Afghan security force’s rapid expansion comes at a cost as readiness lags

Top Pentagon leaders, White House advisers and members of Congress from both parties have long regarded the rapid expansion of Afghanistan’s army and police as a crucial element of the U.S. exit strategy. For years, they reasoned that generating a force of 352,000 soldiers and policemen would enable the Afghan government to keep fighting Taliban insurgents after U.S. and NATO troops end their combat mission.

The U.S. military has nearly met its growth target for the Afghan forces, but they are nowhere near ready to assume control of the country.

No Afghan army battalion is capable of operating without U.S. advisers. Many policemen spend more time shaking down people for bribes than patrolling. Front-line units often do not receive the fuel, food and spare parts they need to function. Intelligence, aviation and medical services remain embryonic. And perhaps most alarming, an increasing number of Afghan soldiers and policemen are turning their weapons on their U.S. and NATO partners.

As a consequence, several U.S. officers and civilian specialists who have worked with those forces have started to question the wisdom of the 352,000 goal. To them, the obsession with size has been at the root of much that has gone wrong with the Afghan security services.

“We’ve built a force that’s simply too big,” said Roger Carstens, a former Special Forces lieutenant colonel who spent two years as a senior counterinsurgency adviser at the NATO headquarters in Kabul. “When you try to generate that many people that fast, you create leaders without the requisite leadership, maturity or acumen to get the job done. You can’t meaningfully vet anyone. You can’t ensure morale and discipline.”

Growth of Afghan army and police.

More than a dozen active-duty officers, from majors to generals, who have been involved in training the Afghan army and police over the past two years shared that assessment in recent interviews, upon which this article is based. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity, because of concern that criticizing long-held U.S. strategy could harm their careers.

“We have been obsessed with quantity over quality,” said a Special Forces major who worked alongside Afghan soldiers for a year. “You can only build so many troops to a certain standard. At some point — and we’re long past that — you get to diminishing returns.”

Top military commanders have maintained that such a large force is essential to defeating the Taliban and securing the vast, mountainous country.

In 2009, when the White House approved plans to build a combined Afghan force of more than 300,000, the principal concern in Washington was the cost to sustain it once most U.S. troops depart, not the ability to assemble it. The sustainment cost is now projected at $4.1 billion a year, more than twice the Afghan government’s overall annual revenue. Much of that price tag will have to be borne by the United States, which already has spent almost $50 billion over the past decade to build the force.

U.S. and NATO commanders say the Afghan army and police are progressing well despite an array of challenges that include Taliban intimidation, the lack of an existing officer corps, and rampant illiteracy, which makes it difficult to train soldiers in specialty skills.

“Those forces have taken the lead to very complex combat operations, and they are suffering the vast majority of coalition casualties, a further sign that the Afghans have the willingness to sacrifice and take the fight to the enemy,” Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said this month.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has insisted that Afghan forces can take charge of security across the country before the end of 2014, NATO’s deadline for transferring overall responsibility to the Afghan government. “Afghans are ready to expedite the process of transition if necessary, and willing as well,” Karzai said Thursday.

U.S. officials have also noted that the total Afghan force reached the 352,000 goal several weeks ahead of an Oct. 31 deadline set by the Pentagon.

They have not pointed out that the overall tally includes thousands of greenhorn recruits who have yet to be trained and assigned to combat units — and who have traditionally not been counted by U.S. and NATO headquarters. If the total included only those Afghans who are in the field or in training, according to military officials in Kabul, the army will not reach its end strength of 195,000 until December and the police will not hit their target of 157,000 until February.

Even then, there are no plans to ease up on recruitment. High rates of desertion and low rates of reenlistment mean the army needs to replace about a third of its force each year.

“We’ve turned this into a numbers game,” said a senior U.S. official involved in Afghanistan policy. “When you’re concerned about numbers, you end up with numbers.”

The surge

The development of such a large Afghan force was set in motion by President Obama’s decision to approve a surge of 30,000 U.S. troops in late 2009.

In the early years of the war, the United States and allied nations participating in Afghanistan’s reconstruction agreed to create a 70,000-strong army from scratch. That target grew modestly in 2007 and 2008, but the actual strength lagged far behind because the George W. Bush administration did not commit the necessary funds or personnel.

