Last week, Afghan security forces assumed lead security responsibility in areas across Afghanistan. This historic milestone is a testament to the sacrifice, hard work, and vision of the international community and the government of Afghanistan. Since the first tranche of transition areas was announced earlier this year, NATO and Afghan leadership have been working shoulder-to-shoulder to provide the necessary training, equipment, and partnering to fully realize the goal of Afghans providing security for Afghanistan. Dr. Ashraf Ghani, who oversees the transition process for the President of Afghanistan, told Reuters, “The Afghan national army has had an enormous change both in quality and in numbers…we are completely confident that the Afghan army will have the capability.” These gains are positive, but challenges remain. As I wrote earlier in the New Atlanticist,
Although we have come a long way, we recognize that transition is only the first of many difficult steps in the future. Days and months that will be challenged by difficulties, marred by setbacks, and faced with dangers. However, reinforced by the bonds of partnership, professionalism, and pride, I am convinced that the path we are on together developing the Afghan Army, Air Force, and Police will provide the Afghan people with the security they deserve, the prosperity they desire and a future they determine for themselves.
To be sure, partnership is essential and underlies progress today and in the future. We are driven by a common goal as laid out at last fall’s NATO Summit in Lisbon: sustain and improve Afghan capacity and capability to counter threats to the security, stability and integrity of Afghanistan. At Lisbon, NATO committed to an enduring role beyond 2014. This goal is important first and foremost for the Afghan people who have suffered through decades of war, but also this is important for regional stability.
Geographically, Afghanistan has historically served as a critical link between Central and South Asia. While security is disrupted by insurgent groups and a new “Silk Road” is still developing, there are positive signs. Nick Hopkins reported from Lashkar Gah last week, “there are other signs of regeneration: the markets are busy, a new car dealership is about open, and there is construction everywhere.” And Dr. Lee Windsor, the deputy director of the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society said, “In an Afghan context, the economy of Kandahar is booming and most importantly the province can feed itself again and it can export food crops.” And as I observed in Herat last week, the city is bustling and Afghans want to lead. Minister of Defense Wardak told us, “this is our national responsibility to take over our security and defend our country.”
The economic activity is a positive sign and is enabled by the growth and professionalization of the Afghan security forces. To date, international efforts have focused on growing the Afghan military and police to meet the immediate needs of the security deficit in Afghanistan. Where once there was a disparate Army of 97,000 soldiers there now stands an ethnically-balanced force of just over 171,600. The growth is both a testament to the strength of partnership between the international community and the government of Afghanistan, but also Afghans willingness to heed the call to defend their country and determine their future. Senator Carl Levin stated this in February, “For years, I have strongly and repeatedly advocated for building up Afghan military capability because I believe only the Afghans can truly secure their nation’s future.”
There has been significant progress in the growth and quality of the Afghan Army, Air Force, and Police over the last two years. Over the next several years, we are shifting from an infantry-centric force to a self-sustaining force. From a practical matter, this has meant creating an indigenous training base to ensure Afghans have the capability to maintain the force by providing for its own maintenance, medical care, intelligence, and logistics. These specialty skills take time to develop, but the military and police are on a path to self-sufficiency. Having served in Afghanistan for 21 months, we see a momentum is building in the Afghan forces. There is a growing sense of pride, confidence, and professionalism emerging throughout the ranks. Developing this force to endure will continue to require strategic patience and commitment, but will reap the return on investment — a capable and professional Afghan National Security Force that endures long after the last coalition combat forces have departed Afghanistan.
Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell, IV., United States Army, has served as the commander of NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan since November 2009.