How NATO Will Game the Numbers on Afghan National Security Force Size

Last month, when the combination of rising green on blue killings and anger over the anti-Islam film finally shut down most joint operations between NATO and Afghan forces, I predicted that this would lead quickly to Afghan National Security Forces falling below the level of 350,000 that NATO has stated to be the goal when security responsibility for the country shifts to Afghan control as NATO withdraws. The prediction was based on already knowing that Afghan forces suffer from huge attrition losses and knowing that the most important aspect of training for Afghan troops occurs during joint patrols that are carried out at the platoon level where only a handful of troops from each side are present. The shutdown of joint operations was for everything below the battalion level, so it seemed to me that with the most important level of training ended, ongoing attrition would decimate the force size.

While reading today’s New York Times article in which the Times has finally realized what a huge problem the high attrition rate poses, I finally deciphered how NATO will be gaming the numbers on ANSF size in order to claim that the original plan for withdrawal can be followed without significant changes. The Times tells us:

Now at its biggest size yet, 195,000 soldiers, the Afghan Army is so plagued with desertions and low re-enlistment rates that it has to replace a third of its entire force every year, officials say.

The attrition strikes at the core of America’s exit strategy in Afghanistan: to build an Afghan National Army that can take over the war and allow the United States and NATO forces to withdraw by the end of 2014. The urgency of that deadline has only grown as the pace of the troop pullout has become an issue in the American presidential campaign.

The reality is that although NATO has set a goal for ANSF size to allow withdrawal, it has completely given up on the idea of those Afghan forces being fully functional. My error when I predicted that cessation (now followed by a resumption that Panetta claims is “nearly normal”) of joint patrols would reduce force size was to think that ANSF size would be at all affected by a decreased level of training and experience gained on joint patrol.

NATO will continue to claim that ANSF size is at the goal for withdrawal because, as we see in the Times article, recruitment will continue at the rate needed to make up for the high attrition rate. Recruitment is all that matters for maintaining force size, as the Times noted:

Colonel Stanikzai, a senior official at the army’s National Recruiting Center, is on the front line of that effort; in the six months through September, he and his team of 17 interviewers have rejected 962 applicants, he said.

“There are drug traffickers who want to use our units for their business, enemy infiltrators who want to raise problems, jailbirds who can’t find any other job,” he said. During the same period, however, 30,000 applicants were approved.

“Recruitment, it’s like a machine,” he said. “If you stopped, it would collapse.”

It was in reading this Times article that I finally realized  that because basic training for the new recruits (which is only a 10 to 12 week course) occurs on large bases, this first part of training was not interrupted since it was at the battalion level. The interruption in joint patrols will only affect the progress of new recruits from the lowest to the “highest” in categories in terms of operational effectiveness.

When assessing ANSF effectiveness, the most important point to note is that NATO has stopped counting units that are fully functional on their own, because there are no units that meet this definition. Think about that. The war in Afghanistan is now in its twelfth year, Obama’s surge is complete, and yet the Times notes “there are still no units that American trainers consider able to operate entirely without NATO assistance”.

Look carefully at the table below from the Defense Department’s April report (pdf) on “progress” in Afghanistan. It shows how many units in the Afghan National Army are functional at the various levels described by NATO.

As mentioned above, no units are capable of functioning fully independently, so that category isn’t mentioned. Only seven percent of units can even be “independent” when advisors are present. The most frequent description for a unit is that it is “effective” when it has advisors present.

By keeping recruitment at its current high rate and carrying out basic training on large bases at the battalion level where security is believed to be better, NATO will be able claim that ANSF size is still at the 350,000 level they have stated they need for withdrawal to occur. The loss of many small-scale joint patrols will mean that if assessment continues with the same categories of functionality, it is virtually certain that many more units will only meet the “established” and “developing w/partners” levels while the number of units meeting the higher levels of functionality will decrease. But if NATO only focuses on overall ANSF size, then withdrawal can proceed according to their original schedule, or perhaps even faster, as the Times called for in an editorial.

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.

2 replies
  1. wilfred says:

    Does this mean that the Surge didn’t work, and that all the people who died post surge were just sacrificed to political expediency?

    Nah. How could that be?

  2. marc says:

    The American way of war, hundreds of thousands of troops under a single central command, is just never going to become the Afghan way. Afghans are capable fighters when they are organized into relatively small tribal militias lead by a charismatic warlord. They fight with neighboring tribes and have little interest in what is happening in distant parts of what can only be loosely called their country. When we leave the inevitable civil war will sort everything out to the sanctification of most Afghans. The current elite which we put in power and keep in power, the Karzai clan in particular, will just join their billions of dollars that they scammed off American taxpayers and enjoy lives of unimaginable luxury with Dubai as their new base of operations.

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