The training mission in Afghanistan is the key to ISAF’s transition and withdrawal strategy. The concept is to train enough Afghan police and soldiers to a sufficient level that they can provide security in the vacuum left by withdrawing Western troops. Thus, if the Afghans themselves are not ready or if they’re too weakened by insider attacks, the strategy itself will fall apart.
It’s difficult to get solid data about how the training mission is proceeding. Earlier this year, I published a study through the American Security Project about metrics in the Afghan war that included data on Afghan security forces retention. The results were sobering: more Afghans are deserting the service than ever before, and green-on-blue attacks are higher than ever before as well.
This suggests the Afghans themselves have a fundamental crisis of trust in the Army and Police services. Unfortunately, ISAF reporting on the Afghan police and army don’t account for such data. When promoting the training mission last year, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell focused almost exclusively on how many Afghans his program was able to recruit – not how many stuck around. ISAF’s own reporting about Afghan retention and performance is often incomplete and contradictory – making a rigorous assessment of their performance extremely difficult.
The Afghan government does not seem to share ISAF’s confidence in the training mission. Last year, the Afghan Ministry of the Interior complained that ISAF’s training plan of eight-to-twelve weeks was not sufficient to ensure a properly trained force. The little public data about Afghan performance bears out the MOI’s skepticism: as late as last year not a single Afghan unit could function on its own without American support, according to Wired Magazine.
In the last week, both the Afghan government and ISAF have taken actions that further demonstrate their own lack of trust in the training mission. Given the spate of insider attacks, ISAF decided to suspend its police training mission while it sorts out how it can better vet recruits. At the same time, the Afghan government has arrested or expelled hundreds of soldiers for suspected links to the insurgency.
It didn’t have to be this way. Last summer, Jeffrey Bordin, who ran a “Red Team” for the US military in Afghanistan that critically examined policy, released an unclassified report about some structural challenges to the training mission. Based on hundreds of interviews, he concluded that the rise of insider attacks (theywere increasing in 2011 as well) represented a “rapidly growing systemic threat” to the mission.
One of the problems Bordin noted was the prevalence ofcondescending Western soldiers antagonizing their Afghan protégés. The two come from dramatically different backgrounds, with different expectations for what a military training environment is supposed to be like. As a result, his report suggested, Western forces were responsible for at least some of the Afghan ire that spilled over into violence.
At the time, the Wall Street Journal reported, ISAF retroactively classified and disputed every single one of the report’s findings.
The limited public data available suggest that the training mission in Afghanistan is falling apart. Despite optimistic statements by ISAF officials about the Afghans’ readiness, their real world performance doesn’t seem to match the rhetoric.
So when we try to examine how the insider attacks are affecting readiness, the only answer is “Who knows, but it’s probably getting worse.” Without clearer and more precise reporting from within ISAF – including an open hearing of critical reports by its own analysts – we won’t be able to say for certain.
Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project.