In Washington and around the world, the question that is lingering in everyone’s minds is how many American and NATO troops will stay in Afghanistan after the combat mission ends. December 31, 2014 is coming up on the calendar and with each passing day, the issue of hashing out a security agreement with the Afghan government grows a little more important.
Regardless of the number of foreign troops that is left behind, it will be up to the Afghan National Security Forces to pick up where NATO left off, taking the lead in defending the country and keeping the pressure on the Taliban.
The Afghan army and national police have both been a work in progress for the international coalition, requiring persistent and daily attention due to problems within the force that have not gone away: illiteracy among the rank and file; leadership deficiency in the officer corps; a defection rate that has forced Afghanistan to recruit thousands of additional soldiers and policemen year after year.
NATO commanders are nevertheless convinced that Afghan national security forces have improved in the last three years, both in terms of size and the quality of it men.
Officers in the international military coalition are markedly upbeat about the Afghan army’s progress, even if it still has a long way to go to keep Afghanistan safe without foreign assistance. A senior coalition officer, who is currently participating in NATO meetings about the post 2014 mission, was especially happy about what he described as a relatively smooth security transition from NATO to Afghan soldiers. The force has grown to approximately 350,000 men, which is a far cry from before the surge when the country’s security forces were a shell of what it has become.
The officer was confident that the Afghans will be in solid control of the security portfolio by 2015, reminding reporters that local troops are already leading operations across the country in a majority of the provinces.
As much as NATO is confident in public, there must at least be some concern among the brass as to whether the Afghans are really prepared. Indeed, while the Afghan army has grown by tens of thousands of soldiers over the past year, they will not be able to sustain offensive operations against the Taliban without a logistics chain that can deliver supplies to the most desolate corners of the Afghan mountains and an air force that is talented enough to engage the enemy when called upon.
The Afghan army still struggles in both areas, making a sustained campaign against the insurgency all the more difficult. The Afghans have been relying on NATO for close air support, which has been a crucial tool when troops in remote outposts find themselves close to being overrun. Indeed, there is a case to be made that assisting the Afghan army in shuffling soldiers to the frontline quickly could very well be more important than keeping a few thousand foreign troops in Afghanistan after 2014.
NATO ministers are currently discussing these issues and will continue to do so until a security arrangement is inked and signed by both the Afghan government and the United States. But before that happens, one question will continue to pop up in every conservation: is the Afghan army strong and credible enough to defeat, or at least tame down, an insurgency that is likely to continue fighting?