As I have noted previously, Congress requires the Defense Department to provide status reports on the situation in Afghanistan twice a year. The scheduling of these reports appears to be entirely random. The first report in 2012 was in April, but since there was an election in the US in November, it appears that the Defense Department and the Obama administration managed to delay the next report for several months, so that it was published in December instead of October. The next report in this series has now been released (pdf), about seven and a half months after the December 2012 report was released. So much for that “semi-annual” requirement from Congress. The next interval will have to be significantly shorter than six months if there are to be two reports in 2013.
I am still taken aback each time I open one of these reports, since the title is always “Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan”. Aside from the fact that even with Afghans self-reporting their own troop strength, the Defense Department can only report an overall ANSF force size of 333,368 as of January, 2013, well short of the fabled 352,000 overall ANSF force size that the Obama administration and media spout regularly. But the abject failure displayed in how these Afghan troops have been deployed as they take over primary responsibility for security in the country is staggering.
We have heard anecdotal reports in the media for some time now about how individual bases and small outposts in Afghanistan have been abandoned during the process of handing over security responsibility. One figure in the Defense Department report, however, drives home just how widespread the process of abandoning facilities has become:
Note that ISAF starts off with more or less 800 facilities at the beginning of 2011. At the end of the graph, ISAF appears to be in charge of only about 175 facilities and yet the ANSF has only taken over 400 facilities. That leaves between 200 and 225 facilities abandoned, presumably because the ANSF cannot defend them. In other words, of the over 600 facilities ISAF has withdrawn from, less than two thirds of them can be defended or maintained by Afghan forces.
And keep in mind that this is not a problem of number of personnel. In fact, ANSF force size, at least as reported by Afghanistan and ISAF, is more than twice the troop size ISAF has ever had in-country:
How can the Defense Department continue to claim “progress” in Afghanistan when the large force it has trained is not capable of maintaining ISAF-established facilities with more than twice as many troops? And with the number of bases going down by at least a third, how can Afghanistan be expected to provide anything near the level of security that ISAF provided?
Here is the text that was provided with the figure where it is clear that many bases are disappearing:
Figure 4 illustrates the number of ISAF bases transferred to the ANSF. Many—but not all—ISAF bases that have been closed have been transferred to the ANSF. This demonstrates the drawdown of ISAF forces and their shrinking footprint and evolving mission as well as the growth of the ANSF.
Yup, abandoning over 200 bases would indeed qualify as “not all” of those ISAF has exited being transferred to ANSF control.
Postscript: I chose a really bad time to take a few days off. While I was gone, this Defense Department report, the latest SIGAR quarterly report on Afghanistan and the latest UNAMA report on civilian casualties all came out. I will try to dig through this report more thoroughly as well as the other reports over the next few days.
A central tenet of DoD dogma regarding withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan rests on Afghan National Security Forces reaching a force size of 352,000 and taking over full responsibility for security in the country as US forces leave at the end of 2014. There are multiple problems surrounding the myth of ANSF force size of 352,000. As reported last quarter by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the “official” force size reported by DoD relies on self-reporting by Afghanistan and can not be validated. Further, NATO ministers proposed back in February that financial support for the 352,000 size should be extended through 2018, rather than allowing the force size to drop by about a third at the end of 2014. I equated this offer to dangling an extra $22 billion in front of Afghan government officials for embezzling in return for a grant of criminal immunity for US forces remaining behind after the official withdrawal.
SIGAR released its latest quarterly report yesterday (pdf), covering the first quarter of 2013, and we see that the problems surrounding the myth of 352,000 ANSF force size persist and show no prospect of improving.
From the report, we see that even with Afghanistan self-reporting in an unvalidated way, and with US goals clearly known, force size falls short of the goal:
Although the reported force size is only about 5.5% below the goal, it seems remarkable that Afghan officials developing their own numbers in a non-validated way were not able to reach the goals that are clearly known to them.
This process of developing the ANSF has drawn the largest portion of US funds that have been allocated to Afghanistan. Here is how funds have been allocated since the beginning of the Afghan war:
As of March 31, 2013, the United States had appropriated approximately $92.73 billion for relief and reconstruction in Afghanistan since FY 2002. This total has been allocated as follows:
• $54.27 billion for security
• $22.97 billion for governance and development
• $6.39 billion for counter-narcotics efforts
• $2.43 billion for humanitarian aid
• $6.66 billion for operations and oversight
Of all the funds allocated to Afghanistan by the US, over half have gone to developing ANSF. Here is how security money breaks down from 2005 to the present time:
Note that since the beginning of the 2005 fiscal year, we have provided nearly $14 billion in salaries for troop sizes that are self-reported in a non-validated system and therefore ripe for embezzlement. Further, another $13.8 billion was provided for “equipment and transportation” of ANSF, which would also seem a good source for corruption. That is a huge amount of money and it appears to be very poorly spent, given the lack of preparedness for ANSF.
