Afghan army far from fighting fit
By Charles Recknagel
On paper, the Afghan National Army (ANA)
looks strong enough to secure the country almost
immediately. The force had a listed strength of
173,000 personnel in October and should reach
195,000 soldiers by the end of 2013.
means that by the end of next year, it will be
one-and-a-half times the size of the
130,000-strong International Security Assistance
Force currently deployed in Afghanistan.
But if the ANA is now a large force after
years of slow growth, its level of training and
effectiveness is less certain. And as political
pressure grows in the United
States for a more rapid drawdown of forces in
Afghanistan, a key question is how soon the ANA
will be ready to defend the country by itself.
A report on the army and police issued in
June 2010 by the US office of the special
inspector general for Afghan reconstruction
revealed widespread absenteeism, corruption and
drug abuse among the Afghan forces.
report suggested that only 23% of Afghan soldiers
were capable of working unsupervised and found
that in the month before the report was issued,
12% of the army had been absent without leave.
Since then, there have been improvements.
'Really good job' The North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Training
Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) said in August 2011
that the quality of recruits and retention was
improving following a pay raise and improvements
in the ANA's payroll system.
said between 90 and 95% of new recruits were able
to pass a weapons-qualification test after
graduating from basic training. That compares to
just 25% a year earlier.
"The army in
particular has done a really good job in getting
recruits in," says Joshua Foust, a regional expert
at the American Security Project in Washington.
"The challenge with that is that even though they
are better than they were in 2008 or 2009, you
still don't have a lot of units that can operate
He says Afghan forces are
increasingly doing their own sweep operations in
areas under their control, but that they remain
dependent on foreign forces in multiple ways.
"They are completely reliant on the United
States or on NATO for the logistics, for their
planning, for their intelligence, for their air
support, for their quick-response forces if they
get into trouble," Foust says. "So there are a lot
of ways in which there is the illusion or
appearance of their being self-sufficient when
they are really not."
Top US commanders in
Afghanistan acknowledge the overall level of the
ANA remains far from that of Western standards.
But they say the level of the ANA's special forces
is constantly improving and that it is those
forces that are the key to fighting a successful
"Will [the ANA] be at
the standard that we have for our soldiers? No -
not, at least, the conventional forces,"
Lieutenant General Curtis Scaparrotti, the deputy
commander of US Forces-Afghanistan, said last
month. "Their response forces we're training,
their [special operations forces], the commandos,
are being trained to a very high level. And I
think that's one thing that's a bright picture
here for them is that their response forces are
really coming along very well. And that will be
... quite an asset for the country here in the
Taliban infiltration A
very different problem the ANA faces is
infiltration by the Taliban.
members of the NATO-led force were killed in 42
insider attacks from May 2007 through the end of
January 2012. The killings show the ANA has yet to
develop an effective vetting system for keeping
out sleeper agents.
As General Abdul
Hameed, the top army commander for the southern
region of Afghanistan, said this month, "Placing
the rogues inside the army is well-planned by the
enemies. The Taliban give them special training."
He said preventing infiltration would require far
better intelligence to identify suspects and
prevent them from enlisting.
makes predicting whether the ANA will be able to
defend Afghanistan a bit like trying to determine
whether a glass is half full or half empty.
Optimists can take heart from the fact
that international forces have been able to
steadily hand over security responsibility to the
ANA, with about half of the country's population
now living in areas the ANA controls.
Pessimists can point to the fact that the
most conflict-ridden areas remain the
responsibility of foreign forces, particularly in
the east and south.
What both viewpoints
can agree on is that the true test for the ANA has
yet to come, and that when it does, the future of
Afghanistan will hinge on the result.