Afghanistan's national security forces are on track to assume the bulk of coalition-led operations once U.S. forces depart in 2014, but significant delays to multiple long-term reconstruction projects risk weakening that Afghan-led mission, warns a new Defense Department (DOD) report.
The report by the DOD Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released Monday says the number of units conducting combat and law enforcement missions with little to no U.S. oversight grew between April and July. U.S. military officials have also ramped up deliveries of critical weapons and equipment to these forces over the same time span.
The results of the report paint a murky picture of the Afghan government's ability to maintain security within its own borders once the first American troops begin rotating out of the country this summer.
The number of Afghan military units operating with minimal U.S. assistance rose to 20 battalions over the past two months, the report says.
The number of Afghan units now rated "independent with [U.S.] advisers" is five more compared to the number of qualified battalions that were carrying out combat missions almost entirely independent of American assistance.
A total of five battalions in the Afghan Army's 201st, 205th and 207th Army Corps reached the independent rating, with another battalion from the Afghan army's Headquarters Security and Support Brigade also reaching the critical milestone.
That independent rating means an Afghan unit is able "to plan and execute its missions, maintain command and control of subordinates, call on and coordinate quick-reaction forces and medical evacuations, exploit intelligence, and operate within a wider intelligence system," with little to no support from coalition advisers.
Similar gains were also seen within the ranks of the Afghan National Police, according to the report.
In July, the number of Afghan police units that reached the independent rating was 65, which is a 24-unit increase compared to the 41 police units that achieved the same rating in April.
At the headquarters level, more than a quarter of the divisions in the Afghan Ministry of Defense are able to plan large-scale military operations with "minimal coalition assistance," the report states. That percentage, however, is the same compared to numbers compiled in April.
The one Afghan military branch that rated the lowest in terms of independent operations is the ministry's fledgling intelligence office. That shop garnered a "CM-4" rating, which means that even though the office exists, it is completely unable to execute its mission, according to the report.
The only other office to achieve a similar rating is the defense ministry's directorate responsible for integrating women into the Afghan armed forces.
Intelligence and gender integration are not the only problems facing the country's security forces, says the report, which sees long-term problems with key reconstruction efforts undermining many gains.
A U.S. Agency for International Development-led program (USAID) designed "to support the U.S. counter-insurgency strategy with gains in local jobs, community and government capacity, and infrastructure" has largely fallen flat in Eastern Afghanistan, according to the review.
After three years of work, reconstruction programs under the Afghanistan Stabilization Initiative-East "have advanced from the “hold” to the “build” phase of that strategy, and an exit strategy remains to be developed," according to DOD auditors.
"The slow pace of progress raises concerns for ultimate program success and a smooth hand-off," they say.
Several key programs financed by the joint DOD and State Department Afghanistan Infrastructure Program continue to be up to a year behind schedule.
"These facts indicate risks that achievement of full, intended [counterinsurgency] benefits may be delayed, and that Afghan public opinion may be adversely affected if projects lag and later fail for want of sustainment," DOD officials write.
Problems with the country's ability to deal with its volatile border with Pakistan are also raising concerns among Pentagon auditors.
Monday's report finds "construction deficiencies" with a number of border security checkpoints built by U.S. and coalition forces and manned by Afghan security troops. The outposts, specifically in the Nangarhar province, lacked "a viable water supply, a poorly constructed septic system, and inadequate sewage," the review says.
"In addition, SIGAR found leaking fuel lines, unconnected drain pipes, poorly built guard towers, and improperly installed heating and ventilation systems," DOD auditors write.
As a result, many of the outposts were abandoned by Afghan national security forces or "not used for their intended purposes" by those troops.
Border clashes between coalition forces and terror groups like the Pakistani-based Haqqani Network have produced some of the heaviest fighting since the Obama administration surged more than 20,000 U.S. troops into the southern part of the country in 2009.
But border security, along with a slew of other security operations will be in Kabul's hands as American troops begin to come home over the next few months.
The administration's roadmap for U.S. drawdowns in Afghanistan has 32,000 American soldiers coming home this summer. The remaining 68,000 are expected to be stateside by the end of 2014.
During that time, American and coalition commanders will begin to transition the entire security mission to the ANSF. Afghan forces have already been handed control of detainee operations and oversight of night raid missions.
Afghan forces are expected to have compete control of all combat operations in country by 2013, according to a postwar deal struck between President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai in May.
Gen. John Allen, head of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has said local Afghan forces have been making significant progress and should be ready to shoulder the weight of all security operations once American troops begin to rotate out of the country.