The police force was in even worse shape. By 2009, there were approximately 95,000 men wearing police uniforms, but at least half of them had not received any training. They were ill-equipped, and many were more focused on collecting bribes than protecting the population.

In mid-2009, as the insurgency was expanding across the country, two U.S. military studies concluded that Afghanistan required a far larger army and police force — to work in partnership with allied troops and to take charge once the foreigners left. Relying upon counterinsurgency doctrine, which calls for a ratio of one counterinsurgent for every 50 residents, one of the studies determined that Afghanistan needed a combined force of 400,000 to address parts of the country with Taliban problems. The studies devoted less attention to the question of whether the United States and its allies were capable of building such a large security force in a country with no existing military structures, widespread illiteracy and a raging insurgency.

When Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal sent Obama an assessment of the situation in Afghanistan in the summer of 2009, the commander wrote that neither the army nor the police “is sufficiently effective.” He endorsed the calls for a combined force of 400,000.

Although McChrystal’s request for a U.S. troop increase generated acrimonious debate within the president’s war cabinet, the plan to expand the Afghan security force was relatively uncontroversial. Members of Congress from both parties — chief among them Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — supported the growth.

There was little discussion in Washington about the difficulty of assembling the force. The only significant issue was the ongoing cost of sustaining such a large contingent, but military leaders kept emphasizing that building Afghan troops was far cheaper than deploying American ones. In the end, Obama decided to approve an increase to 305,000 by 2011; he subsequently authorized the expansion to 352,000.

To some senior U.S. officers, the decision to expand the force so rapidly seemed like a mistake. “It was irresponsible,” said a general who had been involved in training efforts earlier in the war. “Afghanistan isn’t the sort of place where you can triple your inputs and expect three times the results.”

But the three-star general tapped to lead the massive expansion, William Caldwell IV, was undeterred. He authorized an enormous increase in boot camp facilities. He set up schools to train non-commissioned officers and those assigned to specialized functions, such as communications and intelligence. He sought to build up a cadre of Afghan officers who could train their fellow countrymen. And he stopped the practice of fielding police officers before they underwent basic training.

When he visited a firing range and discovered that most recruits were not just illiterate but innumerate — if the instructor wanted them to load 10 bullets in their rifles, he told them to count by placing one bullet next to each of their fingers — Caldwell expanded boot camp by two weeks to include basic education.

Instead of sending Afghans to fight on their own, sometimes with small teams of U.S. and NATO advisers, McChrystal and Caldwell ordered that Afghan army units be fully partnered with coalition forces. The guiding mantra was “shona ba shona” — in the Dari language, “shoulder to shoulder.”

Quality vs. quantity

The Afghan force expanded and improved — some units have exhibited tremendous bravery and skill — but the overall improvement has not kept pace with the expansion. Many of the new units are raggedy, composed of grunts who often seek to avoid fights with the Taliban. American troops chalk it up to incompetence and laziness, but the Afghans know what they are doing: As the sole breadwinners for their families, many cannot afford to get killed or severely wounded.

But to many U.S. officers involved in the training effort, the biggest problems have been the result of coalition miscalculations.

The U.S. military has imposed unnecessary methods and impractical equipment on the Afghans. American commanders funded large, U.S.-style division headquarters with command centers that feature wall-mounted plasma screens and staff officers schooled in making PowerPoint slides, even though many of those facilities lack reliable electricity. Critics within the U.S. ranks contend that dry-erase boards and paper maps would have been sufficient.

The construction of big bases around the country has encouraged Afghan soldiers to copy a base-centric way of war adopted by some U.S. Army units — they wake up, eat, go for a patrol and then return in time for a hot meal before falling asleep in their beds — instead of staying in the field for weeks on end, which was how Afghans fought the Soviets in the 1980s. “We’ve taught them our worst habits,” said a former Navy SEAL who has served as a counterinsurgency adviser in Afghanistan.

Instead of equipping Afghan soldiers with AK-47 rifles, which Afghans are well versed in firing, the U.S. military gave them M-16s, which are far more complicated to maintain and tend to jam when not cleaned properly. The decision was the result of pressure from former defense minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, who argued to Pentagon officials and members of Congress that American weapons would make his army appear more professional, despite concerns from U.S. commanders in Afghanistan that the soldiers would be unable to care for the guns.

