Can the Afghan Security Forces Stand Up to the Taliban?

Can the Afghan Security Forces Stand Up to the Taliban?  Observations from the Field Say “Yes”

Jonathan Schroden, Patricio Asfura-Heim, Catherine Norman, and Jerry Meyerle

Predictions of doom for Afghanistan following an American withdrawal tend to ignore an important indicator of the country’s future:  its ability to defend itself. Throughout 2013, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) had the lead in providing security to Afghans, with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in support. How did they perform and what might it mean in terms of their ability to secure the country post-2014?

A team of analysts from CNA Corporation, a non-profit research and analysis organization located in Alexandria, VA, recently traveled to Afghanistan to conduct a congressionally mandated study to assess the ANSF and determine the future requirements for its size, structure, and capabilities. This study – based on empirical, independent first-hand observations of the ANSF and on hundreds of interviews of Afghan, ISAF, and U.S. officials at all levels, in all of Afghanistan’s regions – concluded that, despite numerous glaring shortfalls, the ANSF were generally successful in the 2013 fighting season and are performing better than most people realize.

In the wake of our travel to Afghanistan, we reached eight major conclusions regarding the current status of the ANSF:

1.  The Afghan National Army is tactically sound and willing to fight

Throughout 2013, the Afghan army demonstrated that it can fight well and win firefights on the battlefield. The Taliban tested the army in direct combat but increasingly shifted from head-on to indirect attacks (e.g., improvised explosive devices) because they could not overmatch Afghanistan's soldiers. While the army spent the bulk of its time manning checkpoints and conducting local patrols, it showed some ability to plan and carry out more sophisticated initiatives, such as Operation Semorgh in Logar province (a large-scale effort to clear rural areas used as staging grounds for insurgent attacks into Kabul). In addition, with reduced ISAF support, the army showed a knack for adaptation and learned to effectively leverage low-tech solutions – such as adding anti-aircraft guns and recoilless rifles onto trucks. Nevertheless, for all its tactical, and occasional operational successes, the Afghan army continues to struggle with a number of critical functions including logistics, maintenance, communications, fire and air support, and intelligence.

2. Despite heavy causalities the Afghan National Army remains cohesive

Going into the 2013 fighting season, there were concerns that as the ANSF did more of the fighting (and suffered more casualties) than in the past, there would be unit fracture, loss of cohesion, or widespread desertion.  However, while army attrition ran at about three percent per month (quite high, by Western standards), at the end of the fighting season, the army held together. High attrition did not impact operations, recruitment remained robust, and the army as an institution continued to be very popular with Afghans.

3. The Afghan National Police remain a semi-professional paramilitary force

In 2013, the Afghan National Police improved their performance and began to repair the force’s tattered reputation.  With the support of the army, the police were able to hold all district and provincial centers despite increased Taliban attacks. Nevertheless, the police remain the weakest link in the ANSF and are consistently seen as the most corrupt of the security forces. Our interviews suggested that out of an active-duty uniformed force of about 150,000 police, 10,000-20,000 had yet to be trained. Moreover, Afghan police remained largely out-gunned by insurgents and suffered high numbers of casualties. Contrary to civilian law enforcement standards, most Afghan police do not patrol beats, make arrests, or build case files in support of the rule of law. Instead, they largely man checkpoints designed to disrupt insurgents' movements.  

4. Good coordination and leadership correlates with ANSF success

Our observations during the 2013 fighting season suggest that the ANSF are most successful when their components coordinate and when they have competent, dedicated leaders. A positive example is, again, Operation Semorgh, which featured both of those attributes.  But good leadership and proper coordination depend heavily on the personalities and personal relationships of ANSF leaders and have not yet been institutionalized across the force.  Unlike Semorgh, there are examples of infighting and mistrust between ANSF commanders, sometimes leading to a lack of support to units engaged in combat, and unilateral operations that often result in the ambush of Afghan forces.

