort, including Washington] have not formally endorsed growth beyond 134,000 and 96,800. That is a proposal that is in the strategic assessment that has been requested. That will go through a vetting in Washington and the other capitals and eventually will go for approval here, [before] the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board where all of the contributing nations are represented.
In April 2009 I had a conversation with Afghan Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak, during which he expressed frustration that the growth numbers we’re talking about now weren’t announced back in March. Why wasn’t a decision made earlier, as Gen. Wardak and others thought it might be? And what are the challenges to the growth you and Gen. McChrystal are recommending?
A lot of people are mixing apples and oranges. Minister Wardak was surprised that it wasn’t announced because he thought that the growth decision was being considered as part of the strategic review that was announced in March. It wasn’t. [The White House] hadn’t formally considered the proposal and so chose not to make an announcement at that time. I took by your question that he was surprised that they hadn’t done it because it’s too hard; that’s not necessarily true. It’s just that it had not been formally considered or decided by the White House at the time the president made his March announcement. Since then, our proposal has remained our proposal. It has been formally transmitted not only to Washington but to NATO as part of the strategic assessment. We’re expecting that there will be a decision first in Washington and then of course by other capitals.
There is pretty broad consensus [among] people in my position...that you need more Afghan National Security Forces, and that’s why we’ve proposed growth. We think that the numbers that we’ve recommended are achievable. We think the timeline is going to be tight and we recognize that there are challenges associated with the growth and that it’s not without risk, certainly. If at some point you really want to give this responsibility, the security and stability in Afghanistan, to the Afghans, you’ve got to give them the capability. And the current numbers that they’ve programmed for are just not enough boots on the ground to accept that responsibility.
What are the challenges to this growth?
You’ve got to be able to increase the end-strength in sheer numbers. We believe that’s achievable. There’s quite a population, young male, particularly in this society, to support army and police growth. And [army service] does provide a reasonable livelihood and alternatives to what they would otherwise be doing. I am concerned about the ability to develop leaders in the timeline that we’re growing, so that’s one of the challenges. The other challenges are all manageable, but [include] our ability to equip that force in a timely manner, the ability to provide infrastructure to that force consistent with the timeline to build, and then the ability to provide embedded partners for that force.
The point you made about recruiting leaders, finding leaders, seems to suggest a more endemic problem with Afghan institutions, such as the Afghan educational system, and the fact that there just aren’t enough educated young men to take the reins. Is that a fair assessment?
There are several facets to leader development. One, it is a function of the larger educational [system] as you suggest, and as we grow leaders, they need to be more literate than the soldiers that they lead. I think that’s something that will work itself out. We’ve already starting to see young soldiers and patrolmen who are literate in higher numbers just because they’ve been going to school for the last eight years, and many of those kids are now recruiting age. Anecdotally I will tell you that I see the beginnings of where we were in the ’70s in our army in that the young recruits coming in have been educated in formal schools and are going to be more literate.
Some observers have questioned whether, in a country so ethnically divided, it’s possible to build a truly nationalistic force. Is it?
The army is...generally ethnically balanced. The percentage of Pashtuns in the force is almost exactly the percentage of Pashtuns in the country, about 42 percent. They are not regionally balanced, being that most of the Pashtuns that are in the force come in from the center and north, and so the south and the west are rather proportionately underrepresented. There is a slight elevation in the percentage of Tajiks, they’re about 8 percent to 9 percent above the national average, but it’s not at the expense of Pashtuns, it’s actually at the expense of some of the smaller ethnicities like the Hazara and the Uzbeks.
In the past one of the challenges was a severe shortage of trainers. Do we still have a need for more trainers?
Yes, we need more trainers to meet our current requirement, and if we get a decision to grow, it will require more trainers.
Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah has decided not to run in a runoff against Hamid Karzai. But if the runoff had happened, would Afghan forces, coalition forces, have been able to secure polling centers?
Afghans are very proud that they planned, coordinated, and with the assistance of the coalition and our enablers, satisfactorily and effectively provided the security for the August elections. Their capacity has improved over the course over the last two months, not gotten worse. I think that every expectation was that they would have been able to secure it. It’s not like it isn’t without challenges - there are a lot of logistic and operational challenges to provide security for 6,000 plus polling centers. But they were prepared and ready to implement the plan just has they had in August, with the support of the coalition.
How much work still needs to be done? When will Afghan security forces -- whether they be border patrol, air force, army, police -- be able to stand on their own?
That’s actually a tough question. First, we said we would build the capacity between now and 2013. So you’re not going to have the capacity that I’ve recommended that we have for at least another four years... We’re [also trying to] develop capability, and there are a lot of variables on how readily you can develop capability: the nature and strength of the insurgency; the amount of coalition trainers available; the degree of security provided by other formations. So I can’t give you a hard [date]. Certainly in my mind it wouldn’t be much before 2013. And then we haven’t talked about sustainability. But I believe that the Afghan National Security Forces, as we build capacity and increase their capability so we can begin to reduce the amount of coalition contributors to the fight ...they’re going to require security assistance, and I think training assistance, for sometime beyond that. I don’t know what the numbers are, I don’t know what they’ll look like, I don’t know when that transition point is, but there are many variables that will come into that.