On 21 June, the Afghan National Army and Police will start taking over security responsibility in seven areas of the country including the capital Kabul. This will be followed up by commencement of pull out of US troops to begin in July as per President Barack Obama’s plan. The Canadians deployed in Kandahar the heart of Taliban militancy are leaving. This transition comes about even as the United Nations has flagged the highest number of civilian casualties in the country in May this year. So there are many concerns whether the Afghans are really prepared for this seminal shift?
At the same time numbers of the Afghan National Army and the Police are increasing each day and are expected to reach over 350,000 in a few years. The Afghans are one of the best fighters in the World but the secret of success will come about if they can be converted from being the best fighters to good soldiers and the difference between the two is quite vast.
The fighter is very good at individual actions as sniping, laying an ambush, placing an IED and making a quick get away. He can live off the land, merge with the locals, is quick to eye an opportunity and when he senses danger just melts away. On the flip side the fighter lacks discipline, perseverance and the staying power to win a long battle or a war. This is evident in Afghanistan where after securing a district, they tend to soon lose it to the security forces.
A soldier on the other hand has some of the best qualities of the fighter but his main strength is ability to work in a group, exploit organizational discipline, modern technology and all available resources to advantage consistently. He is not easily demoralized when the comrade next to him slumps to a bomb or an IED, he has the will to succeed against adversity by facing rather than evading it and is also amenable to work under an organized chain of command.
So how are the things working for turning over the Afghan fighter into a soldier.
There is no doubt good progress in building the numbers. But one of the main challenges is low level of education. This will keep the potential of the force limited and therefore it would important to ensure that simultaneous measures to expand literacy are taken. Given employment opportunities in Afghanistan which is absorbing a large number of youth in various jobs in civil and development sector the educated are joining these rather than the military. Thus the forces are likely to continue to get uneducated or semi literate soldiers in their recruiting line up, thereby indicating that in house measures to improve literacy may be the way ahead. The training capsule would have to perforce include some measures to teach new persons how to read and write and ensure that they are able to understand bare minimum orders and procedures that have to be carried out over a period.
Penetration of Taliban in the Afghan forces is an issue that has been flagged from time to time, but it is apparent that there are no effective checks being applied over a period to prevent this menace from spreading in the Afghan Army and the police. In the enthusiasm for increasing the numbers it is obvious that the Afghan security forces have not been able to carry out due diligence to the desired degree to ensure that those who are serving in the forces are not affiliated to the Taliban though many would be former fighters with tribal militia and the older ones even having some background with fighting the Taliban. The process will have to be streamlined to ensure that the entry of Taliban in the garb of raising numbers in the armed forces is contained and reversed. Even after joining actions would have to be taken to carry out continuous surveillance for this is one factor that is impacting credibility of the force as well as resulting in large number of casualties to NATO forces as well given that there are more and more incidents of fratricide.
Building integral capacity to house and handle various tasks entailed in military and policing including vehicle yards, offices and maintenance complexes is another challenge. This will not just enhance efficiency but also be economical and would provide a model to follow once the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) resources start reducing. While the investment costs of such projects would certainly be high, the returns will be handsome. With Afghan economy not able to sustain a large security force, such measures would add to the overall sustainability in the long run. Moreover given that construction also requires security by completing these projects the ISAF would also ensure that there is limited disruption in the same.
Afghanistan's security forces are no doubt under scrutiny and this should drive them to attaining greater capacity to be able to deliver on the ground in the near future with the transfer due from 21 June. While there are a number of concerns particularly with the Taliban specifically targeting high value persons such as provincial council and police chiefs and brutally murdering him, the overall capacity building programme in critical areas under transfer including Kabul seems to be on stream.
The first phase would also determine the course ahead for the success or otherwise will improve the confidence of both the ISAF and local government in the Afghan security forces. Having selected provinces which do not have much of a Taliban presence the first phase despite such disruptions is likely to go through it is the later phases which have to be carefully watched.
For this we need to convert the best fighters into good soldiers.