Yesterday, Major General Tony Thomas, who heads US Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan, fielded questions via satellite from a number of reporters gathered in Washington. The transcript of the session can be found here. One claim by Thomas that stood out to me as I listened was an assertion that Afghan Special Operations Forces do not suffer the same high level of attrition that is seen generally for ANSF. Here is the exchange, where Thomas’ response to the first half of the question has been edited out and emphasis has been added:
Q: General, it’s Luis Martinez with ABC News. Can I ask you about what your command’s role is going to be after 2014? What — will there be a shift in emphasis? What exactly will your operators be doing?
And also, the Afghan national army as a whole seems to suffer from attrition and retention problems. How does that manifest itself in the commando kandaks, if at all?
MAJ. GEN. THOMAS:
We are not suffering similar attrition or, as we prefer to look at it, retention challenges with the commandos and with other formations. But again, here again, we’re lucky. We’ve been working with them for a while. They are on a cycle which has a built-in break, so it’s a great, amber, red cycle, where green, combat is on the schedule, they are going into operation and they know that they’ll have, you know, a — they’ll be applied in the hardest possible scenarios. But on the other cycles, they’ll have a chance to recoup, take leave. They’ll also have a chance to train as they come back into green cycle.
And I know that others are attempting to apply that same cycle to the rest of the force. That’s been the great challenge for the rest of the Afghan security forces, is they’re almost in a relentless combat cycle, and it’s breeding some of the retention challenges. But we are — we are looking to fix that over time, and, again, the special operations example is applicable to the rest of the force. We just need to bring that into line.
I noted at the time Thomas said this that it should be fairly easy to fact-check Thomas on his claim that Afghan Special Forces do not suffer the same high attrition rate as the rest of ANSF. One reason for my thinking this is that Afghan Special Forces are not nearly as highly trained as US Special Forces. There is only a twelve week extra training period for Afghan troops to be classified as special. I have a hard time seeing how such a short period of additional training will add significantly to retention rate.
If we look fist to Defense Department claims only, the most recent Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan (pdf), dated December 2012, has this paragraph (emphasis added):
ANASOC continues to develop its institutional capacity to conduct training programs. Currently, a majority of courses taught at the Division School of Excellence are Afghan-led, with minimal Coalition Force oversight. The ANASOC has produced 11,710 Commandos and 955 ANASF. Graduation rates for both CDO and SF operators remained steady and are on schedule to meet end-strength targets. From April through September 2012, the School of Excellence produced a total of 621 new CDO, and 282 new SF operators. Based on current recruiting and graduation trends, ANASF are anticipated to achieve their end-strength force level of 1,863 personnel by the 4th quarter of 2013. ANA Commandos (ANACDO) are currently at their endstrength force level of 12,525. Staff training at all levels is occurring through uniformed and civilian mentorship programs; the target of ANASOC reaching FOC for all units is 2014, with the exception of the SMW.
There are several different categories of ANSF troops described in the paragraph, but from the context of Thomas’ remarks and the reports analyzed here, the category of commando is what is relevant. Note that this Defense Department report claims 621 new commandos trained in an approximately five month period and that the commandos are at the endstrength force level of 12,525.
However, if we check these numbers against the more independent information from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, we find both Thomas’ claim of low attrition for commandos and the current force level for commandos in the Defense Department report to be misleading. →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading
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: →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading
Many times throughout recorded history, would-be empires have attempted to conquer Afghanistan, only to fail. These failures often have been so spectacular that they end up taking the would-be empires down for their efforts, as most recently seen when the Soviet Union’s ill-fated war in Afghanistan was one of several factors leading to its demise.
Ignoring that history, the US invaded Afghanistan shortly after 9/11. The Bush administration subsequently diverted attention and resources from Afghanistan into its war of choice in Iraq. Barack Obama made Afghanistan his “necessary war” as he campaigned for office in 2008, and yet the joint management of the war in Afghanistan by his administration and the military has been no more professional than the fiasco under Bush.
Remarkably, there has been little criticism of the mismanagement of this war, although when General John Allen was snared into the panty-sniffing investigation of David Petraeus’ extra-marital affair, AP noted that Afghanistan has been killing the careers of top commanders:
At the international military headquarters in Kabul, it’s jokingly being called the curse of the commander’s job.
The last four U.S. generals to run the Afghan war were either forced to resign or saw their careers tainted by allegations of wrongdoing.
That second paragraph can now be revised, as the official announcement has now come out that Allen will retire rather than face a confirmation hearing on his previous nomination to head NATO. The official explanation is that Allen is resigning so that he can help his wife deal with a number of health issues, but Ed (“Did You Beat Tiger?!?”) Henry informed us last week that Allen was “pushed” in an article that strangely seemed to link the sacrifice of Allen with an expected eventual confirmation of Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary.
A voice in the wilderness daring to criticize the failures of military command in Afghanistan and Iraq has bee Tom Ricks. He wrote in the New York Times in November:
OVER the last 11 years, as we fought an unnecessary war in Iraq and an unnecessarily long one in Afghanistan, the civilian American leadership has been thoroughly — and justly — criticized for showing poor judgment and lacking strategies for victory. But even as those conflicts dragged on, our uniformed leaders have escaped almost any scrutiny from the public.
