U.S.-led efforts to build Afghan security forces capable of preventing Taliban resurgence face a series of challenges, from the reluctance of southern Pashtuns to serve in a national army, to maintaining the billions of dollars in infrastructure and equipment provided by the U.S. and other foreign countries over the past decade.
Brig. Gen. Guy “Tom” Cosentino, deputy commanding general for regional support at the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, Tuesday provided a largely candid assessment of Afghan security progress and U.S. goals.
“When we say that they [the Afghans] are going to provide security, I don’t mean that the war is going to end … on Dec. 31, 2014” when U.S.-led troops are to hand over responsibility for defending the country, Cosentino told an audience at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. “The Afghan army and police will be securing their own people and there will be occasional dramatic attacks.”
U.S. popular enthusiasm for the war a decade after the 9-11 attacks has waned as the financial and human costs of the conflict rise. Even as the U.S. starts to withdraw 33,000 troops surged into the country since President Barack Obama’s inauguration, the death toll continues to mount. August was the deadliest month of the war for U.S. troops, with 66 killed — 300 so far this year. More than 1,750 U.S. troops have died since the U.S. starting fighting in Afghanistan in 2001.
U.S. hopes of reducing its military personnel to 10,000 or 20,000 – from a current level of 100,000 – rest in large part on developing capable Afghan forces. After a choppy start, a NATO-led training mission inaugurated nearly two years ago is shaping an Afghan security establishment that numbers more than 300,000 soldiers and police.
Cosentino said the quality of the forces was improving, but conceded that the mission still has to contend with a number of challenges. Among them:
Southern Pashtuns – the major source of recruits for the Taliban – now make up about a third of Afghan army and police but are under- represented in the officer corps. While Pashtuns make up nearly 40 percent of Afghan army officers, Cosentino said he did not have a figure for the percentage that are from the south. Tajiks, a northern ethnic group that represents only 25 percent of the Afghan population, make up 38 percent of army officers. Pashtuns account for about 44 percent of the population.
Only 14 percent of Afghans aged 18-40 – the prime military recruiting target group – are literate and “it’s worse in the south”, Cosentino said. As a result, basic training for both army and police now includes teaching recruits how to read.
Retention “is still a challenge,” Cosentino said. The attrition rate for the Afghan army was 32 percent in 2010 and remains high, at about 2.2 percent a month or 24-26 percent a year. The turnover, Cosentino said, in part reflects the fact that “there is no law that requires you to stay” in the Afghan military once signing up – unlike the situation in the U.S. and most other nations.
To compensate for the reluctance of southern Pashtuns to join the national army, NATO is promoting recruitment of local police in a kind of replay of the creation of “Sons of Iraq” militias among Sunnis who would not join an Iraqi army perceived as Shiite Muslim- dominated.
Matthew Hoh, a former Marine Corps company commander and director of the Afghanistan Study Group, a nonprofit group that opposed the U.S. troop surge, told IPS that this approach would not overcome local hostility to national forces.
“Are they truly subservient to the ministry of interior [in Kabul]?” Hoh asked about the local police. He added that the Taliban had conducted its own surge, reflected in the rising numbers of improvised explosive devices and other attacks on U.S. and Afghan forces and the Taliban’s apparent reluctance to engage in negotiations on a political solution.
In message marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who is believed to be in Pakistan, noted approvingly that “the enemy sustained more casualties in soul and equipment this year in comparison with last year.”
Omar alluded to the death of 30 U.S. troops – including elite Navy SEALs – in a helicopter crash Aug. 6 and the assassination of prominent Afghan officials, including Ahmad Wali Karzai, boss of Kandahar province and President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother, Jul. 12. Omar did not mention the U.S. killing of Al-Qaeda leader and Taliban ally Osama bin Laden in Pakistan May 1.
Cosentino maintained that the U.S. and NATO surge had shown results in southern Afghanistan, where he said “the enemy is back on their heels”. He said the military and diplomatic focus over the next six months would be on eastern Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan, which insurgents appear to cross at will. “We are still greatly challenged in the east,” he said.
Traveling around the country in recent months, Cosentino said he had seen a marked rise in economic activity in areas that had previously been controlled by the Taliban. “Helmand province is a boomtown,” he said. In addition to local investment, private Indian and Iranian entrepreneurs are also starting up businesses.
“People don’t make investments where their investments are at risk,” he said.
The NATO training mission, which now includes representatives of 34 nations, is shifting focus toward what Cosentino called “stewardship” – teaching Afghans how to maintain personnel, facilities and equipment.
NATO has also altered its construction practices, which he admitted had not been “very wise” in the past, toward building that is more sustainable in a poor country. For example, he said, Afghans are being given money to build adobe-style structures in the south that are cheap to maintain and cool. Solar panels are being installed on the roofs of police stations so that they don’t need expensive generators and fuel to provide electricity.
Cosentino said local police are also recruiting women – many of them war widows – to perform functions such as searching female suspects.
Many critics have focused on the high cost of the training mission – which Cosentino said would amount to 12.8 billion dollars for 2012 – and said that there was no way that Afghanistan will be able to pay for its large security forces on its own.
Cosentino said the sum reflected the fact that “we are in a building phase” and that the number “will drop like a rock next year” after facilities are finished, weapons are provided and Afghans take over more responsibility for defending their country. He conceded, however, that for the mission to succeed, the U.S. and its partners would have to maintain a long-term commitment to the country.