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.”
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.”