The U.S. military lacks valid methods for gauging the effectiveness of Afghan troops and police who have increasingly been taking the lead against the Taliban, according to a federal watchdog agency.
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction suggested that the problem with the metrics used to assess the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will worsen as the U.S. withdraws all combat forces this year and fewer troops are available to monitor the Afghans.
The audit on ANSF rating systems released Wednesday, titled "Actions Needed To Improve Plans For Sustaining Capability Assessment Efforts," said that the U.S. military would have to rely on the Afghan forces to rate themselves as the U.S. drawdown proceeds.
U.S. commanders have given the Afghan forces high marks for improvement, but a SIGAR statement accompanying the audit said that the Defense Department "lacks a plan for collecting, validating, analyzing, and reporting on ANSF assessments during the drawdown."
The statement said that "ISAF may not be able to obtain an accurate understanding of ANSF units' capability and DoD may not be able to make fully informed decisions based on ANSF capability."
The audit said that analyzing the military's methods for assessing ANSF was complicated by repeated changes in the ratings definitions used by the Joint Command (IJC) of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
In response, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan acknowledged "SIGAR's recognition of the difficulties in assessing ANSF as coalition forces draw down," while stressing that ISAF was taking steps to meet the challenge.
U.S. Forces-Afghanistan generally concurred with the recommendations of the SIGAR audit but issued a statement of "non-concurrence" to SIGAR's recommendation that the military issue directions by the end of this year for more detailed comments by advisory teams that will assess the progress of ANSF.
ISAF's Joint Command already includes comments that "provide not only the what, but the why behind the issues that need addressing," U.S.-Forces-Afghanistan said.
The military's response was signed by Army Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, deputy commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, who last month gave a Pentagon briefing at which he touted the increasing capability and aggressiveness of ANSF in the fight against the Taliban.
"In my professional assessment, after 35 years and multiple tours here in Afghanistan, I can tell you that the Afghan security forces were tactically overmatching anything that the Taliban, Haqqani, or anybody else could throw at them" last year, Milley said.
Milley said ANSF's progress could be measured in terms of firefights.
"I can tell you that there was probably somewhere in the range of 3,000 to 4,000 firefights in this past fighting season, if you will. And of those several thousands of firefights, the Afghan security forces probably lost somewhere between 100 and 150, maybe," Milley said.
The audit on the military's methods of gauging ANSF success was the latest in a series of SIGAR reports and audits highly critical of how the U.S. spends and accounts for hundreds of billions in funding for aid, reconstruction and security in Afghanistan.
In a report to Congress last month, John Sopko, the SIGAR director, said his office had recently opened 51 new investigations and closed 39, bringing the total number of ongoing cases to 318.
ISAF and the DoD have increasingly been pushing back against Sopko's reports. In a December statement following a SIGAR audit, the DoD took issue with Sopko's methods: "While there have been some instances of underperforming projects, these are vastly outweighed by the positive cumulative impact of the wide array of successful projects."
The statement added that "singling out a few underperforming projects -- or misrepresenting or misconstruing the reasons why a project's results did not turn out as expected and drawing larger conclusion about the effectiveness of reconstruction efforts -- detracts from an accurate understanding of the overall positive impact that reconstruction has had on Afghanistan."