SIGAR calls DoD into question on its claims that the 352,000 ANSF force size has been met: Continue reading
The January 2013 Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction report has been out for some time now, but @SIGARHQ has still been tweeting about it regularly. One of their tweets yesterday brought my attention to the section of their report (pdf) where they discuss force size for Afghan National Security Forces. Since the interruption in training brought about by decreased interactions between US and Afghan forces during the massive outbreak of green on blue attacks, I have maintained that the claim of 352,000 for ANSF force size was no longer credible. It appears that my skepticism is well-founded, as the pertinent section of the SIGAR report bears this heading:
ANSF NUMBERS NOT VALIDATED
The section begins:
Determining ANSF strength is fraught with challenges. U.S. and coalition forces rely on the Afghan forces to report their own personnel strength numbers. Moreover, the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A) noted that, in the case of the Afghan National Army, there is “no viable method of validating [their] personnel numbers.” SIGAR will continue to follow this issue to determine whether U.S. financial support to the ANSF is based on accurately reported personnel numbers.
There are several important bits to unpack in that paragraph. First, note that even though the US (well, officially, NATO) is training the Afghan forces, it is the Afghans themselves who report on their force size. It appears that our training of the Afghans, however, has not trained them on how to count personnel in a way that can be validated. But the end of the paragraph is the kicker, because it appears that our financial support of the Afghans is based on their own reporting of the force size. Since we are paying them for the force size they report, why wouldn’t they inflate the numbers to get paid as much as possible? The Afghans know that the bulk of US policy is built around the 352,000 force size myth, so they know that there will be absolutely no push-back (aside from an obscure SIGAR report that only DFH’s will read) for inflating the number to get the result the US desires. For further enticement, recall that NATO has proposed extending the time over which a force size of 352,000 will be supported, in a move that I saw as a blatant attempt to dangle an additional $22 billion ready for embezzling in front of Afghan administrators.
It comes as no small surprise, then, that SIGAR has found that the Afghan-reported numbers somehow manage to include over 11,000 civilians in the reports for security force size that is specifically meant to exclude civilian personnel.
A related area in which SIGAR has found a disgusting level of dishonesty is in how the US goes about evaluating Afghan forces in terms of readiness. Because it became clear to the trainers in 2010 that they had no hope of achieving the trained and independent force size numbers that NATO planners wanted (and because SIGAR found that the tool they were using at the time was useless), they decided that the only way to demonstrate sufficient progress was to redefine the criteria for evaluating progress. From the report: Continue reading
Before the outbreak of green on blue killings that eventually led to a significant interruption in the training of Afghan security forces last September, it was impossible to read a statement from the US military or NATO regarding future plans without encountering a reference to a required 352,000 force size for combined Afghan National Security Forces. It was our training of the ANSF that was touted as our primary reason for remaining in Afghanistan because we need those trained troops available to take over security responsibility as we withdraw. I have been insisting since the interruption that it will be impossible to continue to claim that a functional ANSF force size of 352,000 can be achieved, as the known high rate of attrition continued during the training interruption. No new troop size prediction has emerged, but it was significant to me that references to the 352,000 force size claim had seemed to disappear.
Last night, President Barack Obama announced in his State of the Union address that he intends to withdraw about half the troops now in Afghanistan within the next twelve months, but he made no direct reference ANSF force size. Here are the three short paragraphs on Afghanistan in the speech as found in the transcript of his address:
Tonight, we stand united in saluting the troops and civilians who sacrifice every day to protect us. Because of them, we can say with confidence that America will complete its mission in Afghanistan and achieve our objective of defeating the core of al Qaeda. (Applause.)
Already, we have brought home 33,000 of our brave servicemen and women. This spring, our forces will move into a support role, while Afghan security forces take the lead. Tonight, I can announce that over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan. This drawdown will continue and by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over. (Applause.)
Beyond 2014, America’s commitment to a unified and sovereign Afghanistan will endure, but the nature of our commitment will change. We’re negotiating an agreement with the Afghan government that focuses on two missions — training and equipping Afghan forces so that the country does not again slip into chaos, and counterterrorism efforts that allow us to pursue the remnants of al Qaeda and their affiliates.
