The Afghan National Security Forces and the Cost of a U.S. Exit
As the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan drags into its tenth year its end still seems far away. Although the White House and the NATO Alliance have insisted that 2014 will mark an “irreversible transition” of security responsibility from coalition partners to Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the indications are that the struggling Afghan government will continue to lean on foreign assistance through 2020 at the earliest.
The intensified U.S. effort to reverse a Taliban resurgence in parts of Afghanistan – launched by the Obama administration in 2009 – has been met with a spike in American casualties, which jumped from 155 in 2008 to 317 in 2009 and 499 in 2010. As the Afghan operation increasingly hemorrhages American blood, the hit to U.S. taxpayers runs in parallel, escalating from $20 billion in 2005 to $104.9 billion in 2010. For fiscal year (FY) 2011 the Pentagon has requested $110.3 billion to go towards its Afghanistan operation – more than double its final appropriation request for the Iraq operation set to expire at year’s end and $14.1 billion higher than it was granted in FY10.
The ongoing cost in blood and treasure has had a wearying effect on the American public. Timelines continue to shift, the inability to secure the critical Afghan—Pakistan border remains an unhealed wound on the body of the war effort, and success in Afghanistan seems to hold limited strategic value relative to national security interests elsewhere.
Thus the question naturally arises: How exactly is Washington supposed to extricate itself smoothly from the Afghan theater?
The answer: By recruiting, equipping, training, and eventually molding the ANSF into an effective force capable of taking over full security responsibility throughout the country.
In Vietnam this policy was known as “Vietnamization”. In Iraq the rebuilding of a post-Saddam Hussein security force has resulted in the recruitment and training of some 410,000 police and 245,000 military personnel, allowing the U.S. to proceed with its planned year-end withdrawal from that country.
The American approach is founded on the tenet that indigenous forces can better earn the long-lasting trust and goodwill of the local population than American troops, resulting in the accumulation of on-the-ground human intelligence necessary to defeat insurgents in “wars amongst the people”. As these forces grow in size and capability, U.S. forces cede responsibility to them, eventually clearing the path to a smooth exit from the operating theater.
For now the effort to cobble together an effective Afghan National Army (ANA) and police force remains fraught with difficulties. For starters there are ongoing issues within the ANSF regarding corruption, drug use, ethnic discrimination, morale, desertion, Taliban infiltration and shoddy equipment. NATO forces training Afghan soldiers and police have to remain wary of incidents such as those involving renegade individuals who turned their weapons on British troops in 2009 and July 2010.
Still, the U.S. and its NATO allies remain undeterred in their effort to build a competent Afghan security force. Although there are disagreements amongst the allies about how large such a force must be, a decision of the standing security committee (combining officials from the Afghan government, the United Nations and NATO members) to expand the ANSF beyond the previous benchmark goal of 305,000 personnel by October 2011 to that of 378,000 by October 2012 is likely to move forward. Currently the combined total of Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police is 266,000.
It was barely over a year ago that levels of desertion from the Afghan National Army eclipsed the number of recruits. Now salaries for personnel are higher, ranging from $160 to $240 a month. The training of Afghan troops has been expanded to include basic reading and writing skills, seen both as an enticement for recruits as well as a means by which to gradually eliminate corruption within ANSF ranks. The training regimen has been improved as the number of trainers has increased, jumping from the 1:79 instructor-to-student ratio in November 2009 to a 1:29 ratio in August 2010.
Of even greater importance to the buildup of the ANSF has been the accelerated effort to improve the outfitting of its personnel with more and better material. NATO-standard weaponry such as M16 rifles, M4 carbines, M9 pistols, M2 heavy machine guns, the M24 sniper weapon system, 81- and 82-mm mortars are issued to Afghan Army personnel, along with high frequency and very-high frequency (VHF) radios, body armor and night vision gear.
For heavy equipment the U.S. has handed over refurbished M113 tracked armored personnel carriers, logistical and engineering equipment (tractors, bulldozers, cranes, etc), up-armored Humvees and specialty equipment including mine-rollers and mine-detecting robots.
The U.S.-NATO goal for the fledgling Afghan Army is for it to field a counter-insurgency (COIN)-capable Air Force by 2016. This ideally will include VIP transport, medical evacuation, reconnaissance, troop transport and fixed- and rotary-wing close air support capabilities drawn from 146 total aircraft. Currently the Afghan Air Force has only 50 aircraft, including old An-32 airlifters, newer C-27 transporters, Mi-35 attack helicopters, and – controversially to members of the U.S. Congress – Mi-17 transport helicopters. The Russian Mi-17 was designed in Soviet times specifically for the hot-and-high environment of Afghanistan. The Pentagon has placed $648 million in orders to buy and refurbish over 30 Mi-17s, much to the chagrin of U.S. lawmakers who argue that the sole pursuit of the Mi-17 by the Pentagon has suffered from a lack of oversight and allowed Russian contractors to charge exorbitant unit costs.
Despite signs of progress over the past year the broad U.S. and allied goal of building up the ANSF continues to face substantial hurdles.
The contributions of NATO members to the training mission are still subject to criticism, as the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan remains around 700 trainers short. Yet providing trainers was supposed to be the “out” for governments reluctant to supply combat troops towards the U.S.-led surge effort.
In the meantime the U.S. continues to plough more and more money into the development of the ANSF, but so far the process has largely emphasized quantity over quality. With quantity comes the cost of maintaining a large force, including meeting payroll, buying fuel, the purchasing and upkeep of equipment, constructing necessary infrastructure, and annual operational and training costs. A shaky government overseeing a poor economy provides little hope that such a price tag can be met by Kabul in the future.
Instead these costs will likely fall on the back of U.S. taxpayers for years to come. The Obama administration is expected to request around $12.8 billion within its FY12 budget for the ongoing buildup of the ANSF. Already Washington spent $9.2 billion on the ANSF in 2010 and will invest a further $11.6 billion during 2011. With the inclusion of this year’s earmarks, Washington has invested more towards the Afghan Security Forces Fund ($36.6 billion) than it has into the Iraqi Security Forces Fund ($12.5 billion) since the 2007 “surge” in Iraq. Though the disparity in investment is explained by the revenue stream available to the Iraqi government from its energy reserves, it should be noted that the Afghan government was able to spend a mere $450 million in total on security in 2010.
The annual multi-billion investments made by the U.S. towards the Afghan National Security Forces over the past five years illustrate the high cost of building a security force essentially from scratch – one with no guarantee of future effectiveness and one which Kabul will struggle to fund in years to come. For Washington that seems to be an acceptable price tag for exiting Afghanistan.
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