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Security assistance to Afghanistan: lessons learned and their implications for the future

This blog draws out lessons from the past two decades of US-led support to Afghanistan’s armed forces. Whilst considerable capacity gains have been made, severe issues of corruption and poor leadership remain. To improve the effectiveness of the Afghan security forces and to enhance their sustainability, the US should concentrate its remaining leverage on developing high-quality national military leadership.

Published: 08 April 2021

Authors: Jonathan Schroden

Image credits: Afghan Security forces CC ResoluteSupportMedia

In this post, I will briefly discuss broad lessons from two decades of security support to Afghanistan, focusing on the US experience. In particular, I’ll focus on three aspects: (1) the security sector assistance strategies that have been employed and how they changed over time; (2) the extent to which those strategies have succeeded or failed (and why); and (3) what can be learned from this experience for current and future efforts to develop Afghanistan’s security sector.

The previous post in this series examined the evolution of the country’s police forces; this post will focus on the United States’ development of other elements.

The evolution of strategies for security assistance in Afghanistan

In 2002, Afghanistan’s security forces consisted of a very small army and a paltry police force. Today, the country has a large, combined arms force featuring an army, police, air force, and special operations forces (SOF).

The history of US efforts to develop Afghanistan’s army, air force, and SOF is well captured in a lessons learned report by the United States’ Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Briefly, by mid-2002, the US had agreed to take the lead for developing the Afghan National Army (ANA) and had begun a training program for ANA infantrymen, small infantry units, and the defence institutions that support those units. The United States’ basic strategy was to create a small, light infantry force that could protect the nascent Afghan government and development activities in the country. Those efforts continued for several years, while at the same time, security began deteriorating in some parts of the country. As a result, in 2006, the US decided that a more focused effort to develop the army and police was required. It created the Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan (CSTC-A) to lead this effort.

The United States’ security assistance strategy shifted in the wake of CSTC-A’s establishment to one of rapidly expanding the size of the ANA. This meant getting as many “trigger pullers” onto the battlefield as quickly as possible, with the understanding that enabling capabilities—such as intelligence, logistics, and maintenance—would be developed later. To accomplish this, CSTC-A increased the throughput of ANA training by expanding the capacity of Afghan training institutions and shortening the length of training programs. By 2008, the US secured international and Afghan government support for an additional expansion of the ANA from 75,000 to 134,000 personnel. Notably, this expansion included the creation of the Afghan Air Force (as a unit within the ANA) as well as various Afghan SOF units. The expansion also accompanied a shift in strategy, from developing the ANA as a light infantry force to developing it as a combined arms force in the mould of the US Army.

In 2009, as a result of further deteriorations in security, US President Barack Obama ordered a surge of US forces to Afghanistan (which was accompanied by a surge in forces from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation). The US also secured international concurrence for the further expansion of Afghanistan’s security forces to a total of 352,000 personnel, including 195,000 soldiers, SOF, and airmen. During the surge, the US and its partners provided thousands of advisors to Afghan security force units, under a theory of “Afghanisation.” These efforts sought to improve the capability and capacity of Afghan security forces to the point where they could handle the Taliban-led insurgency and US/NATO forces could fully withdraw from the country. By the end of 2014, the US and its NATO partners transferred security responsibility to Afghanistan’s government, under a “conditions-based process” that was conveniently timed to coincide with President Obama’s declared end to the surge period.

By 2016, it was clear that Afghanistan’s army, police, SOF, and still nascent air force were not enough to blunt the Taliban’s momentum, so President Obama reversed an earlier decision to further withdraw US forces and instead stabilized the size of the US presence at 8,400 troops. At this time, the US also got the approval of Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani to enact the “ANDSF Roadmap,” which initiated the dramatic expansion of the size and capabilities of the Afghan Air Force and a doubling of the country’s SOF.

In 2017, President Donald Trump announced the implementation of a South Asia Strategy that aligned the US government’s focus on the goal of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban to end the war in Afghanistan and enable the withdrawal of all US forces. At that time, in part due to the continued expansion of the Afghan Air Force and SOF, the US shifted its security assistance strategy from one focused on “Afghanisation” and the application of counterinsurgency principles with the ANA in the lead, to one focused on putting “military pressure” on the Taliban. This approach relied upon Afghan SOF and the Afghan Air Force—alongside US SOF and air power—to conduct raids and airstrikes against Taliban targets at a high operational tempo, with the goal of inflicting as many Taliban casualties as possible in the hopes of driving them to negotiate a deal with the United States.

Today, there is a US-Taliban Agreement and a fragile peace process underway that includes still-nascent negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. As part of its commitments in that agreement, the US has drawn its force presence down to 2,500 troops (its NATO partners have roughly another 7,500). The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread rate of infections in Afghanistan by mid-2020 required the US to restrict its advising activities to mostly virtual engagements. As a result of these developments, the United States’ security assistance strategy today is in flux. The US is still providing mostly remote advice and assistance with the goal of improving the capabilities of the ANA, SOF, and Afghan Air Force. But the US and its contractors (which now outnumber US forces by more than six to one), are also providing support in intelligence, air, logistics, maintenance, and oversight activities, which Afghanistan’s security forces remain mostly incapable of doing independently.

