KABUL, Afghanistan -- An Afghan army desperate for more advanced military equipment is suffering death rates 30 percent higher in the 2014 fighting season, the army's first against the Taliban without large-scale assistance from the U.S.-led international military force, officials said.
A bigger worry than the increased deaths, though, is the havoc the military could unleash on the country if the army rips at its ethnic seams, an increased possibility as U.S. and other NATO forces continue to draw down their forces, Afghan and American military experts say.
When the U.S. and other NATO-led forces withdraw all combat troops by Dec. 31, the Afghan army will truly be on its own on the battlefield for the first time since the 2001 U.S. invasion. America has spent $62 billion since then to train and equip the country's security forces, but Afghan military experts remain concerned that the army doesn't have enough men or materiel.
"They're fighting, but they are suffering," said Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak, Afghanistan's former minister of defense and a current adviser to the president's office.
Some of those worries were mitigated on Sept. 30, when the United States and Afghanistan signed a bilateral security agreement allowing about 10,000 American troops to remain in Afghanistan to train, advise and assist Afghan forces past the end of the year. America's NATO allies are expected to contribute a further 5,000 or so troops. A smaller U.S. Special Operations forces will also remain and actively go after extremists such as al-Qaida.
More importantly, signing the deal assured the Afghan government of about $4.1 billion in U.S. and foreign funding that pays for everything from soldiers salaries, to their bullets and the fuel they use in their vehicles. Without the money, the Afghan security forces would have fallen apart in months.
The need for foreign support was evident this summer, the first where the Afghan army couldn't rely on U.S. bombers when it needed them most. The army's death rate spiked 30 percent, Wardak said, because of an increased number of battles and the army's vulnerability to roadside bombs. That spike translates to about 450 additional deaths per year -- about 1,800 deaths.
Despite the billions in aid, the army is hampered by a lack of large-scale fire power -- including offensive air capabilities -- little or no medical evacuation ability and not enough transport aircraft, Wardak said. Keeping the Taliban at bay, he said, will be a "difficult task" unless the U.S. continues to provide more fire power, he said.
The Taliban staged attacks on Afghan army troops in Kabul on Wednesday and Thursday, killing 10 soldiers. Large-scale fighting is taking place in several remote provinces.
But it is not the Taliban's military pressure that poses the most serious potential problem, said Seth Jones, a former special adviser to the U.S. Special Operations Command in Afghanistan and an analyst at the Rand Corporation.
A collapse of the political compromise between newly inaugurated President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai -- who represents the country's ethnic Pashtuns -- and newly installed Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah -- the leader of the country's Tajiks -- could lead to fissures in the country's "already fragile" security forces, he said.
"There are already indications that segments of the Afghan National Army, such as the 205th Corps headquartered in Kandahar, could face significant divisions if intra-government fissures widened," said Jones, the author of "In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan."
"This division would almost certainly facilitate Taliban advances," Jones said.
Wardak says the Afghan army "is still a child. It is not even a teenager," and because of that is vulnerable to the outside political environment. But he believes that with proper leadership the army will hold.
Maj. Gen. Ben Bathurst -- the international coalition's deputy adviser to the Afghan Ministry of Defense and the commander of British forces in Afghanistan -- said in an interview that Western forces track the army closely for ethnic tensions, and that the ministry works to prevent fissures.
"Look at how they have behaved through this very uncertain (election) period and they've held firm," Bathurst said. "Yes it's a worry in the back of our minds, but when you look for the evidence you haven't seen any. And I think there's a sort of pride in the Afghan Army that they are the guardians of the nation and that they aren't behaving in a political way."
The Afghan army has about 195,000 troops mostly financed by the U.S. But Wardak has long argued that Afghanistan doesn't have enough forces to satisfy the U.S. military's own counterinsurgency manual. That formula would see between 600,000 and 700,000 troops.
Including police and other security units, Afghanistan has about 350,000 Western-funded security forces.
The U.S. and Europe have tried to balance that number with its cost. A U.S. Inspector General report says funding the Afghan Army costs $4.1 billion a year, with only $500 million coming from the Afghan government. Bathurst said the international community has committed to funding the Afghan security forces through 2024. Eventually, he said, Afghanistan must do it.
All that Western money has led to a clearly improved military, said a former army general, Jawed Kohistani. But Kohistani also pointed out why the West might be hesitant: Taliban fighters join the army as new recruits, undergo training, get issued new weapons and then defect back to their insurgent force.
As the Afghan army fought Taliban militants this summer, soldiers saw enemy formations the U.S. and NATO did not in recent years: forces of dozens or hundreds of fighters. Without NATO aircraft in the skies, the Taliban felt they could again mass in large groups, Wardak said. He predicted tough fighting ahead.
"The Afghan Army will fight. I mean that's in their blood to fight. But they don't have any air support of the ground forces," Wardak said. "If the level of the threat increases the way it's increasing right now ... it will be a difficult task unless the U.S. continues to provide additional firepower."