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The Afghan National Security Forces bubble September 20, 2010

Posted by Hans-Inge Langø in Analysis.
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Image courtesy of ISAF media.

The United States expects to spend about $6 billion a year through 2015 training and supporting the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) according to a NATO training document recently obtained by the Associated Press. Few are surprised that our economic commitment in Afghanistan will outlast major military operations. More concerning is the fact that the Pentagon had a specific cost estimate but opted not to disclose it to the American people, instead leaving it to media leaks.  That information is essential to major policy judgments like: Is it worth it?  Is it enough?  And, even more simply, is the mission sustainable?

Is it worth it?

U.S. “train and equip” spending in Afghanistan aims to build up an Afghan security force sufficient to defeat the Taliban and preserve the central government. This is decidedly not cheap – It costs about $25,000 a year per Afghan soldier and $25 billion a year in total. Judging by recent reports, the U.S. is not getting its money’s worth in this area.

Building up Afghanistan’s security forces has been fraught with setbacks, including a staggering attrition rate and poor training.  Press reports suggest that the Afghan National Civil Order Police’s (ANCOP) attrition rate has been as high as 82 percent, and is currently somewhere above 50 percent. The Force’s operational capability suffers obviously as a result. As of February, only one of Afghanistan’s more than 360 districts has been deemed completely capable of conducting operations independently. Only 14 other districts received readiness ratings of 85 percent or higher.

Things are no better for the Afghan National Army (ANA). Though improving, attrition remains between 50 and 60 percent –despite the significant pay raise in January 2010. Operational capabilities also remain less than satisfactory, according to a Pentagon report, though somewhat better than the police force. 22 ANA units were given a mark of 85 percent or better, 35 got 70-84 percent, and 28 only reached 51-69 percent.

Is it enough?

One of the reasons behind the large attrition rates is that the Taliban can match or outpay the government in Kabul. According to one estimate, the insurgency groups pay about $250-300 a month to their fighters, though this is not necessarily year-round. The Taliban is able to do this because it has a resilient and substantial source of income, namely taxation on opium. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that the group made $450-600 million in the period 2005-2008. With a more permanent presence in southern Afghanistan, more taxes from refined products (heroin), and a larger share of the Pakistan market, the Taliban’s income should be even higher today.

To counter this, the U.S. has increased the wages for Afghan security forces. $165 a month is now the starting salary for an Afghan soldier or policeman, with an additional $75 a month for duty in a “hazardous zone.” At the end of the day, though, it is almost impossible for the government in Kabul to compete financially with the Taliban.

Is the mission sustainable?

Despite these obstacles, the U.S. is steaming ahead in its efforts to build a large Afghan army (171,600 troops by 10/2011) and police force (134,000 by 12/2011). Yet the cost of maintaining such a sizable force would easily dwarf Afghanistan’s national budget, which is at about $1.1 billion. The longer-term implications of this policy could be severe.

Afghanistan is in no way capable of paying for its own security and will depend on large sums of foreign aid for the foreseeable future. Currently, foreign countries and multi-lateral bodies finance about 90 percent of Afghanistan’s national budget, and aid to the country represents about 45 percent of its Gross Domestic Product. According to the World Bank, this makes Afghanistan one of the most aid-dependent countries in the world. President Obama’s push for a larger ANSF further cements Kabul’s deep dependency on foreign assistance to maintain a stable and secure Afghan state.

The recent AP story shows that the Obama administration knows what lies ahead, but any real transparency on the issue is sorely missing. There needs to be an open debate as to what commitments the U.S. are taking on. The NATO training document only shows costs through 2015, but there is little indication Afghanistan will be capable of financing its own security by then. The Obama administration must publically disclose how long this financial commitment is expected to last and how much it will end up costing. In addition to the monetary aspect of this, the administration will also need to clarify how many U.S. military and police trainers will stay behind in Afghanistan after 2011. It is doubtful that the U.S. will be content with simply sending checks in the mail to Kabul and not have any say in the build-up of the ANSF.

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