Despite the specific force numbers cited with respect to US forces, Obama merely mentions “Afghan security forces” without telling us how many of them there will be. Resorting to the more detailed Afghanistan Fact Sheet released last night by the White House, however, shows that Obama still clings to the myth that there are 352,000 members of the ANSF. The Fact Sheet even goes to so far as to claim that this force level will be maintained for the next three years. I don’t believe I have seen this three year claim before: Continue reading
It would appear that even the Washington Post is beginning to see through the way that the Defense Department continues to make outrageous claims regarding the capabilities of Afghan National Security Forces. An article published last night to the Post’s website carries the headline “Panetta, other U.S. officials in Kabul paint rosy picture of Afghan situation”. The article opens in conventional news-as-transcription-of-government-narrative fashion:
With Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta in Kabul to take stock as the Obama administration weighs how quickly to draw down troops over the next two years, a senior U.S. military commander on Wednesday hailed the progress Afghan security forces have made.
Marine Maj. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, the head of operations for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, said NATO troops have begun a radical shift in mission: doing the bare minimum to support Afghan troops, who, he said, are starting to operate unilaterally. “We’re now un-partnering from” Afghan forces, Nicholson told reporters Wednesday evening. “We’re at that stage of the fight.”
The article then plants a hint, stating that if Afghan forces are seen as achieving capability to function on their own, the US withdrawal can be accelerated from the current plan of taking another two years.
Remarkably, the Post then moves on to provide some perspective for Nicholson’s claim:
The assessment Nicholson offered, however, is far rosier than the one that U.S. officials have provided recently. They have been citing the resilience of the Taliban and the shortcomings of the Afghan government and military.
Just one of 23 Afghan army brigades is able to operate on its own without air or other military support from the United States or NATO, according to a Pentagon report to Congress that was released Monday.
But Nicholson wants us to believe that even though the Defense Department has been lying for years about Afghan troop capabilities, they really, really mean it this time and we should believe them:
Nicholson said that although U.S. commanders have made “disingenuous” claims in the past about the extent to which Afghans were acting as equal partners in joint missions, officials now see the Afghan army as ready to operate largely on its own, albeit with key logistical and financial support from NATO. The new strategy as the United States tries to transfer greater responsibility to the Afghan government and military is one of “tough love,” Nicholson said.
Sadly, Nicholson’s claims appear to have no more credibility than previous DoD claims on ANSF capabilities. Consider this exchange from the briefing held Monday at the Defense Department, featuring as speakers Senior Defense Official “[Briefer name deleted]” and Senior State Department Official “[briefer name deleted]” where we see that the Post isn’t the only media operation that sees through the duplicity. This exchange starts with a question from Lita Baldor of AP [emphasis added]: Continue reading
Events on Wednesday, Thursday and early Friday in Afghanistan stand as a stark reminder that killings now take place for such a variety of reasons and by such a variety of groups that assigning blame and motivation becomes extremely difficult.
The dead include two British troops and one Afghan soldier on Wednesday, two American servicemembers in one Thursday event and three Afghan policemen in another, and a large number of Afghan police, soldiers and civilians early on Friday. It would appear that the killing of the US soldiers is the event best understood at this point. From AP in the Washington Post:
A man in an Afghan police uniform shot and killed two American service members Thursday, in what appeared to be the latest in a rash of attacks on international forces this year by their Afghan partners.
In Thursday’s shooting, authorities had yet to determine if the attacker was an Afghan police officer or an insurgent who had donned a uniform to get close to the Americans, said Maj. Lori Hodge, a spokeswoman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The assailant escaped after killing the service members while they were out on a late morning patrol in the southern Uruzgan province, she added.
This same article goes on to partially describe the deaths of the two British troops:
It was the second suspected insider attack in two days. On Wednesday, two British service members and an Afghan police officer were killed in an “exchange of gunfire” in Helmand province, the British Ministry of Defense said in a statement. The Afghan officer was not wearing his uniform and the statement said it was not clear who started shooting first.
There appears to be considerable disagreement at this point on just what took place in this encounter. Afghanistan’s Khaama Press has two articles released a little over three hours apart that provide very different explanations. From the first article:
The pair are thought to have been killed by insurgents, though the BBC said an Afghan source claimed the deaths were from a “green on blue” attack – where coalition troops are killed by their Afghan allies.
