One thing is certain. Coalition forces led by the U.S. won’t stay in Afghanistan “forever.” The question is with their withdrawal from Afghanistan, can Afghan Security Forces (ASF) hold the Afghan State together and protect its borders? I am sure this question is haunting Afghan leadership, the Afghan people and the youth of the country who have lived in a “relatively” stable Afghanistan in the post-Taliban era. This question is even more important for the foreign backers of the Afghan government and ASF. After many years of support and training by coalition forces, it is time to look at the preparedness, moral integrity, professionalism and morale of the ASF and evaluate if they are up for the job of protecting the Afghan State and its people.
According to the Pentagon, the war in Afghanistan costs American taxpayers $45 billion per year. This cost has come down from its peak of $100 billion in 2010. From 2010 to 2012, there were approximately 100,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan. More money was needed to financially sustain the troop level. Out of $45 billion that is now spent on the war in Afghanistan, $5 billion of it exclusively goes to ASF. The money is mainly used for their training and salaries. The idea of training ASF to shoulder the challenges of security and fight insurgency along with coalition forces took precedence around 2008. Prior to that, the subject of developing the Afghan army was not on the agenda. According to John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), in the early years of the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001-02, the U.S. and its partners “focused solely on US military operations and did not include the development of an Afghan army, police, or supporting ministerial-level institutions.” Mr. Sopko further states that it was after 2008 that NATO forces put together a functional training and capacity-building program that could help the Afghan army become professional.
Up until the end of 2017, the U.S. has spent $70 billion building and training ASF. In spite of this heavy financial investment, ASF is a mess. Strength-wise, it is nowhere near the goal of reaching 352,000 troops. In fact, SIGAR said in its 2016 report, that “neither the U.S. nor its Afghan allies truly know how many Afghan soldiers and police are available for duty, or, by extension, the true nature of their operation capabilities.” In the same year, the Associated Press reported about the presence of “ghost soldiers” that have seriously undermined the fight against the Taliban insurgency and revealed the prevalence of corruption in the army’s rank and file. Ghost soldiers receive salaries but are physically absent from the battlegrounds. They only exist on paper. Their number apparently runs into the tens of thousands. The problem of ghost soldiers is coupled with a high desertion rate. There are multiple reasons for leaving the force. It can range from inconsistency in payment of salary, poor leadership, lack of on-time reinforcements, poor living conditions, corruption, nepotism, the absence of equipment and military gear and fear of insurgent groups. The issue of desertion is serious. It is usually tackled through recruitment drives by army’s top brass, but this strategy is unsustainable. The factors that lead to desertion should be addressed. In terms of time and resources, it is much more profitable to keep a trained soldier than start from scratch by training a new recruit.
The problems of ASF are not just limited to ghost soldiers and a high desertion rate. Illiteracy is hampering its development and professionalism. In 2009, SIGAR reported that only “13 percent” of ASF recruits were literate. Illiteracy which is a broader problem of the Afghan population, can be a hindrance for ASF as it negatively impacts their training process. Most of the military training manuals are in written forms, hence, one needs literacy to comprehend and utilize them. Lack of literacy will lead to incomplete training, slow training frustrating both trainees and trainers, overutilization of resources and ultimately desertion. To make matters worse, the language barrier that comes with foreign trainers is a further hindrance in the training process. On the operational level, illiteracy is an obvious barrier, too. SIGAR’s 2017 report laments this difficulty. A soldier should be able to read and understand maps, signs, directions and follow instructions to carry out orders for the purpose of being part of the battle force. This is the way a battle is fought and won. Illiteracy affects preparedness for the battlefield. It disturbs all levels of the Afghan defense apparatus and chain of command, creating an endless confusion and incomprehension in conflict situations. The prospect of an illiterate or semi-literate army defending Afghanistan’s borders after the withdrawal of foreign forces seems hopeless. And the use of drugs in the army is rampant too. In a country that cultivates poppy in large quantity, drug use seeps into every institution. The prospect of an army addicted to an opioid creates obvious problems in combat situations.
