Wednesday, 20 February 2013

NATO In Afghanistan - New Commander, Same Challenges

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by Richard Weitz (02/20/2013 issue of the CACI Analyst)

NATO’s mission in Afghanistan is reaching its home stretch. On February 10, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) held what will likely be its last command transition, with John Allen handing over command to fellow U.S. Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, who will now lead the international effort to train and assist the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and to help achieve NATO’s other objectives in the region. 

 BACKGROUND: Dunford, who serves concurrently as the head of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan, will now participate officially in the NATO debates over how many combat forces to leave in Afghanistan after 2014 and how rapidly the other forces must leave the country. At their November 2010 Lisbon summit, the NATO heads of government set 2014 as the date for transiting to an Afghan-led war and to increase their training, advising, and equipping missions to the ANSF to facilitate this transition. NATO also signed a strategic partnership agreement with the Afghan government that pledges some kind of collaboration beyond 2014.

At their May 2012 Chicago summit, NATO leaders established an interim milestone of mid-2013 when ISAF’s mission will shift, from predominately direct combat with the Afghan Taliban to almost entirely support for the ANSF, who are supposed to take the lead for security throughout the country, but NATO will retain sufficient assets through 2014 to resume direct combat. They also agreed on the rough size and cost of the ANSF and committed in principle to help the Afghan government pay for this force. The NATO members and their nonmember partners in ISAF also pledged to continue a NATO military role in Afghanistan beyond 2014, though with a different name than ISAF and focused on training, advising, and providing other support. Finally, the allied governments reaffirmed their support for an Afghan-led peace effort with the Taliban provided the rights of all Afghans, including women, were protected.

In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama announced his intention this year to remove 34,000 of the 66,000 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan. More will leave in 2014. The United States would like to keep some forces in Afghanistan beyond 2014, but that depends on Washington and Kabul negotiating a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that would provide U.S. forces with legal immunity. The deadline for reaching the SOFA, also known as the bilateral security agreement, is one year after the signing of last May’s Afghan-U.S. Strategic Partnership Agreement. In that accord, the U.S. pledges economic, security, and diplomatic assistance to Afghanistan for the decade after the 2014 withdrawal date, while Afghan officials pledge to improve accountability, transparency, rule of law, and the rights of all Afghans regardless of gender.

At the command transfer ceremony, General Allen said that the Taliban insurgency “will be defeated over time by legitimate and well-trained Afghan forces.” The past two years has seen the ANSF assume responsibility for ensuring security in an increasing number of provinces, cities, and districts in Afghanistan. According to the U.S. government, Afghan forces began leading the majority of operations in July 2012 and now lead approximately 80 percent of operations. The reality of this transition is evident in the declining number of NATO casualties and the rising number of Afghan combat deaths. For example, ISAF did not suffer a single casualty in January 2013, whereas the ANSF lost 25 soldiers in combat. Meanwhile, the number of Afghan civilian deaths has begun to decline.

IMPLICATIONS: Despite several high-profile showcase attacks in Kabul and elsewhere, the ANSF has thus far been able to maintain overall security in these transferred areas. But coming months will see the Afghan forces assume responsibility for some of the country’s most insurgent-infested areas. The ANSF still suffer from inadequate logistics and intelligence, weak aviation and firepower, and a poor ability to detect and neutralize improvised explosive devices. The Pentagon concluded that, as of late September 2012, only one of the 23 ANSF brigades could operate independently of ISAF units, even with the help of ISAF advisers. The fact that a third of the Afghan National Army (ANA) must be replaced each year makes it hard to build the force’s capabilities. Not only do one fourth of the recruits fail to reenlist after their three-year term is over, but ANA units suffer from high desertion and defection rates. 

A more immediate problem is the surge in “insider” attacks, in which supposedly friendly Afghan soldiers turn their weapons on their ISAF advisers. These “green-on-blue” attacks represent a major problem since they exploit a crucial vulnerability by seeking to disrupt the vital ISAF partnership and training programs with their ANSF colleagues. In 2012, there were at least 60 confirmed cases of NATO advisers being killed in “insider” attacks by infiltrators, impersonators, or spontaneous action by ANSF members, who justify their attacks as retaliation for some obnoxious act committed by the Western countries, such as the burning of Korans or showing anti-Islamic films. The Taliban tactic of claiming responsibility for all these attacks has unnerved ISAF advisers, who now keep the weapons loaded at all times while engaging in less social action with their Afghan counterparts. On several occasions, NATO has had to remove its advisers from Afghan work posts and suspend partnered operations in the field. The French government explicitly cited the insider attacks to justify withdrawing its combat forces earlier than originally planned.

Afghan and ISAF governments are attempting to tackle this problem by improving their vetting and screening of new ANSF recruits; enhancing their counter-intelligence efforts; and making ISAF personnel more culturally aware of Afghan sensitivities. NATO’s preferred technological approach to security problems will not yield a solution to this problem. The foreign forces must rely on fellow Afghans to use their superior cultural knowledge and human intelligence to prevent such infiltration. Furthermore, NATO’s plan to shift the ISAF mission from having coalition forces partnering and operating with similar ANSF units to their providing security assistance, in which small ISAF advisory units (“security force assistance teams”) are embedded in Afghan units at the NATO brigade-level as enablers and trainers, should reduce the incidents of insider attacks. Most of the green-on-blue attacks do not involve soldiers who serve together on a constant basis. Instead, they naturally find it easier to kill people who they encounter on episodic or random contacts.

The rapid increase in the ANSF’s size has contributed to this insider problem since it invariably led to a relaxation of recruitment and supervisory standards. Between December 2009 and October 2012, the NATO Training Mission- Afghanistan (NTM-A) helped the ANSF grow by more than 140,000 personnel, to some 352,000 soldiers. Almost 5,000 NTM-A trainers serve in Afghan institutions, while some 400 ISAF military and police advisory teams deploy with ANSF units in the field. They have trained more than 3,200 ANSF instructors in a “train the trainers” program aimed to allow NTM-A to reduce its presence like the rest of NATO.

Last summer NATO confirmed its plans to reduce the ANSF to 230,000 troops after 2015 for affordability reasons. The costs of maintaining the current force of 352,000 exceed the budget of the entire Afghan government. Nonetheless, some U.S. defense leaders and members of Congress want to keep the larger force until the Taliban threat is more clearly under control. The 230,000 troop figure was based on an analysis done by the Center for Army Analysis a few years ago. During his Senate confirmation hearings last year, Gen. Dunford said he would review that recommendation. 

CONCLUSIONS: Despite generally hostile public opinion, NATO governments have proven surprisingly successful at sustaining their forces in Afghanistan because NATO leaders have defined keeping their Afghan commitment an issue of alliance solidarity. Nonetheless, although they have pledged to continue some kind of post-ISAF mission after 2014, NATO governments seem eager to remove almost all their combat forces in the next two years despite convincing evidence of substantially improved Afghan military capacity. This approach, while corresponding to political realities in the Western democracies, unfortunately feeds Afghan expectations that the West will once again abandon their country and emboldens Iran and Pakistan to make plans presuming a post-NATO security vacuum in Afghanistan that they are eager to fill.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute. 

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