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Doubling Afghan Forces Unrealistic

One of the more interesting “tweaks” to Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s war plan that emerged from the Obama strategy review is the paring back of the target number for building out the Afghan security forces. In his strategic plan, McChrystal called for doubling Afghan security force strength and set a new “target ceiling” of 240,000 for the ANA and 160,000 for the Afghan police. In his speech this week President Obama pointedly did not talk about doubling the size of Afghan forces.

Senior White House officials, in a background briefing to reporters a few hours before Obama’s speech, made it clear the 400,000 figure is unrealistic: “We're actually taking this in smaller increments because we think that a goal that large and that far out -- roughly four to five years in the future -- is more than we can accurately program for and predict the requirement for at this stage. We see the Afghan security forces developed based on repetitive assessments on the ground more effectively in probably annual increments, rather than projecting three or four years out. So 400,000 doesn't have much weight with us.” The present target of 134,000 Afghan army ration strength by fall 2010 still stands; beyond that it will depend on how much progress is made in actual fighting strength.

Desertions and poor performance continue to plague both the Afghan army and police. In his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Taliban continues to pay its fighters more than the Afghan government pays government troops. He said the U.S. will be “significantly increasing” Afghan soldier pay to try and boost retention.

According to Anthony Cordesman, defense guru at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as military officials took a closer look at the state of the Afghan army it became clear they have a long way to go. “The problem here is simple: Quality is as important as quantity. There is too much attrition, there is too little attention to training quality and performance,” he told reporters on Wednesday. The Obama administration also sent a message to the Afghan government that they cannot count on an endless flow of resources into government coffers to build a fighting force, he said.

Mark Moyar, a military historian and professor at the Marine Corps University, has warned repeatedly that a rapid expansion of the security forces risked producing forces of poor quality that wouldn’t survive the test of combat; in fact Moyar wrote an excellent book about the risks of rapid expansion, A Question of Command. Recruiting troops is the easy part as there are always enough jobless military age males in developing countries eager for a paycheck. Producing competent leaders, particularly at the small unit level, and molding troops into competent fighting units is a much longer process, he says.

Moyar told me it’s likely that Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who has also warned that rapidly expanding the Afghan security forces will gravely undermine quality, played a role in changing the thinking at the top on this. It’s also possible that McChrystal himself realized his expansion plans were overly ambitious. Moyar said it will take years, not months, to build competent Afghan leaders. It will also take putting our best people to the task. In the interim, he says, American officers must step in to fill the leadership gap in Afghan units.

Joint Chiefs chair, Adm. Mike Mullen, told Senators this week that American troops will be much more directly engaged with Afghan units; “mentoring” is out, he said, “partnering” is in. “This is getting everybody off their bases and out with the community,” he said.

The U.S. military shied away from taking direct command of Iraqi units because of political sensitivities over sovereignty. In this war, the urgent need to turn things around quickly may push political sensitivities to the back.

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