Our generals actually bear much of the blame for the mistakes in the wars. They especially failed to understand the conflicts they were fighting — and then failed to adjust their strategies to the situations they faced so that they might fight more effectively.
Ricks even understands why the military has escaped criticism: →']);" class="more-link">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: →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is in Washington this week for a visit that culminates on Friday in a meeting with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He also meets with outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday. As I described in November, the US and Afghanistan are negotiating a Status of Forces Agreement that lays out the ground rules for any US troops that remain in Afghanistan beyond the planned withdrawal of combat troops by the end of 2014. As was the case with the SOFA for Iraq, the key sticking point will be whether US troops are given full criminal immunity. When Iraq refused to grant immunity, the US abruptly withdrew the forces that had been meant to stay behind.
Both the Washington Post and New York Times have prominently placed articles this morning couching the options on the number of troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014 in terms of strategy for achieving US “goals” there, but the options described now include the “zero option” of leaving no troops behind after 2014. Unlike the case in negotiating the SOFA with Iraq, it appears that at least some of the folks in Washington understand this time that the US is not likely to get full immunity for its troops with Afghanistan, and so there should be some planning for that outcome. Both articles openly discuss the real possibility of a zero option with no troops remaining in the country, although the Times actually suggests full withdrawal in the article’s title (“U.S. Is Open to Withdraw Afghan Force After 2014″) and the Post hangs onto hope of several thousand troops remaining with its title (“Some in administration push for only a few thousand U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014″).
After describing the possibility of a zero option, the Times article then suggests that it is merely a negotiating tool to be used on Karzai, failing to note anywhere in the article that the zero option would be driven by Afghanistan refusing to confer immunity:
While President Obama has made no secret of his desire to withdraw American troops as rapidly as possible, the plans for a postwar American presence in Afghanistan have generally envisioned a residual force of thousands of troops to carry out counterterrorism operations and to help train and equip Afghan soldiers.
In a conference call with reporters, the deputy national security adviser, Benjamin J. Rhodes, said that leaving no troops “would be an option that we would consider,” adding that “the president does not view these negotiations as having a goal of keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan.”
Military analysts have said it is difficult to conceive of how the United States might achieve even its limited post-2014 goals in Afghanistan without any kind of troop presence. That suggests the White House is staking out a negotiating position with both the Pentagon and with Mr. Karzai, as he and Mr. Obama begin to work out an agreement covering the post-2014 American role in Afghanistan.
That oblique reference to an “agreement covering the post-2014 American role in Afghanistan” is as close as the Times article gets to describing the SOFA as the true determinant of whether US troops remain past 2014. At least the Post understands this point and that it hinges on immunity: →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading
From the time that training of Afghan forces first became disrupted by the security measures put in place in response to the spiraling rate of green on blue killings, I’ve been convinced that at some point NATO is going to be forced to give up on the concept of a target size of 350,000 Afghan security forces to be in place as NATO withdraws from the country. Despite the simple math that says any slowdown on feeding new recruits into a system that has such a high rate of loss means the overall size must decrease, it has appeared so far that NATO has been planning to game the numbers while adhering to the 350,000 force size.
On Saturday, a very long article was published by the Washington Post outlining a long litany of the problems associated with how the ANSF was expanded so rapidly and to such a large force size. Only by reading to the very end, though, do we get to what I think is the most important news in the article:
That now appears to be the direction U.S. commanders are heading. The White House and Pentagon have decided that the 352,000 will only be a “surge force” that will eventually be reduced to 228,500. The decision has prompted unease among senior U.S. commanders and protests from Levin, McCain and other congressional supporters of a large Afghan army. The Obama administration has billed it as a cost-saving move, but some U.S. officials see another motivation.
“Now we can start concentrating on quality,” said the senior U.S. official involved in Afghanistan policy.
But the planned cutback, which will not begin until 2016, already is fueling a new round of concern because the U.S. and Afghan governments have not started to develop a program to systematically demobilize soldiers and policemen by providing them alternative employment. If not, thousands of men with at least nominal military training will find themselves jobless the very moment the country’s economy will be struggling to cope with a drastic reduction in foreign spending resulting from the departure of most NATO troops.
Those who worry about “dismantling” ANSF to reach the lower number have nothing to worry about. The high rate of attrition says that any lowering of force size can be achieved rapidly merely by slowing input into the system. Afghanistan already is awash in thousands who were “trained” and then deserted the security forces, so the fears of releasing more are too late. Also, my prediction is that the projection that the cutback will not start until 2016 is merely a way to get agreement first on the smaller force size. Once the smaller size is a familiar concept, then I expect the timing for it to be changed dramatically to coincide with the actual withdrawal of NATO forces. Look for the withdrawal timing also to be accelerated greatly once the US election has taken place. By mid-December, I expect the plan to be for a withdrawal of the bulk of NATO troops within a twelve month timespan with a target ANSF size of 228,500 by the end of withdrawal.
But don’t expect Obama to admit that reality at tonight’s debate. He will steadfastly maintain that all 352,000 members of the ANSF are properly vetted (they aren’t) and trained (they aren’t) and stand ready (they aren’t) to take over as we leave by the end of 2014 instead of 2013. Look for Romney to hint that he wouldn’t really favor withdrawal, especially on a “timetable”. In other words, neither Obama nor Romney will say much of anything about Afghanistan that will align with how events will unfold after the election.