Hope is not a strategy

Gradually but inexorably, Afghanistan is crawling towards the edge of a precipice. The US-led forces in Afghanistan are on target to complete their drawdown by end-2014. In fact, some members of the US Congress have called for an even earlier withdrawal despite the fact that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF, army and police) are unlikely to be capable of assuming independent charge of security by the end of 2014 due to structural as well as functional deficiencies.

The present security environment can be described as a stalemate at both the strategic and tactical levels. While the Taliban are following a wait-and-watch strategy and keeping their powder dry, the Nato-ISAF forces and the ANSF are failing to make further gains against them. The ANSF operate with confidence during the day in conjunction with the Nato-ISAF forces, but the Taliban rule large swathes of the countryside by night, collect taxes and protection money and administer their peculiar brand of Sharia justice. 

The ANSF are reported to be on target to raise their force strength to the planned level of 352,000 personnel (195,000 army and 157,000 police), including 25,000 Special Forces. This large force level has been raised in a short span of a few years. The rapid raising of new combat battalions almost invariably results in a dilution in the quality of intake of recruits as the catchment area is limited and low standards of initial or basic training as the training period is reduced to six months or lesser.

Newly raised battalions in the best of armies take three to five years to settle down and build internal unit cohesion and esprit de corps before they can be employed for military operations. Also, it is often forgotten that counter-insurgency operations are far more complex than conventional operations against the enemy arrayed opposite one’s own force.  

Counter-insurgency operations are small-team operations in which success is heavily dependent on very high quality junior leadership. The standards of junior leadership in the ANSF leave much to be desired. Not only are the ANSF ill-trained and badly led, they are also poorly equipped.

The ANSF lack high mobility vehicles like the US ‘humvees’ and are incapable of launching quick reaction teams to either come to the aid of besieged patrols and ambush parties or to exploit fleeting opportunities. The Afghan army lacks firepower resources as it has not been given any artillery. In fact, combat service support elements are almost completely non-existent. 

Accurate and timely intelligence is the bedrock of successful counter-insurgency operations. The ANSF do not have an integral intelligence establishment and are dependent mainly on external sources. 

This is a major operational deficiency. The desertion rate is higher than average in similar circumstances; many cases of fratricide have been reported and the Taliban have infiltrated their men into some of the battalions. Under these circumstances, morale is bound to be low. Some ISAF generals have praised the performance of a few ANSF battalions in recent operations, but most operations are still being supported by ISAF advisors and are not being conducted entirely independently. 

Daring attack

On the other hand, the Taliban destroyed six US Marine Corps Harrier fighter jets and severely damaged two others in a daring attack on Camp Bastion in September 2012. The Taliban launched several such attacks on coalition bases in 2012 though not with as much success as at Camp Bastion. Though the Afghan government has certainly come a long way towards ensuring that the country is soon free of foreign forces, the present state of the ANSF does not inspire much confidence in its ability to guarantee an acceptable level of security when the Nato-ISAF drawdown has been completed.

An objective military assessment would be that the ANSF need to be supplemented by an international stabilisation force. Such a force could be constituted under the aegis of the United Nations and could comprise troops from Afghanistan’s neighbours who have a major stake in the country. Such a force will not be easy to assemble as the Afghans themselves are wary of the presence of foreign troops and the neighbouring countries may not be so easily forthcoming. But, it is the best option under the circumstances; otherwise the probability of a major civil war will loom large on the horizon. 

The High Peace Council of Afghanistan released the ‘peace process roadmap to 2015’ in November 2012. It envisages that by 2015, Taliban, Hizb-e Islami and other armed groups will have given up armed opposition, transformed from military entities into political groups, and will actively participate in the country’s political and constitutional processes. It also envisages the appointment of Taliban commanders to key positions – for example, cabinet posts, governorships and police commands. 

This is wishful thinking that is divorced from ground realities. If implemented, it will lead to the further polarisation of Afghan society on ethnic lines as the non-Pushtun warlords will resent being dominated. It will also allow Pakistan to dictate terms in the east and the south through its Taliban protégés.  

The Nato-ISAF planners are eager to wind up their decade-long operations and get their men home at any cost. They are pinning their hopes on the budding ANSF being able to hold its own against the Taliban who have demonstrated their capacity for resurgence. Hope can never be a substitute for strategy.