The later article provides a very different description:
According to local authorities in southern Helmand province of Afghanistan, British troops based in southern Helmand province killed two of their comrades in a friendly fire in this province.
Provincial security chief spokesman Farid Ahmad Farhang confirming the report said the incident took place in Greshk district while British troops were patrolling in the area.
Mr. Farhang further added, “A group of British troops opened fire on an Afghan national police and killed him.”
He said, “British troops were then attacked by a group of other British soldiers who were also patrolling in the area, killing two service members.”
The first description describes the British deaths as from insurgents or as green on blue. The second description first says there was a blue on green killing followed by blue on blue friendly fire. BBC is still agnostic on this event, choosing to quote ISAF: Continue reading
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.” Continue reading
Even though ISAF continues its political spin claiming that the military’s strategy leading to Afghanistan assuming full control of security in 2014 is progressing as planned, new information from two independent sources indicates that the situation is far more bleak than the military’s claims.
The nonpartisan NGO International Crisis Group has released a new report (pdf) today and it predicts that a complete meltdown of the government of Afghanistan could occur in conjunction with the upcoming elections.
From the press release on the report:
Afghanistan is hurtling toward a devastating political crisis as the government prepares to take full control of security in 2014.
“There is a real risk that the regime in Kabul could collapse upon NATO’s withdrawal in 2014”, says Candace Rondeaux, the International Crisis Group’s Senior Afghanistan Analyst. “The window for remedial action is closing fast”.
“The Afghan army and police are overwhelmed and underprepared for the transition”, says Rondeaux. “Another botched election and resultant unrest would push them to breaking point”.
Wow. Afghan security forces being described as “overwhelmed and underprepared” is so far away from the glory days of David Petreaus’ vaunted COIN strategy that had training of ANSF as a key component. But don’t look for Petreaus’ role in this clusterfuck to be pointed out by anyone inside the Beltway.
Moving to the report itself, this section on the security situation for civilians and the government is particularly damning:
The situation worsened considerably in the wake of the September 2010 polls, which saw violence hit an all-time high on election day. Security further deteriorated shortly after President Karzai announced plans to begin transferring responsibility for it in several parts of the country from NATO to the government by July 2011. The downward trend continued almost unabated through much of 2011 and early 2012. Following an unusually severe winter that saw record snowfalls and lasted well into late March 2012, civilian casualties dropped by nearly 15 per cent to 1,154 killed and 1,954 injured in the first half of the year. This trend saw a marked reverse over the summer months, with UNAMA noting that August 2012 was the second deadliest month on record: 374 civilians killed and 581 injured.
Statistics demonstrate a notable increase overall in targeted killings of civilians and government officials, from 94 during January-June 2009 to 255 for the same six-month period in 2012. More than a dozen members of parliament have been killed since the first elections in 2005, and eleven candidates were killed during the 2010 campaign. Scores of midlevel government officials have recently been assassinated, as insurgents have ramped up such operations. Likewise, Afghans who work for non-governmental organisations and development agencies are regularly targeted, and intimidation campaigns frequently force them to live outside their home villages. The Taliban’s use of targeted killings and threats has been especially effective most recently in the northeastern provinces of Nuristan and Kunar, where cross-border shelling between Pakistan and Afghanistan has additionally plagued an already exposed population. As the 2014 campaign approaches and political competition heats up, targeted killings are likely to increase, a phenomenon witnessed repeatedly since 2003.
It has become increasingly clear that ISAF is unable to dislodge the Taliban from its strongholds in the south and east. A widening trust deficit between NATO and Afghan forces has also put ISAF further on the defensive. The Taliban, the Haqqani network and other affiliated insurgent actors have exploited these weaknesses by sending fighters into particularly vulnerable areas such as Kunar, Nuristan, Paktika, Paktia, Ghazni, Wardak and Logar.
Will the military dare to respond to the charge that “It has become increasingly clear that ISAF is unable to dislodge the Taliban from its strongholds in the south and east”? Continue reading
Still steadfastly refusing to admit publicly that its Afghanistan strategy has failed completely and that a new, more rapid timetable for withdrawal must be developed before the November election, the Obama administration and its Department of Defense are reduced to utter confusion in trying to understand the sources of attacks on coalition forces. After halting most joint US-Afghan operations in the middle of September, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta led efforts last Thursday to claim that joint operations had returned to “nearly normal” levels while claiming that each joint operation would be evaluated carefully to reduce risks. It took less than two days for that evaluation process to be shown to be useless, as two Americans and three Afghan troops were killed in an exchange of gunfire while out on joint patrol.