5. Afghan Special Operations Forces (SOF) are highly capable but remain reliant on ISAF support

Afghan SOF and special police units conducted numerous raids and high-level special missions last year, often without U.S. and ISAF partners on the ground. Moreover, their arrival at the scene of more conventional battles often turned the tide and boosted the morale of regular army soldiers.  While they demonstrated a knack for collecting intelligence (an important mission of Afghan special forces and special police units) their ability to analyze that information – or to generate new targets or missions based on it – was limited. To address this, ISAF has begun building Afghan SOF intelligence battalions, but these are in their infancy.  In addition to intelligence support, Afghan SOF and special police depend heavily on U.S. and ISAF air assets for mobility.

6.  The Afghan Air Force is just getting off the ground

The Afghan Air Force showed promise last year in specific operations and proved particularly adept at flying critical resupply missions. It also demonstrated a limited, but important, capability to evacuate casualties and to support airborne raids conducted by Afghan special operations forces. Nevertheless, the air force remains a nascent institution.  It has little ability to conduct close-air support – which is in high demand by ANSF ground forces.  Moreover, it continues to rely heavily on contract support for maintenance of its aircraft and struggles to find and retain qualified pilots and maintenance crews.

7. The lines between the various components of the ANSF remain blurred

Over the course of last year, Operational Coordination Centers – outposts where the elements of the ANSF plan and coordinate operations – continued to mature throughout the country. Nevertheless, the Afghans' vision of an army focused on defending the nation from external threats and a police force supporting the rule of law is not yet a reality on the ground. In practice, significant overlap still occurs across the ANSF - manning checkpoints, conducting patrols, and providing fixed-site security are conducted by the army, uniform police, border police, national police, and local police, sometimes jointly. 

8. The security ministries remain a work in progress

Before 2013, the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior operated as national-level army and police headquarters rather than as traditional government ministries.  An increased ISAF focus on ministerial development last year resulted in some tangible increases in ministerial capabilities as well as in countering corruption.  However, neither ministry has fully transitioned to the role of serving as a civilian-run bureaucracy focused on providing national and strategic support to the fielded force. Both ministries struggle with planning, programming, and budgeting for future requirements, and have limited capacity to let and oversee contracts. In short, the security ministries are not yet capable of independently providing the support that the ANSF require to achieve operational and strategic success.

The ANSF vs. the Taliban

So, can the ANSF stand up to the Taliban?  Based on in-field observations and interviews, we conclude the answer is “yes.”

While the ANSF did not reach all of their goals during the 2013 fighting season, they held their own and prevented insurgents from accomplishing their goals. The ANSF prevented insurgents from seizing and holding large swaths of terrain, district centers and other notable political targets; they limited insurgents' ability to influence major population centers (occasional high-profile attacks notwithstanding); and they generally kept the insurgents unpopular among the Afghan populace. This could be called a strategic stalemate, and by some definitions it is.  But within this situation, the ANSF still made progress. 

Holding their own against the insurgency for an entire fighting season – with decreasing support from the United States and ISAF – implies a positive trajectory to the development of the ANSF even in the midst of strategic stasis.  That they did so is an important step for the ANSF and for the country as a whole. Moreover, the longer the Taliban are forced to wait to launch another campaign, the less relevant they look to the Afghan population. Perhaps most important, the ANSF's performance last year inspired confidence within their own leadership, and among Afghans, in their ability to stand and hold against the insurgency.

For a force still in its infancy, the ANSF's performance last year—judged on its own merits—should be considered a success. The ANSF still need to improve in almost every way, and they will require continued support from the US and ISAF to do so, but they stood up to the Taliban in 2013 and ended the year still fighting, holding, improving, and gaining confidence in their abilities. While the ANSF will remain highly dependent on international support for the foreseeable future, their performance last year should provide a measure of reassurance that a positive future remains possible for Afghanistan.

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