The extent to which security support has succeeded or failed, and why

As with many aspects of the US experience in Afghanistan, the results of its security assistance efforts have been mixed. On the positive side, the US and its partners created a security force that today numbers 305,000 verified personnel. That security force includes a robust air force with a mix of 101 transport and armed helicopters, as well as 61 cargo, surveillance, and attack fixed-wing aircraft. It also includes Afghan SOF, which have demonstrated continually increasing capabilities. For example, in the past year alone, they more than doubled their number of ground operations (from roughly 500 to over 1,000) and in the last quarter of 2020, they conducted 94% of those operations independently. The ANA currently number around 187,000 personnel, including 6,000 women soldiers. The ANA has a large fleet of armoured vehicles, western armaments (including large-calibre artillery pieces), military-grade communications equipment, and advanced technology such as tactical unmanned aerial vehicles. In short, over the course of 19 years, security efforts by the US and its partners have built a relatively large, technologically advanced, combined arms force, mostly from scratch.

On the negative side, these developments have cost the US alone $88.3 billion. Afghanistan’s security forces continue to cost around $5 billion per year—a number that vastly exceeds the country’s ability to pay. Poor leadership and corruption remain systemic issues across the ANA and police especially, and these issues have been cited as primary reasons for the chronic 2-3% monthly attrition rates for the ANA. These rates inhibit improvements in ANA professionalization, since between a quarter and a third of the force turns over each year. Afghanistan’s security forces also remain heavily dependent on contractor-provided logistics, maintenance, and other sustainment activities, and US advisors continue to conduct substantial amounts of planning, oversight, budgeting, and procurement to backstop deficiencies in the Ministries of Defence and Interior. These and other shortfalls have contributed to steady losses of territory to the Taliban-led insurgency since 2015. And a recent net assessment of the country’s security forces to the Taliban’s fighting forces concluded that if the US was to completely withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the Taliban would have a slight military advantage that would likely grow in compounding fashion over time, due to the remaining heavy dependencies of Afghanistan’s forces on external funding and support.

What can be learned from this experience for Afghanistan going forward?

Afghanistan today is in a precarious position. While the US-Taliban Agreement includes a provision for the US and its NATO allies to withdraw all remaining forces from Afghanistan by May 1, that clause is dependent on the Taliban meeting their commitments under the deal—something the new US administration under President Joe Biden is reviewing. That said, a recent report commissioned by the US Congress and completed by the US Institute for Peace’s Afghanistan Study Group concluded that the Taliban have not met their commitments and recommended that the US move immediately to a full “conditions-based” strategy going forward. If the US chooses to withdraw its forces by May 1—which is still possible, albeit at great cost—perhaps the best it can do for Afghanistan’s security forces is provide continued funding and advice via remote means (e.g., virtual conferencing) to slow the pace of the likely deterioration in those forces’ capabilities.

If, however, the US decides to stay, it will need to dramatically reduce the scope and scale of its security assistance ambitions in Afghanistan and focus on the most critical elements that it can still affect going forward. In particular, it should prioritize two aspects of security assistance: (1) reducing the dependencies and improving the self-sustainability of Afghanistan’s security forces; and (2) using what leverage it has left to influence ANA leader selection. First, for too long, the US has prioritized the addition of technical capabilities to the ANA, Air Force, and Afghan SOF—often putting self-sustainability even further out of reach. The US needs to flip that paradigm, and instead focus on identifying those capabilities that are sustainable within the financial and human capital resources of Afghanistan—with limited (i.e., much reduced) international support. This might, in some cases, require embracing the use of commercial capabilities instead of traditional military ones—for example, the use of WhatsApp instead of commercial-grade military radios. It might also entail jettisoning capabilities that provide questionable return on significant expenditures—for example, the Afghan Air Force’s C-130 aircraft. Necessarily, it must entail steady but predictable reductions in security assistance to avoid the counterproductive outcomes that fully “conditions-based” approaches create when the objectives of the patron (e.g., the United States’ desire to reduce resources dedicated to Afghanistan) differ from those of the client (e.g., the Afghan government’s desire for the indefinite supply of those resources).

Second, with fewer forces and resources in Afghanistan, the US must recognize that its ability to counter systemic corruption in Afghanistan’s security forces will be limited, at best. It should, therefore, focus what leverage it has on developing, and influencing the selection of, key Afghan security force leaders. The Afghan Commandos, for example, have proven to be a source of competent and relatively less corrupt military leaders than other parts of the ANA. The US should reinforce security assistance to such units as pipelines for leader development and use the leverage of its assistance to insist on placement of leaders developed via these pipelines in important military positions. The US should also increasingly leverage its own military exchange programs—and those of its allies and partners—to develop the next generation of ANA leaders. Doing so could, over time, help the ANA become a less corrupt institution and help bolster it—and the government it represents—in the eyes of the Afghan public.

Conclusion

Looking back at the last 19 years’ worth of security assistance activities in Afghanistan, one can identify at least four major shifts in security assistance strategy. These ranged from creating a small, light infantry army to a relatively large, tech-heavy, combined arms force. Along with those shifts came steadily increasing dependencies on external funding and support, to the point where—with the possible exception of Afghan SOF—the country’s security forces are mostly unsustainable by Afghanistan alone. Looking ahead, it seems likely that US resources for Afghanistan will at best remain at current levels, if not continue to decline. In this likely future, the US should shift its security assistance strategy one last time—to focus on improving the sustainability of Afghanistan’s security forces and improving the quality of their leaders as rapidly as it can.