Over the past several months, discussions over the war in Afghanistan have tended to center on whether President Hamid Karzai will sign the Bilateral Security Agreement that he agreed to last fall. And, if the treaty is signed, what the American and NATO force presence in the country will be after 2014 to shore up the Afghan army and police through continued training and advising.
What has often been lost in the commentary is a discussion about how large the Afghan National Security Forces should be once counterterrorism and counterinsurgency duties are transferred completely to them. The assumption that the United States and their allies have relied upon is that the Taliban insurgency will be significantly degraded to a point that is manageable for the Afghan army and national police to fight off.
Earlier this year, a panel of former military commanders and defense experts refuted that assumption.
In an assessment given to the American Department of Defense tasked with reviewing the strength, capability, size and efficiency of the Afghan forces, the authors of a CNA study arrive at a stark conclusion that will no doubt presents even more problems for the Obama Administration as it plans its future Afghanistan policy. Its conclusion: the Taliban will pose a greater threat to the stability of Afghanistan than it does right now.
Or, as the report (PDF) puts it, “the security environment in Afghanistan will become more challenging after the drawdown of most international forces in 2014 and … the Taliban insurgency will become a greater threat to Afghanistan’s stability in the 2015–2018 timeframe than it is now.”
The warning should hardly come as a surprise. Despite being pushed back from their territory in Kandahar and Helmand Provinces during the 2009-2011 troop surge, the Taliban has never disappeared as Afghanistan’s most serious internal security threat, let alone as a movement. The insurgency has managed to rebound in large swaths of the Afghan countryside, even after being routed by international and Afghan troops in the south. Afghan politicians, public officials, police officers and civilians are increasingly being targeted by the insurgents in an attempt to instill fear within the Afghan population while deterring others who might be thinking about a career in Afghanistan’s civil service.
Pakistan has played a vital role in the Taliban’s partial regeneration. After being cleared from towns and villages by coalition soldiers over the eighteen months of the surge, Taliban fighters either drifted back into Pakistan to rearm and rest or relocated to areas of the country, including the northern portion of Afghanistan, that had traditionally been hostile to the Taliban’s presence.
For Western military planners who were hoping for a significantly diminished insurgency by 2014, the Taliban has been able to break through those hopes, creating a deeper sense of worry that the Afghan state can hold its own once foreign enablers are gone.
At present, the Afghan security force consist of approximately 350,000 personnel. If the Afghan army and police have any chance of providing “basic security for the country,” CNA says those numbers cannot be decreased.
In Western countries that fund Afghanistan’s troops at a tune of $4 billion per year, this recommendation will not be taken kindly. In addition to increasing the cost by another to billion per year, the report effectively destroys the plans that NATO set in motion in 2010 to shrink Afghan security forces to 228,500 over the next several years.
If this was simply another assessment taken by an outside group, NATO countries could perhaps ignore the findings — or, more diplomatically, thank the contributors for their hard work while disagreeing with the substance. But this is no ordinary assessment. The authors were all approved by the Pentagon, ensuring that the report will be taken seriously and deliberated in the inner corridors of the building.
For an Obama Administration that has been waiting for the day when the Afghan war can be called over, the study once again confirms what historians, policymakers and soldiers in the war have known for a long time: no campaign plan in Afghanistan is foolproof or ironclad.