Since the 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of all NATO combat troops has been set, the strengthening of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) so that they can defend Afghanistan from the insurgency has become a central pillar of NATO’s strategy. The most complete, publicly available records of the progress of the ANSF come as part of the biannual ‘1230’ reporting on the war made by the US Department of Defense (DoD) to Congress. It derives its data from ISAF’s own reporting. AAN’s frequent guest blogger on military matters, Gary Owen,* has been reading the latest 1230 report, which was published in December and says it shows the Afghan National Army (ANA) is still facing several huge, fundamental problems: it cannot keep the soldiers it needs, train the soldiers it does have, or adequately supply the soldiers it manages to train.
The Afghan National Army (ANA) continues to bear the main burden of the Afghan counterinsurgency, so although the Afghan National Police (ANP) also play a vital role in security and are assessed in the latest DoD 1230 report(1), this blog focuses on the Afghan army. In an earlier blog, I picked apart how the DoD has repeatedly changed its ways of measuring ANSF effectiveness, in order to hide, I contended, the lack of real progress being made. This time, I have just looked at the latest six monthly assessment which covers April-October 2012 and was released late because of the impact of Hurricane Sandy. It reveals just how much work has yet to be done if Afghan forces are to be fully self-supporting by 2015. The data in the report reveals three major challenges facing the ANA: attrition, fighting ability and the effectiveness of its logistical systems. Attrition is the most serious problem, defined in the report using the ISAF measurement as, ‘the unanticipated loss of a soldier, non-commissioned officer (NCO), or officer, and includes personnel dropped from rolls, killed in action, permanently disabled, captured, and non-combat deaths. A soldier is listed as absent without leave (AWOL) after 24 hours of not reporting for an assigned duty; soldiers, officers, and NCOs are dropped from rolls after 20 continuous days, or after 30 days if it follows a period of authorized absence. This is a reduction from the previous limit of 45’ (p 57). Based on the 1230 report’s figures, the ANA lost 27 per cent of its fighting force to attrition from October 2011 to September 2012. For the same period the previous year, the ANA lost 30 per cent of its personnel due to attrition, which means that 57 per cent of the ANA has been lost to attrition over the last two years. It gets worse: if the time period from March 2010 until September 2012 is considered, that number climbs to 72 per cent. So nearly three quarters of the ANA’s total force over the course of 31 months was lost. Granted, each percentage is drawn from an annual sample, but those lost due to attrition have to be replaced with new troops. Given this current trend, approximately every three years nearly the entire ANA will be replaced with new recruits. By way of comparison, imagine if the US military lost over 30 per cent of its fighting force every year, particularly during wartime; the concern would likely result in the complete halting of combat operations. How could any army cope with such a hemorrhaging of personnel? Two ways: recruit new people and retain existing ones – retention here referring to soldiers who have completed their initial three year enlistment and opt to stay in the army. Unfortunately for the ANA, retention has stayed about the same, around 7 per cent, over the last two years, with a total of 19 per cent of the total force retained over the course of the period from March 2010 to September 2012. On average, then, the ANA is only retaining 7 per cent of its force. That means they are not keeping experienced soldiers in their ranks. A high rate of attrition and a low rate of retention means the ANA needs continuously to recruit new members in order not to shrink in absolute numbers and to maintain its operational abilities. Indeed, since seasoned personnel are remaining in its ranks in relatively small numbers, the only way to counter attrition is through recruiting fresh soldiers. The result is a force in which the weight of inexperienced soldiers grows so that it looks even less capable than it is now of countering the insurgents when the US leaves in 2014. Another area of concern which emerges when reading the DoD’s report is the ability of the Afghan army to fight on its own. Media coverage (like here) has already highlighted how only one ANA Brigade is operating at a level rated ‘Independent with Advisors,’ the highest possible rating any ANA unit can achieve. ISAF, long ago, got rid of its ‘independent’ rating, realizing there is no way the ANA can operate independently (see AAN blog cited earlier). Unfortunately, the number of brigades capable of carrying out operations ‘independently, with advisors’ is the same as six months ago when the last report was released. What causes greater unease is the number of capable kandak, ie units at the battalion level, with 600 troops led by a lieutenant colonel. In an army modeled after the US system of military organization, the kandak is the lowest level that can operate independently; it has, as part of its attachments, all the elements needed to execute a fight on its own. What ISAF and the US Forces in Afghanistan (USFOR-A) are quickly learning is that many ‘standards’ set for ANA assessment were too high to be achieved within the given timeframe. However, this organisational structure, based on the kandak, at least appears to be something the ANA can sustain. In April of 2012, there were 135 kandaks in the Afghan National Army, and eight of those had achieved the level of ‘independent with advisors.’ In October’s report, there were 20 out of 146 kandaks classed as ‘independent with advisors’. The speed with which the ANA and ISAF managed to stand up those 12 more ‘effective’ units is suspicious given that previous reports had seen much lower rates of increase. For example, in October of 2011, only one kandak had been rated as ‘independent.’ Even more troubling, however, is the number of kandaks which have not been assessed; that rose from zero in April to 25 in October. What those numbers translate into is 17 per cent of the ANA’s most essential fighting element has not been assessed. ISAF has no idea how capable those units are and is going to be hard pressed to complete those assessments given the pace of transition in the coming months. Moreover, the foreign forces are also in flux. The last of the 33,000 US surge troops withdrew in September 2012, leaving 68,000 US troops on the ground, half of which will also have left by February 2014. According to ISAF, as of September of 2012, 76 per cent of the Afghan population is living in an area where the ANSF are in the security lead, but given the lack of preparedness of those forces, that is not a clear indicator of either current progress or future success. The final area of concern arising from the report is logistics. ISAF acknowledges the shortcomings here. Indeed, the report (p62) admits that the decision by the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) to put off dealing with logistics was all part of the original plan: Improving the logistical capabilities of the ANA has been the main focus of NTM-A during this reporting period, and will continue to be its main focus through the end of 2012 and into 2013. As a result of a deliberate decision made when the plan for expanding the ANSF was formulated, the initial focus for the ANSF was building combat capability and leveraging ISAF enablers to support the ANSF. As the ANSF approaches its end strength goals, ISAF is accelerating development of ANA enablers, particularly logistics capabilities. Logistics in even the most modern and capable armies is a complex, arduous undertaking. The fact that ISAF and the NTM-A have left this fundamental capability till last and are now making it a primary focus does not bode well for the success of the transition. In a break with the usual Orwellian logic that abounds in much of ISAF communications, the 1230 report acknowledges the challenges lying ahead. Despite this focus [on logistics], NTM-A anticipates that the ANA will continue to require assistance with logistics and acquisition processes beyond December 2014. The ANA logistics enterprise is in the early stages of development, and capabilities are widely variable, with some hubs functioning at a high level and others struggling to establish a basic level of self-sufficiency. Overall, the various Afghan logistical processes and organizations, regardless of proficiency level, do not operate as one national logistics system in an integrated and cohesive manner. The use of the rather bland adjectives – ‘integrated and cohesive’ – belies the real trouble facing the ANA. Whatever its fighting ability (and the ANA does not score very well on that either), any army that cannot supply itself with everything from beans to bullets is an army that simply cannot fight. So from the data within the 1230 report itself, the following conclusions can be drawn: the ANA cannot keep the people it needs, train the people it does have, or adequately supply the people it manages to train. Yet, despite all this, the DoD and ISAF reach a rather different conclusion: During the next six months, ISAF, together with the Afghan government, will focus on building on the momentum and successes of the last year to further campaign progress and consolidate the significant security gains achieved in 2012 (p 42). What is particularly alarming about this statement is that it is based on the same information which I have used for the analysis in this blog. ISAF’s unwillingness to acknowledge the operational realities that exist in Afghanistan in 2013 is troubling and bodes ill for the remaining months of its intervention.(3) NATO’s decision this week to maintain (and pay for) the ANSF as its peak level of 350,000 troops, however, would indicate that it is aware of the shortcomings of the ANSF and, in this case, the ANA. Realizing that a reduced force won’t be able to defend itself beginning in 2015, they are opting to fund the increased forces through 2018. But a military force governed by political expediency will always seek to spin facts into a convenient reality. In doing so, ISAF and the DoD are leaving key issues unresolved that are vital for the future success of the Afghan National Army. * Gary Owen is a civilian development worker who has spent the last three years in Afghanistan, working in Ghazni, Gardez, Khost and Kabul provinces. Previously, he spent 21 months in Iraq on two different deployments: in 2004, as an infantry officer in Taji, and, in 2008, as a civil affairs officer in Tikrit. (1) The report’s name, ‘1230’, derives from the section of the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that mandates biannual updates. (2) Four of five kandaks (and their supporting elements) make up a brigade, led by a colonel. (3) Even when ISAF attempts to be transparent in its reporting, it experiences a different set of challenges. As reported by the Associated Press today, a ‘clerical error’ in the reporting of monthly ‘Enemy Initiated Attacks’ by ISAF during 2012 made it appear as if insurgent attacks had decreased by 7 per cent when compared with 2011 statistics. However, ISAF now acknowledges that, after reviewing the data, it turns out that year-to-year, between 2011 and 2012, there was no reduction in the number of those attacks at all.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020
US Department of Defense