Author’s note: This is the third installment in a seven-part series analyzing the Obama administration’s strategy for the Afghan front in the War on Terror. The administration’s white paper can be seen here, and previous installments in this series can be seen here.
THE SMALL NUMBER OF TRAINED, reliable, and effective Afghan National Security Forces presents a serious holdup in the effort to secure Afghanistan and to turn responsibility for that security over to domestic forces. President Obama’s Afghan strategy addresses this critical shortcoming. However, as currently laid out, it offers little to actually bring about that needed increase in trained, effective Afghans capable of defending their own tribal areas and of participating in the defense of the Afghan nation.
Obama’s plan is to accelerate the training of Afghan police and National Army members over the next three years in an effort to bring the former to a total of 82,000 and the latter to 134,000. The additional brigade of 4,000 trainers mentioned in the previous installment in this series will be a step in the right direction in growing the domestic security force. This ‘surge’ in training team personnel has been desired for some time now by commanders on the ground in Afghanistan, and their deployment should do a great deal to multiply the raw numbers of Afghan Security Forces going through some sort of formal training before being asked to take on the dedicated terrorist threat to their tribes and their country.
However, though he has stated an intention to begin turning over responsibility for regional and national security to these Afghan forces as soon as possible, Obama’s target numbers are, quite simply, far too small to effectively achieve what he expects of them. Further, one need only look at the Iraq of just a few short years ago to see the perils of turning loose an untrained, unvetted, and overall unready national security force without proper guidance and support.
That move was an unmitigated disaster, as might be expected when members of a police and security force tasked with day-to-day security and anti-militia operations are at best inadequately trained and equipped (and overall not up to the task), and at worst are on the payroll of terrorist and militant groups, assisting in plots against coalition forces, and acting as roving death squads.
Whatever the Obama administration does, military leaders in Afghanistan must ensure that such a situation does not repeat itself — and Obama must listen to them, lest, as in Iraq and as in the West Bank, where the Clinton administration provided weapons and training to PLO security forces who became some of the most efficient killers of Israelis during the second intifada, the coalition effort to provide training and arms to a domestic Afghan security force end up simply supplying and training a more efficient insurgency.
ONE POTENTIAL SILVER LINING in the struggle to stand up an Afghan security force that is capable of performing its mission effectively is the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF), a growing group of civilians who have volunteered to assume responsibility for local tribal security. This program, which was recently begun in Afghanistan’s eastern Wardak province, is akin to that which began in Iraq as the Concerned Local Citizens program. The latter blossomed into the Sons of Iraq movement, a security force 72,000 strong that proved instrumental in driving terrorists from threatened areas and securing Iraqi villages and cities.
The only mention of the APPF in the Obama administration’s white paper is found in the context of concerns about securing enough international support to be able to “support” this volunteer force financially. However, the APPF has the potential to be far more than just another drain on U.S. resources. If it can manage to be even a fraction as successful as the Sons of Iraq movement was, the APPF could allow its country to reap benefits that include, but are not limited to, an increase in the amount of time allowed for the full training and operational preparation of those additional security forces.
If it is serious about turning over Afghanistan to a stable, well-trained domestic security force, the Obama administration must resist putting timetables on the training and deployment. Instead, they should focus on ensuring that the necessary resources are available. The most important of these resources are people — U.S. troops to conduct counterinsurgency operations (and to contribute to the development of the Afghan forces by over-the-shouldering them on real-world operations) and trainers to take national security force candidates from square one to fully-trained troops — and time.
Unfortunately, given his (and his Congressional allies’) impatience with the seemingly slow pace of Iraqi Security Forces’ development, the latter will likely be the most difficult resource for Obama to provide. However, it is by far the one which is most critical to success.