US advisers: Afghan troops face ‘unrealistic expectations’

COMBAT OUTPOST MATUN HILL, Afghanistan — U.S. military advisers are expressing concerns that Afghan security forces are facing "unrealistic expectations" from Washington and Kabul ahead of the withdrawal of NATO troops.

The U.S.-led coalition handed over security responsibility to local forces last month and is scheduled to pull out all troops in 2014, with talks about leaving a residual support force underway. 

But even though Afghan forces are taking the lead in combat operations across the country, and paying a heavy toll for it, some of the efforts to professionalize the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will simply need more time, U.S. military commanders told The Hill.

Maj. Rich Schildman, executive officer for the main U.S. advisory team in eastern Afghanistan’s Khost province, said Afghan forces “are starting to feel the pressure."

U.S. forces are planning to shutter Combat Outpost Matun Hill after the holy month of Ramadan, which ends in August. By September, American forces plan to be completely withdrawn from the combat outpost, which is located near the provincial capital of Khost City. 

Setting the lines of authority between the Afghan army, national police and local police is a job that will clearly take more than three months, according to Schildman. 

"Look at [the] Posse Comitatus [Act], that was passed 60, 70 years after the [U.S.] Constitution," he said, referring to the federal law limiting the military's ability to enforce state laws. 

Lt. Col. David Hamann, who leads the American Security Force Assistance Advisory Team (SFAAT) at Combat Outpost Matun Hill, said the next five to ten years "will be the most vulnerable" for the ANSF.

Those comments echo those of Gen. Joseph Dunford, head of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan, who said that it will take years before Afghan military forces will be able to flush the Taliban out of Afghanistan.

"My assumption is that the [Afghan] insurgency will still exist after 2014," Dunford said in an interview with ABC News in May. 

"The conditions are not yet set for a stable and secure Afghanistan in the long-term," he added at the time. 

Schildman said the efforts of Afghan troops in Khost province was being closely watched by Washington and Kabul.

Afghan commanders and local government leaders are also "taking a hard interest in what is going on here," said Schildman.

Hamann and Schildman though said Afghan forces had made substantial progress.

While all elements of the ANSF in Khost do not "get along perfectly ... these guys work well together," Hamann said. "They get the job done.”

The troops in Khost, in eastern Afghanistan, are facing pressure from both the Taliban and Pakistani-based Haqqani network, which has been flooding the region with foreign fighters, according to both U.S. officers.

"The madrassas are emptying" in Pakistan, in an attempt to drive more fighters into Afghanistan, Hamann said.

Insurgent commanders are also ordering their fighters to dress in burkas, in an attempt to avoid detection by ANSF and Afghan border police, he added. 

Afghan border police and army units in Khost though are able to pick out foreign fighters coming across the border, despite those efforts, according to Schildman. 

Afghan forces here "generally know who is from Khost and who is not," he added. 

Hamann said the insurgents’ use of inexperienced recruits from Pakistan was a sign of desperation.

The majority of enemy activity around Matun Hill has consisted mostly of small improvised explosive devices (IED) and mortar fire against Afghan border checkpoints, according to Maj. Shah Mohammed, operations officer for the main ANSF coordination cell here.

Taliban and Haqqani forces have plotted assassination attempts against senior local and tribal leaders as well, Mohammed said in an interview with The Hill.

To date, however, Taliban or Haqqani fighters have been able to launch any major attacks inside Khost City or the surrounding areas, he added.