The investigation into this event stands as a microcosm of the confused state of affairs in Afghanistan as the US struggles to understand that resistance to the presence of US forces now spreads through virtually all of Afghanistan and that uniforms for Afghan security forces are a tool for getting close to US targets. The military first announced Saturday’s attack as a green on blue killing and then backed off, claiming for a while that perhaps insurgents who were not a part of the joint patrol fired first and that US forces fired on the Afghan forces out of confusion. Yesterday, the Washington Post published details from a leaked report that suggests that it was indeed a member of the Afghan National Army platoon in the joint patrol who first opened fire and that he was quickly joined by other members of his patrol. Despite all of the accumulating evidence that Aghans resent our presence in the country, defense officials express surprise and confusion that multiple members of an Afghan patrol could all turn their weapons on US forces:
Two days after the U.S. military resumed joint operations with Afghan security forces last week following a spate of “insider attacks,” a platoon of American soldiers stopped at an Afghan army checkpoint in a volatile eastern province.
The Americans had a cordial conversation and cracked a few jokes with their Afghan comrades during the Saturday afternoon patrol in Wardak province. The Afghans offered the Americans tea. Then, according to a U.S. military official, an Afghan soldier, without warning or provocation, raised his weapon and opened fire — mortally wounding the senior American on the patrol.
In a war in which insider attacks have become commonplace, what happened next made the incident extraordinary, the American official said. Another Afghan soldier at the checkpoint opened fire on the Americans, killing a U.S. civilian contractor and wounding two other American soldiers. Soon, Afghan soldiers and possibly insurgents began firing at the Americans from several directions.
A preliminary military report, however, has concluded that the gunfight began only after an Afghan soldier opened fire on U.S. troops, according to the American official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“What sets this apart is that there were multiple attackers from multiple positions and there was zero provocation,” said the official, who had access to the report but was not authorized to speak for the record. Continue reading
Ain’t but one way out baby, Lord I just can’t go out that door.
The long-stated “mission” for NATO forces in Afghanistan has been to train Afghan security forces so that they can take responsibility for the nation’s security as NATO forces are withdrawn by the end of 2014. But with most joint operations involving both US and Afghan forces now suspended due to the rapid increase in green on blue killings, that goal seems unobtainable since training is mostly suspended and the high rate of attrition means that the overall size of the ANSF will shrink rapidly. Articles this week from Reuters and the New York Times indicate that major media are now beginning to realize the impossibility of meeting this objective. Reuters brings us details on a green on blue killing from August 27, while the Times goes into detail on what the training program now looks like.
Reuters provides suggestions that the Afghan National Army member responsible for the attack on August 27 was recruited by the Taliban before he joined the ANA. Whether he was Taliban or not, the poor vetting leading to the perpetrator being in the ANA highlights the extent of the problems with the current Afghan forces:
Interviews with Afghan officials suggest that Welayat Khan was not properly vetted. He was admitted to the force seven months before the attack, despite presenting a fake birth certificate and having gotten a flimsy recommendation from a commander who vouched for him simply because the two men were ethnic Pashtuns, according to Afghan sources speaking on condition of anonymity.
might be your man I don’t know
Reuters is not buying the military’s claim that vetting will be better in the future, even though there appears to be no thought given removing the many thousands of current force members who shouldn’t be there:
The Pentagon is promising better vetting of Afghan recruits like Welayat Khan, and NATO last week announced it was scaling back cooperation with Afghans to reduce risk to Western troops. That includes Anders’ unit, stationed at Combat Outpost Xio Haq in Laghman province, in eastern Afghanistan, which, for the moment, has halted joint operations.
But it’s unclear whether the United States or NATO or the Afghan government forces they’re training will be able to stop the next Welayat Khan before he strikes.
In its description of what training has become, the Times describes a day of “training” that is nothing short of farce:
Advisers flew into Bad Pakh last month to teach the Afghans how to load wounded soldiers into an American medevac helicopter. Time permitting, they also planned mortar practice.
But when the Americans flew out 10 hours later, the training day had gone much like three previous ones held here in the past two months: the helicopter never showed. It was either down for maintenance or called away for a more pressing mission. The advisers never got a clear answer why.
Mortar practice also had to be scratched when it turned out the Afghans were missing the sight for their sole mortar tube.
Even more telling is that the Times even points out how the military has resorted to outright lies to present an illusion of progress in training (I previously addressed this particular lie): Continue reading