Insurmountable Obstacles in Afghanistan

Insurmountable Obstacles in Afghanistan

Despite tremendous gains, a fragile Afghanistan remains woefully unprepared for Western withdrawal.

In a  speech to the Atlantic Council this week, Major General John Toolan, just returned from a year commanding NATO forces in southwestern Afghanistan, both highlighted the tremendous progress coalition forces have made since the beginning of the Afghan surge and candidly acknowledged how much work remains to be done.

Toolan was, for the most part, dismissive of the Taliban’s strength, which has undoubtedly been greatly diminished by the last two years of heavy "kinetic" operations against it. As a result, Toolan explained, coalition forces had become "the home team" while the Taliban had become "the visiting team," having to hide across the Pakistan border and "sneak in" to former strongholds like Marja and Hellmand Province under the cover of darkness.

Taking a page out of David Kilcullen's 2009  The Accidental Guerrilla, Toolan stated that the "hard core" of fanatical Taliban is quite small, with most of the middle and lower ranks of militants consisting of opportunists fighting for fun or fortune. The focus of the nonkinetic mission, then, was to ensure that an effective government was in place to provide security and essential services, thus taking away the incentives to join antiregime forces and bringing nonfanatics "back into the fold. "

At the same time, however, Toolan was quite blunt in his assessment of how fragile the situation is: "If we want to lose everything we've gained, then if we allow corruption to take root, it'll come crashing in. "

Nor is this a distant threat. While he considers the well-publicized incidents of Afghan National Army soldiers killing NATO troops aberrations, he acknowledged that the police forces are far from competent or trustworthy. Currently, Toolan repeatedly noted, they are incapable of conducting even basic criminal investigations on their own. Further, the "police are still working through a history of corruption."

While Toolan says the police are the "center of gravity" of the security apparatus—more important even than the army—these deficiencies mean that the public has little confidence in them. "The local people, still, they're a little hesitant, so the army's playing a pretty strong role" in providing basic security. The hope is to eventually demilitarize policing, but that won't happen by 2014. And, Toolan warned, "if the Afghan security forces are allowed to prey on the public, we will lose our home-team advantage."

Additionally, despite his praise for the great strides made in training the Afghan National Army (ANA) to take the lead, he backhandedly admitted that it remains a woefully inadequate force. Even if given until the end of 2014 to continue training this force—something that is far from a given at this point—Toolan expects that it will require a much greater amount of American and NATO assistance than has heretofore been outlined.

Afghan Military Shortcomings

While Toolan went out of his way to praise the toughness of the Afghan infantry soldiers and marvel at their skill at human intelligence (which apparently doesn't extend to ferreting out members of their own ranks who want to kill Americans, alas) he allowed that "there will be things left after 2014 that will continue to support the Afghan security forces." As he continued to explain, that list got pretty long.

First and foremost, the Afghans have no real technical capabilities to gather and analyze their own nonhuman intelligence. So, naturally, NATO will still need to provide that. This is not unexpected; they're very advanced, enormously expensive tools to acquire.

Second, the Afghan mission currently enjoys the finest military medical support the world has ever known. Soldiers receive immediate field medicine and can be Medevaced to a top-flight surgical facility within an hour. The Afghans have none of that capability and are not even in the process of developing it. Naturally, that means NATO will need to provide it.

Third, special forces have been crucial to the successes against the Taliban spoken of by Toolan. While the ANA has a fair number of commandos, they're not yet able to conduct complex operations integrated with conventional forces. It’s another gap that will need to be filled by NATO for the foreseeable future.

The deficit that jumped out at me, as a former field-artillery officer, was "fire support." Toolan noted that American forces can put artillery on target with amazing accuracy and, well, their Afghan counterparts can’t. This is worrisome. Unlike technical intelligence, medical proficiency and special operations—all skills that take years of expensive training to master—putting rounds down range and on target is pretty basic stuff. The folks at Fort Sill, Oklahoma can take a private right out of basic training and turn him into a fully competent 13-Bravo cannon crewmember in five weeks, four days. To be sure, graduates get additional training and increase their proficiency somewhat under the supervision of squad leaders once they get to their units. But only marginally so. Putting steel on target is a platoon-level task, not a combined-arms operation requiring years and years of experience.

Compounding these problems, of course, is the free flow of fighters, weapons, drugs and money across the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border. On this front, Toolan didn't bother to pretend we are getting any cooperation from our ostensible allies in Islamabad. The Afghan Taliban are headquartered just across the Durand Line in Quetta. Toolan declared that he has gotten "no support from the XIIth Corps," the Pakistan Army unit in charge of the area, and that he was continually rebuffed when he tried to set up meetings with his counterparts to address the situation: "I know for a fact that drugs are moving out through Pakistan and lethal aid is coming in on a regular basis."

Given all these obstacles, it's implausible to believe that they'll be resolved—or even on their way to resolution—in less than two years' time. While coalition forces have indeed made tremendous strides on the security front, the all-important political and economic pictures are, if anything, less encouraging than they were before the surge began.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

Image: AfghanistanMatters