Over the past two decades, U.S. government officials have consistently said that Afghan troops and police are not ready to fight on their own.
John Sopko, the special inspector general for reconstruction in Afghanistan, recently explained to Task & Purpose why the Afghan security forces still depend on extensive foreign support even though the United States has spent more than $88 billion in training and equipping Afghan troops and police since 2001.
But President Joe Biden and his administration are suddenly brimming with confidence about the Afghan military and police forces now that all U.S. troops are expected to leave the country by Sept. 11.
“Along with our partners, we have trained and equipped a standing force of over 300,000 Afghan personnel today and hundreds of thousands over the past two decades,” Biden said during his April 14 speech announcing the U.S withdrawal. “And they’ll continue to fight valiantly, on behalf of the Afghans, at great cost.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin provided an upbeat assessment of the Afghan security forces a short time later, telling reporters “the Afghan people police their own streets.”
“Thanks to the efforts of coalition and allied training, the Afghan security forces are better and more capable of securing their borders and protecting their fellow citizens,” Austin told reporters during a news conference in Brussels.
That’s pretty high praise considering the head of U.S. Central Command, Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., said in December that Afghan troops and police should at best be able to “maintain a defense against the Taliban” as long as the United States and other countries continued their funding and other support.
Indeed: If U.S. troops have helped the Afghans maintain a military stalemate against the Taliban, it seems unlikely that Afghan troops and police will be able to gain the upper hand without any American airpower or boots on the ground.
The Pentagon’s official line is that the Afghans have made a lot of progress in planning and carrying out operations independently.
“The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces have been performing the greater percentage of missions and have proven themselves capable of withstanding Taliban violence and threats from terrorist groups like ISIS-Khorasan with significantly reduced advising,” said Navy Cmdr. Jessica McNulty, a Defense Department spokeswoman.
The Taliban can field between 55,000 and 85,000 fighters and may have a total force of 100,000 people, according to a May 2020 United Nations report. On the other side of the battlefield: The Afghan security forces have been hampered by desertions and their numbers have been artificially swelled with tens of thousands of troops and police officers that exist on paper but not in real life.
“When they do get recruits, and we train them, they suffer casualties at a rapid pace due to the operational tempo of fighting insurgents,” Sopko said recently. “Or they leave the force due to corruption – for example, not having their salaries paid. And then we have to replace and train ANDSF [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] personnel all over again.”
The latest report by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction painted a grim picture of the state of Afghan troops and police, which are not able to maintain their vehicles and aircraft.
“Although Afghanistan’s leadership have often stated that their goal is self-reliance, Afghanistan today is nowhere near to being self-reliant — especially in funding its government operations, including military and police—from its own resources,” the report found.
Notably, the U.S. government will continue to pay the salaries for Afghan troops and police officers after all American forces leave the country. That should buy the Afghan government a year or two, said Jonathan Schroden, an Afghanistan expert with CNA, a federally funded research and development center.
While the fighting will be more difficult for Afghan military and police forces after the U.S. withdrawal, certain units have proven to be reliable, said retired Army Gen. Joseph Votel, who led U.S. Central Command from March 2016 to March 2019.
“There are components of the forces there that will probably acquit themselves quite well,” Votel said.
Afghan special operations forces in particular are “quite good” and moving towards being able to launch operations without U.S. military support, Votel said. Some Afghan army corps commanders have also demonstrated that they are capable leaders.
But only a handful of Afghan units are able to operate independently and they have already lost much of the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support provided by the U.S. military, said Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, D.C.
Moreover, Afghanistan’s central government has no presence in much of the country, especially outside cities, Cordesman said.
“Certainly, the Afghan forces patrol in major population centers; the police patrol in some population centers; but basically, when it comes to about half of the districts, which are largely rural, the police and the central government do not function and you have local forces or you have Taliban – often both,” Cordesman said.
The presence of Afghan security forces in Kabul has not been able to stop shootings and bombings, and once you go beyond the city’s limits you will likely find Taliban checkpoints on the roads, he said.
“No, the Afghan forces can’t stand on their own,” Cordesman said. “And the independent operations that people talk about are often – when you really look at them – fairly small, tactical clashes, which the Taliban don’t really need or want. They’re seeking to dominate the countryside and position themselves – not to defeat the Afghan forces in open battle – most of the time, as long as they still have U.S. air and ground support.”
Despite the Biden’s administration’s optimism about the Afghan security forces’ capabilities, the Afghan troops and police officers don’t stand a chance without American airpower, drones, and boots on the ground.
God help them.
Featured image: An Afghan Special Security Forces special operator member provides suppressing fire with a DShK machine gun during a training event, Feb. 11, 2018 at Camp Pamir in Kunduz province, Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Sean Carnes)
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