Underappreciated strategic-level assessment by the mission and the US is responsible for the security forces’ failure in Afghanistan

Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has recently released a report titled “Lessons from Developing Afghanistan’s Security Forces; Lessons from the US Experience in Afghanistan”. The report itself is enlightening as the focus remains on the continuing turmoil and conflict in Afghanistan, despite majority NATO and US armed forces withdrawing from the theatre of war. US President Donald Trump, in his controversial ‘new strategy’ on Afghanistan has decided to deploy about 4000 additional troops to Afghanistan.

Centre for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), Washington DC, arranged a discussion event with Mr. John F Spoko, the SIGAR on September 21, 2017 to discuss his new report.

His findings concluded that developing Afghanistan’s security forces has been a key policy priority for the US since 2002. After nearly 16 years of effort, the US has directly spent more than $70 billion to train, equip, and support the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF), the strength and effectiveness of which is pivotal to the success of the US strategy in Afghanistan. However, these forces remain unable to independently defend against internal and external threats and it appears they will be dependent on continued assistance from the US and other coalition countries for many years.

An important detail to have emerged from latest developments is that the US sees factional fighting, not Pakistan, as the greatest threat to stability in Afghanistan

The Taliban control nearly fifty percent of Afghan territory; they have not been engaged in serious peace talks, hence their concentrated assaults in Kabul and other metropolitan centres continues to take a heavy toll on human lives and property. The ANDSF is sustaining high causalities while the Afghan Government is striving hard to provide security and good governance. According to the SIGAR report, Afghan government has been facing many more problems and challenges than before. The US is adding thousands more troops to strengthen, advise and assist the mission and help Afghanistan to stand on their own feet but in view of SIGAR, it may not bring out the desired results.

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John Spoko concluded that the US Government was ill prepared to conduct effective security assistance in Afghanistan and is not well organised to conduct assistance missions on a larger scale.

In SIGAR’s informed opinion, developing foreign military and police capabilities is a wholesome task of the government’s mission. However, there is a void in the US government led reconstruction activity which has increased by continual deployment of inexperienced forces for security sector assistance mission.

The Inspector General critically opined that the work style of military plans and training programs, selected by the US for the ANDSF, indicated slackness and prevented Afghanistan from effectively managing its forces which contributed to the ANDSF’s inability to secure the country from threats and re-establishment of safe havens for terrorists.

In the context of Pakistan, an important finding is that the US believed that the greatest threat to Afghanistan’s stability is factional fighting, not Pakistan. The reasons which caused the Security Forces failure in Afghanistan are due to underappreciated strategic level assessment by the mission and the US.

As security has continued to deteriorate, force protection requirements have increased, ultimately restricting U.S. advisors’ ability to operate. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is currently attempting to restructure the ANDSF to optimise offensive capabilities and to reverse the eroding stalemate, but with the US military presence confined to large military bases in major population centres and the civilian advisory mission largely stuck behind the US Embassy in Kabul’s walls, there are limits on what can be achieved.

Finally, the report provides a detailed analysis of cross-cutting issues affecting ANDSF development. These issues include corruption, illiteracy, the role of women, the provision of weapon and equipment, high levels of ANDSF attrition, and the annual rotation of US advisors and trainers.

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These stark realities are not a bolt from the blue. In March 2014, General Joseph Dunford had stated before the Senate Armed Services Committee: “Afghan security forces will begin to deteriorate [upon coalition troop withdrawal].… I think the only debate is the pace of that deterioration.”

In the same context, Senior UN Official Lakhdar Brahimi, had observed: “(There were) daily reports of abuses committed by gunmen against the population — armed gangs who establish illegal checkpoints, tax farmers, intimidate, rob, rape and do so — all too often — while wielding the formal title of military commander, police or security chief.” US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates had highlighted the pitfalls by detecting grave anomalies in the system. He observed: “America’s interagency toolkit (for building the security capacity of partner nations is a) hodgepodge of jerry-rigged arrangements constrained by a dated and complex patchwork of authorities, persistent shortfalls in resources, and unwieldy processes.”

In Pakistan we tend to believe that the US is looking for scapegoats when it blames Pakistan for not doing enough but the SIGAR report indicates that the US has made a mess of it with no light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps Pakistan’s outreach to Afghanistan is timely and can bear results.

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