ASF has long been plagued by endemic corruption. This is one of the challenges that can result in an implosion from within if the issue is not dealt with effectively. Corruption in ASF takes many forms and occurs on different levels. SIGAR in its 2017 report detailed all forms of corruption, which include extortion by Afghan national police – triggering anger from the public, the stealing of salaries and theft, and the sale of supplies such as fuel and weapons. Sometimes the weapons end up in the hands of the Taliban. Undoubtedly, corruption happens in ASF, but it is also incentivized by the significant pouring of money by the West into the Afghan defense department, without setting up a “transparency mechanism” to ensure accountability. Afghanistan was a devastated country gripped into a deep poverty with a voracious hunger for wealth. But the Western donors had the responsibility and mandate to be cautious that their taxpayers’ money is spent productively and toward an end with a clear outcome. Afghans did not have reputed and functional institutions to make use of the money responsibly. They did not have the required human and institutional capacity to manage such large sums of money. Money was just thrown into a bottomless pit “hoping” to build an army. The West should know better than anyone that hope is never a “strategy.”
When it comes to professionalism and fighting spirit of ASF, the story is even starker. The major turnaround that spotlighted the lack of professionalism and morale of ASF was the fall of Kunduz province in 2015. Personally, it was a shocker to me. The first question that flashed through my mind was: where did all the investment and training go? Even though the fall of Kunduz was brief, symbolically, it was significant. The Taliban used it as a propaganda stunt to display their power, sending a message that they have the power to overrun a major city. The fall showcased the flaws in ASF’s strategy and training. The fact-finding mission headed by former intelligence chief, Amruallah Saleh, to investigate the reasons that led to the fall of Kunduz pinpointed “poor leadership, lack of coordination, misused of resources and bad communication.” Nothing drastic was done by the Americans – the financial sponsors of ASF, nor Afghan leadership to address those flaws or the other challenges faced by ASF, though half-measure steps were taken to improve the situation. In a “blame the messenger” approach to deflecting the problem, the report by Saleh itself became controversial among Afghan officials in light of its indictment of ASF.
Every time you switch on any local TV station in Afghanistan, there is endless talk of ASF training by Americans and NATO forces and how every major donor country is pledging more money and resources toward that end. But it is just media hype. The ground realities are quite different, as the fall of Kunduz amply showed.
Fundamentally, it would be unwise to expect a paradigm shift from Americans as state building is not on their agenda. The U.S. is driven in large part by short-termism via the plundering of whatever remains of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, and a preoccupation with experimenting their latest weapons on our lands. Leaving the Afghan defense apparatus forever dependent on the U.S. better serves the interests of American foreign policy. As partners, arms manufacturers and defense contractors will get more lucrative contracts from the Pentagon, if the war machine persists. Protracted war means continued profits for weapons manufacturers and defense contractors, but more death for Afghans – sport for some American soldiers – and an interminable draining of American taxpayers’ money. It is better not to talk about Afghan leadership and its Western-educated technocrats, who boast of reforms and economic self-sufficiency. In fact, it is their poor leadership that gets Afghan soldiers killed on the frontlines, as the fall of Kunduz demonstrated. The Afghan government led by neoliberal-cum-virulent racist Ashraf Ghani – installed by former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry – is busy indulging in brutal racism and pursuing the politics of exclusion. He is hell-bent to ensure his ethnic group, the Pashtuns, get the major say on policies and get the lion’s share of government resources. Other ethnic groups are left high and dry.
The original target of the Afghan government was to reach the mark of a 352,000-strong force. But in the process, quality was compromised. It is true that Afghanistan is an illiterate country, making it hard to recruit literate soldiers. So, instead of wasting resources and time on training and educating illiterate recruits, the focus should have been paid on relatively literate ones, and on promoting literacy more broadly within Afghan society. These options could have yielded higher returns. After all, having a “small” but well-trained, well-equipped, professional and educated force is better than a large illiterate army that takes a longer time to learn how to operate advanced weaponry and understand modern warfare. In the end, both the West and Afghan leadership missed the mark. And no correction course is taken to right the wrong despite repeated reports and warnings from SIGAR and other independent sources. But the most important point is ASF’s financial dependence on the West. How long can they depend on Americans and NATO forces for money? Nothing has been done to address this vital issue. Billions of dollars flooded into the country and ASF is still far from being financially independent. The biggest question: what kind of scenario are we looking at when Americans and NATO stop footing the bill? This is the question on which the survival of the Afghan State depends.
Rohullah Naderi is an Afghan political observer. A former Fulbright Scholar, he has a graduate degree in political science from Lehigh University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org