U.S. troops will start pulling out of Afghanistan this summer. This raises the basic question — is the Afghan military ready to take over and would it survive the departure of much of the U.S. military.
The plan is still to end the “combat mission,” whatever that means, in 2014, leaving behind trainers, advisers and other specialists. Afghan forces are ready to begin taking major responsibility for their country’s own security, U.S. officials say. Indeed, it would be disastrous for the Afghan army, police and air force should the U.S. stayed longer than currently planned.
“We would have denied the Afghan security forces, who’ve grown in capability, opportunities to further exercise that capability and to lead,” Adm. Mike Mullen, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, told Congress on June 23. Very noble-sounding, but how ready are Afghan forces, really? Snapshots of Afghan forces from the last two years depict troops capable of small-scale, short-duration, independent operations … in certain provinces.
In other provinces, some of strategic importance, the Afghan army and air force are essentially absent. And across the board, the Afghan military is all but incapable of coordinating air and ground forces — a key strength of the U.S.-led NATO force. The same snapshots illustrate a growing force, which since 2009 has nearly doubled in size. Today there are nearly 300,000 Afghan security personnel on the U.S.-funded payroll — and that number is set to increase. Whether 300,000 is enough — and whether they are, in aggregate, ready — depends on definitions. Enough for what? And ready for what? If Washington expects Afghan forces to fully replace U.S. troops in every regard, it’s in for a big shock in some near-future fighting season, as basically-trained, minimally-equipped and ambivalently-led Afghan ground troops totally lacking in air support show the world what true Afghan-style security operations really look like.