Afghan Forces on the Edge of Transition

The United States and its allies are months away from ending their combat role in Afghanistan. The United States, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and the Afghan Government have provided a substantial amount of data on the process of Transition, the course of the fighting, and the development and capability of Afghan forces.

In at least some cases, this may be the last round of valuable data that provides this level of information. With the reduced US and allied presence in the Afghanistan, key data on the course of fighting and Afghan force readiness have already been sharply cut back as the US and ISAF lose direct contact with Afghan forces in the field. Additionally, efforts have been made to portray Transition and the course of the fighting in favorable terms in the face of setbacks and undeniable challenges, for what often seem to be political reasons.

A new study by the Burke Chair at CSIS summarizes the key policies and metrics that have become available since August 2014, as well as the trend data necessary to put this material in context. It provides considerable insight into the success of Transition to date, the seriousness of probable Afghan capability to contain and defeat the Taliban and other insurgents and the seriousness of the fighting.

At the same time, these data often expose a critical lack of transparency, and what often seem to be serious gaps in the planning for the future. In many cases, there seems to be a growing emphasis on “spin” and public relations efforts to sell progress at the expense of realism and objectivity – often by simply ceasing to report metrics that have proved to be embarrassing in the past.

The study is divided into four different parts, each focusing on different aspects of Transition:

I.    Afghan Forces on the Edge of Transition: Introduction, US Policy, and Cuts in US Forces and Spending covers key policy statements, polls on US public support, the history of the US military build-up and draw down, and the erratic and declining nature of US funding. The future level of US funding remains unclear and will depend on the nature of US budgets from FY2016 onwards.  It is clear from the data shown, however, that the US effort was very slow to react to the rise of the Taliban and other insurgents after 2005, that the US built up a surge only to rapidly cut back on its forces, and that US funding of the ANSF was extremely erratic and unstable to say the least, and often wasted funds on areas that produced little lasting impact.

II.    Afghan Forces on the Edge of Transition: Sharply Contradictory Data on Levels of Violence provides a deeply disturbing picture of the recent unclassified data on the fighting. The US and ISAF have virtually ceased to report any metrics or hard data on the fighting, limiting information to press briefings. The only data now provided are quarterly trend data for the percentages of change in Enemy-Initiated Attacks (EIAs). This assumes that enemy forces will focus on taking the tactical initiative at a time they know the US and other ISAF states are leaving, ignores the insurgent effort to increase political influence and control, and ignores the need to make net assessments of ANSF and insurgent influence and capability. It also ignores the far more negative trends in UN estimates of casualties, areas of violence, and State Department estimates of patterns of terrorism.

III.    Afghan Forces on the Edge of Transition: Measuring the Transition from ISAF to ANSF examines the changing patterns in the role of ISAF forces and the ANSF, the rise of ANSF forces and activity as ISAF cut back, the growing scale of Afghan led operations, and the historical trends in the formal transfer of given provinces to Afghan responsibility. The data involved have limited meaningful because the Afghan-led only look at the number of operations and not their scale, purpose, or outcome. They also do not distinguish the success or failure, and nature of, insurgent operations.

IV.    Afghan Forces on the Edge of Transition– IV: Progress in Afghan Force Development reflects major progress in many areas of ANSF development. It also warns, however, just how rapidly the ANSF has expanded, and how poorly that expansion was initially funded and staffed with adequate advisors. It also shows that much of the ANSF is a relatively ineffective and corrupt police force that lacks the support of other key elements of the justice system in many areas. The unclassified reporting also have ceased to provide any meaningful insight into the development of either the Ministry of Defense or Ministry of the Interior, and that the reporting of unclassified readiness data on the ANA and ANP has been reduced in scope over the last six months to the point where it has little or no real meaning.

The ANA force data are in general far stronger than the ANP data, but do not adequately address attrition in terms of the loss of experienced fighters, and weapons accountability. There is now clear picture of post 2014 training efforts, and the data reveal serious uncertainties about the future size and capability of the Afghan Air Force.

The ANP. ALP, APPF and CNPA data are limited, but still raise critical questions about force quality, the future nature and level of the advisory effort, and how major elements of the police like the Afghan Local Police, Afghan Public Protection Force, and Counternarcotics Police of Afghanistan are to be structured, employed, and funded in the future. No meaningful transition plan is publically available for any element of the police, and reporting in the latest DoD 1230 report highlights the shortfalls in the rest of the justice system. It is also worth noting that the fact the police take high casualties is scarcely a measure of effectiveness.

More broadly, there is a striking lack of credible information on future plans, what will happen during the period between 2015 and 2016, the strategy the ANSF will pursue, and what will happen if it comes under pressure. The current withdrawal of the remaining advisors – which cannot adequately cover even the ANA at the Corps level seems to be a rigid plan rather than conditions-based. The statements in Part IV by General John F. Campbell and Lieutenant General Joseph Anderson do provide considerable narrative insight, but in broad terms there is a critical need for more transparency and for more integrity and less “spin” in the data provided.

with the assistance of Aaron Lin and Michael Peacock