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Will Afghan security forces be ready for a handover by 2011?

Commentary, 3 December 2009
Global Security Issues, Central and South Asia
President Obama made clear his intention to hand over full security responsibility in some areas to Afghan National Security Forces. All easier said than done, the essence of the problem lies in daunting numbers and even more daunting issues of quality and loyalty.

President Obama made clear his intention to hand over full security responsibility in some areas to Afghan National Security Forces. All easier said than done, the essence of the problem lies in daunting numbers and even more daunting issues of quality and loyalty.

By Michael Clarke, Director, RUSI

Afghan National Police

The natural concentration on the numbers of extra troops the United States and its allies will be sending to Afghanistan leaves other critical parts of the strategy largely unspoken. One of them is the need to increase dramatically the capacity of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police to take over responsibility for security across the country as soon as practical. This is arguably the most difficult part of the whole package, not for the lack of political will to make it happen, but for the sheer effort involved in doing so within a limited timescale.

In his inauguration speech on 19 November President Karzai spoke of having Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), 'with its Coalition allies', operating across the whole country within three years and taking the lead in security within five. He also committed himself to ending the operations of private security companies in Afghanistan within two years from now. Almost ignored in comments on his speech, this goal ranges from the very challenging to the frankly unrealistic. But the President was responding to the widespread antipathy among Afghans towards any foreign groups in their country; particularly those who use - and sometimes misuse - lethal force.

Scarcely less ambitious, the US President expects Coalition forces to begin handing over full security responsibility to the ANSF for some areas by mid-2011, not least because he will be running for re-election in 2012. All easier said than done, the essence of the problem lies in daunting numbers and even more daunting issues of quality and loyalty.

The Balance of Numbers

Daunting numbers

There is a robust logic about the numbers required to maintain security in fractured societies that history demonstrates is very difficult to deny. In a settled society, more or less anywhere in the world, two security officers per 1,000 head of population is normally sufficient. In fractured societies anywhere in the world, a tenfold increase is almost always necessary to around 20 per 1,000 people. In a fractured Afghanistan of around 30 million people, that logic suggest that at least for the next few years a total security force figure of some 500,000 will be required. It might be possible to reduce it after some time. Kosovo is 6 per cent the size, and 10 per cent the population, of Afghanistan. Yet 50,000 troops were deployed there during the time it was a delicate and fractured society.

The original targets for the ANSF were for 135,000 Afghan National Army personnel and 82,000 police. This is less than 220,000 and even with Coalition forces topping out at 140,000 by the end of 2010, the total figure is some way short of a comfortable margin; even more so when Coalition troops cannot all be used directly for security tasks and have many other roles to perform in addition to supporting themselves. The time horizons for those original targets have been telescoped sharply but the reality is that both figures will have to be doubled within the timeframe that Coalition forces want to begin meaningful withdrawals from the country. Some 150,000 police and 280,000 army personnel will more likely be required before the worst is passed in Afghanistan. Few politicians want to speak openly about these numbers and no firm figures for the eventual targets are presently on offer. But the knowledge that the original target numbers will have to double at some point in the foreseeable future informs all serious private debates about the ANSF.

Existing training programmes are at least meeting the telescoped time requirements. Recruits are being pushed through the courses on an industrial scale. At present rates, some 400,000 ANSF personnel could be through the training programmes by 2013.They would need a year of operational support, so it might be regarded as effective from 2014, the earliest realistic date when the Coalition's 140,000 might begin seriously drawing down.

The Issue of Quality

Loyalty and quality 

More fundamental than numbers is the issue of the quality of the recruits being produced. It is no surprise that the output of such industrial scale training programmes is patchy. It is patchy between the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police.

