Situation undermines claim that Afghans can go it alone
The mission to train Afghanistan’s security forces so they could stand on their own feet against the Taliban was said to be completed by the US and its allies in 2014. Lauded as a ‘job well-done’ by British and American politicians alike, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troop numbers were scaled back.
However, in the three years since, security throughout the country has deteriorated; the Taliban have seized swathes of territory, and casualties among the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have increased to a level that may be unsustainable.
The Afghan government presently controls the capital Kabul, major cities and transit routes. But the Taliban is increasingly contesting these areas. The Sunni extremist organization holds some rural sections of the country, especially in the south and east, and runs local government and infrastructure in some locations. The long-term survival of President Ashraf Ghani’s government, an administration that the US and its allies spent billions of dollars financing, and for whose security many servicemen and woman died, is hanging in the balance.
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis recently described the conflict as a “stalemate.” The ANSF might not be outright losing the conflict, but it is not winning it either.
The Taliban has the momentum behind it as evidenced by a string of attacks in Kabul and across the country in recent months with the most recent high-profile incident being a suicide bombing last month outside a bank in Lashkar Gah, in Helmand Province. Targeting soldiers and civilians lining up to receive their salaries, the blast – claimed by the Taliban – killed at least 30 people.
How, if in 2014 the ANSF were ready to stand alone, could the security of the country have deteriorated so fast?
“Rather than their inability to keep the violence down, there was an over estimation of their ability,” Kamal Alam, an expert in International Security Studies with the Royal United Services Institute, suggested. “ISAF pulled out before the job of training the ANSF was completed… They dressed up defeat as a victory. They cut and ran,” Alam told The Media Line. ISAF focused on quantity over quality, meaning that the core of effective fighters present in the ANSF is far lower than the target figure ISAF aimed for due to the number of badly trained and ineffective personnel in the ranks, he argued.
This factor, coupled with a lack of logistics and air power since ISAF’s departure, is hamstringing the ANSF’s efforts, the security expert said.
“Could they have stood on their own? I think yes, if we hadn’t tried to turn them into a slightly (worse) version of ourselves,” Robert Gallimore, who served in Afghanistan mentoring the ANSF, explained to The Media Line. The former British Army major believes that rather than supporting and shaping the ANSF into an effective fighting force, Westerners had a tendency to try to create an army in their own image, and then became frustrated when the Afghans did not oblige.
Every six months a new ISAF unit would come into the area, with an ambitious commanding officer wishing to make his mark with his big operation. The ANSF would be expected to fit into the rhythms of these new foreign troops each time. The Afghans, many of whom had been fighting the Taliban for years, did not appreciate the high tempo of operations that their foreign counterparts saw as the norm. Instead, they favored a slower pace which could be maintained for years.
This cultural clash was the root of the problem, Gallimore argued. If ISAF had acknowledged it – by building something akin to a militia of warriors, and not an army of professional soldiers – the ANSF would be in a better state today, he concluded.
Undoubtedly there are other factors behind the Talibans’ resurgence. Corruption always has and continues to be an issue blighting the country. It drains resources from institutions (the ANSF among them), and frustrates local people who turn away from the politicians and police officials they see pocketing their money.
Political uncertainty in Kabul is also contributing to the Talibans’ resurgence. The National Government of Unity led by President Ghani and his political rival Abdullah Abdullah is fraught with infighting and power plays. While some believe that the government should negotiate with the Taliban, others bitterly oppose to the idea. And all of this fuels and is fueled by the country’s deep ethnic and linguistic divides, creating vacuums for the Taliban to exploit.
Pakistan – alternatively seen as a solution to and a cause of Afghanistan’s problems – is another factor. Its porous Afghan border and deep mountain ranges have sheltered the Taliban for years, and Islamabad’s connections to militant Islamist groups continues to draw questions. Are corruption, political deadlock and the Pakistan factor more significant than ISAF and ANSF shortcomings?
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow covering security and foreign policy at the Brookings Institute, told The Media Line that he did not blame ISAF advisors or ANSF fighters for the current security woes. “Mostly… it was higher-level politics – in Kabul, in Islamabad – that got in the way. So, I don’t blame us too much,” he wrote in an e-mail.
The Obama administration’s decision to announce its intention to pull troops out by 2014 hindered the rebuilding of the Afghan state and its security forces, he suggested. “I don’t want to overstate. The mission is inherently very hard. But we skipped a step… the rapid surge up, followed by a rapid draw down didn’t help.”
Placing a notice to leave in the middle of the conflict badly damaged moral among ANSF warriors and effectively told the Taliban that if it could hold on until this date, then its campaign would grow increasingly easy afterwards.
There were pressures on the White House to get out of Afghanistan but the strength of public opinion against the war is overstated, O’Hanlon argued, suggesting that it was barely an issue during the 2012 and 2016 US elections. In line with this belief, O’Hanlon is hopeful regarding President Trump’s decision to send an extra 4,000 US personnel to the country and advocated for increased use of US air strikes in an op-ed.
There is a narrative – most recently advocated by the Netflix showpiece movie War Machine – suggesting that failure in Afghanistan was inevitable and that no army, no matter how strong, can defeat an insurgency. History does not bear this out.
Although counter-insurgencies are inherently difficult – requiring political and civil savvy often outside of the military’s routine qualities – they can be won. The British government successfully supported the Sultanate of Oman against a communist insurgency from 1962 to 1976. As part of this role, British Royal Marine officers learned Arabic and then lead units of Omani soldiers, wearing the same uniform and sharing the same risks as the local men. This is the mentality that was lacking in the mentoring mission of ISAF in Afghanistan, Robert Gallimore believes, arguing that the example of T.E. Lawrence, of Arabian fame, was forgotten.
Ironically, this type of operation could be less expensive as it would require less boots on the ground, would be more effective in mentoring, and would less frequently alienate local civilians. The downside is that it would require vastly more intellectual flexibility from Western advisors, and would ask them to take greater risks and spend longer time away from their families.
But Gallimore argued that is what was required for success in Afghanistan. “You need advisors who are prepared to do two-year tours, advisors who are prepared to learn the language and properly immerse themselves… to almost go on loaned service to the Afghans.”
Such a scenario is unlikely to happen now. The ramifications for the Afghan people and their beleaguered government will be seen in the years to come.