Numerous senior U.S. military officials contend that the army’s development has been hindered by Wardak’s insistence on making his force appear as American as possible — a goal that found ready support from U.S. commanders — and designing it to repel a foreign invasion, not wage a domestic counterinsurgency fight. He urged the Pentagon to give Afghanistan F-16 fighter jets and M1 Abrams battle tanks.

Although those requests were rejected, he succeeded in beating back other U.S. efforts to reshape the security services for counterinsurgency operations, including proposals to make the police larger than the army. He also sought to deploy the army into many remote areas, creating enormous logistics burdens. Because his commanders lack the ability to provide supplies and air support to those forces, U.S. and NATO troops have been forced to fill the gaps and probably will have to keep doing so for years.

Wardak, who was removed by the country’s parliament this summer, told Americans that his approach to weaponry and battlefield tactics was aimed as building a close relationship with the U.S. military. “He figured this would be the best way to get us to keep supporting them for years and years,” said a senior U.S. military official who has had numerous conversations with Wardak.

Training experience

The U.S. and NATO training command in Kabul did not cut corners to reach the 352,000 goal, but several veteran U.S. officers and civilian experts involved in the force development effort contend that the rapid expansion foreclosed approaches used by the military to more successfully build armies in other parts of the world.

The only U.S. troops who have extensive experience training foreign militaries are Army Special Forces soldiers, but the commanders chose not to rely on the elite Green Berets, because there were not enough available units to build such a large Afghan army. Instead, the focus on size drove the Pentagon to assemble a rump squad of National Guard soldiers, reservists and individual active-duty personnel pulled from installations around the United States.

The result, said one officer involved in the effort, was “a hodgepodge of mentor teams composed of guys who had never worked together.”

The need to expand the force rapidly meant jettisoning other long-held tenets of security force development: small group instruction, careful vetting to weed out infiltrators, and restrictions on creating systems and structures that cannot be sustained once foreign advisers leave.

New recruits had their fingerprints and iris scans run through a database of suspected insurgents, but that was largely the extent of the screening. The Defense Ministry and the Afghan intelligence service did not have the manpower to conduct meaningful background checks on so many applicants.

Had there been fewer Afghans to vet, and had there been more allied mentors within the ranks, the chances of spotting potential insurgent infiltrators and other problematic soldiers might have increased, according to the officers and specialists who supported a smaller force. “The best way to spot the bad apples is to be constantly with these guys — eating with them, sleeping with them — but we didn’t do that nearly often enough,” said the Special Forces major who worked with Afghan soldiers.

Advocates of the 352,000 goal argue that slowing training or building a smaller force would have ceded valuable ground to the Taliban. “You have to start with a higher number of less-well-trained troops just to plug the hole in the dike,” said Mark Jacobson, a former top civilian adviser to McChrystal. “By the time you get those better-trained troops, it’s already over.”

But proponents of a smaller force contend it would have been better to have written off remote valleys instead of sending in ill-trained soldiers. “The army is so hollow that some of those units are just going to collapse,” the major said. “The Afghans would have been better off trying to hold on to only the most critical areas with fewer but stronger units.”

That now appears to be the direction U.S. commanders are heading. The White House and Pentagon have decided that the 352,000 will only be a “surge force” that will eventually be reduced to 228,500. The decision has prompted unease among senior U.S. commanders and protests from Levin, McCain and other congressional supporters of a large Afghan army. The Obama administration has billed it as a cost-saving move, but some U.S. officials see another motivation.

“Now we can start concentrating on quality,” said the senior U.S. official involved in Afghanistan policy.

But the planned cutback, which will not begin until 2016, already is fueling a new round of concern because the U.S. and Afghan governments have not started to develop a program to systematically demobilize soldiers and policemen by providing them alternative employment. If not, thousands of men with at least nominal military training will find themselves jobless the very moment the country’s economy will be struggling to cope with a drastic reduction in foreign spending resulting from the departure of most NATO troops.

“Either these guys will find their own way to make money” — through criminal activity or working for a warlord — “or the Taliban will put them on their payroll,” said Douglas Ollivant, a former National Security Council official who worked as the top civilian counterinsurgency adviser in eastern Afghanistan. “The only thing worse than building such a large security force is tearing it down without a plan.”

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