With just 23 months until the end of the International Security Assistance Force mission in Afghanistan, Afghan forces are poised to move into the lead operationally, and NATO and partner nations are discussing the scope and missions of the enduring presence force that will remain in the country.
The conversations within NATO are about this transition, a senior NATO officer, speaking on background, told reporters today. The alliance’s chiefs of defense, including Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are here for meetings.
“It has been less a conversation about numbers than it has been about capabilities and requirements,” the senior officer said of discussions concerning NATO’s role going forward in Afghanistan.
“Milestone 2013” is the shorthand NATO uses referring to Afghan forces taking the security lead. Last week, President Barack Obama and Afghan President Karzai announced this will occur in the spring.
This milestone marks a long road for the Afghan national security forces, the officer said. In 2012, Afghan forces demonstrated their battlefield abilities and proficiencies. Now, he said, the need in Afghanistan is for NATO support forces and advisors rather than the combat troops Afghanistan needed in the past.
The post-2014 needs are a training-and-advising capability and a focused counterterrorism capability, the officer said. How to execute those missions at various troop levels are the conversations that are going on within NATO, in Afghanistan and in the capitals of partner nations, he told reporters, adding that ISAF has not been asked to provide advice with respect to a zero-troop option.
The way forward can be seen with an eye to the past, the officer said. The nature of the enduring-presence force will be to facilitate an Afghan national security force that will still be conducting counterinsurgency operations, he added.
Just a year ago, the officer noted, people asked when ISAF was going to shift the main effort in Afghanistan from Regional Command South to Regional Command East. They didn’t realize the main effort was already shifting, he said, because that mission was shifting to Afghan forces.
For a counterinsurgency to succeed, the officer said, indigenous forces have to be the lead. Foreign forces can provide the breathing space for these forces to develop their capabilities, but ultimately it is up to local forces to work with the people. “That’s been what has been happening over the last 18 months,” he said.
The drawdown of U.S. surge forces in Afghanistan created the space and necessitated innovation for Afghan forces. “They are doing corps-level operations today using counterinsurgency type tactics, techniques and procedures, with us firmly in an advisory role,” he said.
In 2015 and beyond, the nature of NATO presence will be on training, advising and assisting to ensure the continued development of the Afghan forces, the officer said, and the counterterrorism mission will be to prevent al-Qaida from putting down roots in Afghanistan again.
The Afghan forces will be ready for the full security load by 2015, the officer said, but the road hasn’t been easy. “We’re building this military virtually from scratch,” he noted.
Once trained, the officer said, the Afghan military “has gone from the training field to the battlefield, it has gone from training straight into combat.” The Afghan military needs to have cohesion and loyalty to the nation, but it still must incorporate and adjust to the dynamic of tribalism and ethnicity, he added. And on top of this, he said, less than a quarter of all Afghans are literate, and the use of modern weapons and tactics requires literacy.
There are problems, he acknowledged, and ISAF and the Afghan ministries are addressing them. Attrition in the army is an unsustainable 3.5 percent per month, the officer said. Other national security elements such as the police and air force are within the norms needed, around 1.4 percent per month.
The army’s difficulties, he told reporters, stem from four basic problems: quality of leadership, quality of life, access to leave, and pay.
The pay issue has been largely solved with the adoption of electronic funds transfer. Quality of life issues are being addressed by building new garrisons, the officer said. “We’re getting these soldiers out of barracks that are falling down, that are cast-offs, and getting them into the new facilities and bases that we are building for them,” he said.
Leave was a problem last year and directly contributed to a rise in the attrition rate, the officer said, noting these soldiers went straight from the training ground to a tough fighting season in 2012. “We have worked very closely with the Afghan army and the Ministry of Defense to get leave back on the books for these kids,” he said.
Finally, the officer said, leadership is a systemic problem that is being addressed. The Afghan defense minister is scrubbing the leadership of the Afghan military and weeding out those who can’t cut the mustard or are corrupt, while promoting those who have demonstrated their worth.
The attrition is coming down, the officer said.
All this is important for the Afghan security forces in 2013, the officer said. “This is the first summer where Afghans are in the lead for security operations throughout the country,” he said. “We want their forces to come out of this fighting season to be successful, but really to be confident in their abilities.”
The Afghans already are conducting corps-level operations around Afghanistan and routinely oversee 10,000 to 12,000 Afghan troops in an operation from multiple brigades, the officer said. Between 1,000 and 1,500 ISAF personnel will be scattered about the battle space as advisors or providing support capabilities.
One Taliban tactic is simply to wait out the NATO ISAF mission and take on the Afghan national security force, the officer said, but he added he does not believe that is the Taliban’s strategy.
“Have the Taliban taken a knee for a couple of fighting seasons to sustain their own combat power and lull us into a false sense of confidence?” he said. “We have concluded they have not taken a knee. They are going to continue to come at us hard. That’s where the insider threat has been, and our sense is they are not going to husband or marshal their combat power for a post-2014 offensive.”
The fighting seasons from 2009 to 2012 each saw decreases in enemy activity. What’s more, the officer said, where the fighting is happening also is instructive. In 2011, NATO surge forces permitted ISAF to push the enemy out of the cities. “In 2012, as the Taliban sought to get back into the population centers, they were really unable to do that,” he said. The officer said he expects fewer Taliban attacks this year, but he still expects the Taliban to go after the Afghan national security forces.
And all this has to happen so the footprint for an enduring force is ready by the end of 2014, the officer said. About 220 bases in Afghanistan have to close over the next 23 months. “The strategic end state is to seek the final basing platform for our mission that converts naturally into the basing platform for the enduring presence force,” he explained.
Some of that force will be in and around the Afghan capital of Kabul, working with the various government ministries and with the training establishments that have grown up around the city. The officer said he anticipates a presence at Bagram Airfield. Other enduring-presence forces could be based regionally in corps or police-zone areas, or they could be mobile training teams that go from one regional headquarters to another.
There is enthusiasm in NATO to continue to make a difference in Afghanistan, the officer said. “We’ve put 11 years of fighting into this, and the right kind of force in the post-2014 period can sustain these gains for a long time,” he said.
Over the next 23 months, commanders must work to maintain the cohesion of the coalition — 50 nations have been successful working together in the country — and they must guard the integrity of the campaign plan, the officer said. Beyond that, he added, commanders must lead and manage the redeployment of the force, the retrograde of materiel and the closing of more than 200 bases.
“That requires extraordinarily detailed planning, and 23 months is the blink of an eye,” he said. “We are seriously going to use every second to fight the campaign, clear the theater and set the enduring presence force.”