Lessons Learned From 15 Years in Afghanistan
The Congressionally mandated Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) issued a detailed report evaluating the current challenges facing the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and the lessons learned from America’s nearly 15-year campaign in the country. The report argues that security priorities guiding US decisions early in the war effort negatively impacted the current priorities of building ANDSF long-term sustainability capabilities.
The report, which is the first of its kind, concludes that the ANDSF is plagued by debilitating attrition, corruption, equipment shortages, incomplete training, a lack of security infrastructure and widespread illiteracy.
SIGAR’s report shows attrition is a crippling issue faced by many branches of the ANDSF. The Afghan Special Forces is the only branch with low attrition and high re-enlistment rates. SIGAR cited that from 2013 through 2016, attrition within the Afghan National Army (ANA) was so high that “about one-third of the force was lost annually … such high attrition increasingly created a military with little to no training.” These staggering attrition rates were largely fueled by high numbers of casualties, a lack of ministerial administrative support systems behind service members and the continued high illiteracy rates of the general population.
Given high casualties, the ANDSF prioritized force protection. Instead of taking on the Taliban’s rural support zones, ANDSF limited the mission to urban areas in an attempt to reduce casualties. The USFOR-A “restructur[ed] ANA force posture” to focus primarily on heavily populated “critical areas.” USFOR-A suggested that the loss of non-critical areas was “deliberate,” and less checkpoints to protect would bring down ANA casualties. These force-protection measures have ceded vast rural terrain to the Taliban, a key source of its resilience.
The Taliban views rural areas as highly valuable platforms from which they can launch comprehensive assaults on populated urban centers. LWJ recently assessed that the Taliban is intentionally piecing together belts of influence across the country. This buildup of rural influence supporting urban Taliban offensives demonstrates an inability of the national government to provide consistent security and undermines the public confidence. With a decreased government security presence in rural areas, the Taliban increasingly feel safe organizing in the open in large numbers, unafraid of potential U.S. or coalition airstrikes.
Afghan National Police (ANP) identity crisis
SIGAR was not shy in criticizing the role of the ANP, noting the force is still functioning as a counterinsurgency proxy, not the criminal justice force the Afghan people need and deserve. From the outset, the US campaign structured the ANP as a paramilitary counter-insurgency force. However, the continued presence of Taliban offensives has prevented the ANP from becoming the criminal justice policing force President Ashraf Ghani hoped they would be in his new four-year “Road Map” for the ANDSF. SIGAR noted the ANP “lacks the ability to protect the general populace as a civilian policing institution and struggles to address criminality and crime prevention that is not insurgent related.”
SIGAR inspector general John Sopko, speaking at an event at CSIS in Washington, cited two key weaknesses in the US and coalition ANP training program that lead to overall ANP ineffectiveness. First, ANP training on local policing is currently taught by “misaligned” US military personnel who are rarely themselves trained on such instruction. Sopko illustrated this by drawing on stories about “a US Army helicopter pilot assigned to teach policing” and another “US officer who watched TV shows like Cops and NCIS to learn what he should teach.” Second, these military training personnel are typically on six-month to one-year rotations, leading to a relative lack of institutional knowledge and continuity for learning Afghans.
Military versus civilian capacities
Throughout the report, and in their key findings, SIGAR emphasized the lack of administrative and institutional processes needed to support long-term sustainability of the ANDSF. This deficiency of support resources led to a poor quality of life for ANDSF personnel. The report notes, “corruption, poor leadership, and lack of equipment and support structures served to undermine the [ANDSF] recruit’s well-being.”
High illiteracy rates limit the ability of the civilian-support sector to contribute to ANDSF development. Without simple services in place to issue wages accurately, or to deliver equipment and specialized training efficiently, attrition will remain “one of the most pressing issues affecting ANDSF development and sustainability.” However, the SIGAR report does not suggest as to what should be prioritized first. Does the ANDSF need to clear and hold more Afghan territory and provide more reliant security in order for the civilian-side support institutions to thrive? Or, do the civilian-side support institutions need bolstering in order for a more capable ANDSF to take the fight to the Taliban? These questions remain unanswered.
If the US and its coalition partners want to someday hand off all aspects of security to an Afghan force that can hold itself against a proven and devoted insurgency, longer term strategies are needed that are not bound by arbitrary or politically-driven timetables. To support those strategies, funding must be committed that is meticulously tracked to ensure it reaches the most effective hands. And to back it all up, a commitment to appropriate training paired with a robust buildup of security-sector infrastructure is vital.
The SIGAR report can be viewed in its entirety here.
Phil Hegseth is a social and digital media specialist at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributor to FDD’s Long War Journal.
This article appeared originally at FDD's The Long War Journal.