The Army is reaching a level of basic competence; the police barely so. Policing in Kabul is generally regarded as acceptable, but is of progressively declining quality at provincial, district and local levels. Police recruits come from their local areas; areas where policing is normally regarded as the means to an illicit income for poor families. Some 90 per cent of police recruits, including former police personnel undergoing the common course, are illiterate. After an eight week training course they remain illiterate and barely numerate. Most local police training has been farmed out to private US companies who are not easily in touch with local conditions and customs. In some areas police personnel brave daily intimidation against themselves and their families and have sustained the highest personal losses among all the Afghan and foreign security forces operating in the country. It is estimated that around 10 per cent of them become casualties every year. In the south they are hobbled by the narcotics problem where the 13 per cent of the Afghan population who are dependent on poppy production mainly live. Such territories are impossible to police efficiently in a way the international community would not define as corrupt. Some very brave local police chiefs and governors cannot be expected to shoulder so much of the burden and the personal risk indefinitely.

It is difficult to see how this whole process can be ratcheted up to a level where the ANP is regarded as a competent and respected government agency. More likely, the ANA will have to take a greater role in domestic policing for quite some time while the ANP is more carefully and patiently brought up to an acceptable level.

The Afghan National Army is patchy in its own way. The bright spots are units such as the 205 Corps with its four brigades and twenty-four battalions (Kandaks) whose area of operations covers more than half of all the insecure areas of the country. Its level of professionalism is impressive but it has no reserves and struggles for the resources that would develop self-sustainability. The national training centres are pushing out officers, NCOs and rank and file troops in three separate streams and the ANA is doing a good deal of its own training with Coalition personnel merely mentoring the trainers. In this respect the ANA is entering the second phase of its development where it is now training itself - with evident help and back-up.

The problem is that while the ANA is achieving basic competence among its new units, this may not be enough if the unexpected happens over the next four years. ANA training has been pared down predominantly to producing infantry Kandaks only; other aspects of the force structure are on hold for the time being. Quick training in military competence is one thing; command and adaptability under pressure is quite another. Nor is it yet clear how much Coalition embedding and mentoring will really be required as greater numbers of Kandaks go into the field. The US troop uplift is scheduled to put another 4,000 trainers into the country over the coming year, but the equivalent of this number, and more, may quickly be swallowed up in extended mentoring, in theatre, as the superheated training process steams forward. Afghanistan is not short of extensive training areas but vastly more capacity will have to be created to double the numbers originally projected. Throwing money at the programme will not deliver it any faster. It is chiefly a problem of logistical capacity that takes some time to mature.

The Unspoken Question of Loyalty

The final, unspoken, variable is the loyalty of trained and equipped ANSF personnel as they go out to work in the new Afghanistan. Current rates of desertions from both ANA and ANP units are difficult to establish with certainty - there is some tolerance for AWOL behaviour that, at an indeterminate point, must then be regarded as desertion. The ANP may be suffering an annual desertion rate of 25 per cent; the ANA of perhaps ten per cent. All of these, put greater pressure on achieving operational numbers by the target dates. Beyond this, however, the loyalty of quickly expanded forces will be a concern in the event of a major political crisis in Afghanistan over the next five years.

The perception that the Karzai Government and the Coalition will inevitably prevail in the current struggle is the single greatest hedge against the possibility of ANSF disloyalty. And this perception is likely to increase over the coming year and beyond. But Afghanistan remains a highly volatile political arena and its ANSF, even the Army alone, have not yet established themselves in the minds of the population as the backbone of the nation; the core of its identity. The Army trades off the need to be multi-ethnic at all levels against the reality that it would be more operationally effective if the Pashtuns were more dominant in it. This is understandable, but it means that the Army still has some way to go before it automatically adopts an aura of national identity that applies to most other countries.

It will be a long, hard road before the Afghan National Security Forces are genuinely able to take on what Coalition forces are currently doing. That, however, is the only road out of the country for Coalition forces. There will be no shortcuts, and the alternative merely different degrees of defeat for the countries that committed themselves to the Afghan enterprise in 2001 and then again in 2005.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI

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Author

Professor Michael Clarke
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Professor Michael Clarke was Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) from 2007 to 2015 when he retired from... read more

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