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Why Afghanistan Is Like the Color-Changing Dress (And Also In a Lot of Trouble)

Recent reports have suggested there are plunging troop numbers in the army, an apparent rise in the prevalence of private armies, and a lack of accountability for abuses.

by Gary Owen
Mar 6 2015, 6:42pm

Photo by Abdul Khaliq/AP

Much like the colors of the internet's favorite dress, NATO's Afghan army troop numbers released last week appear to change depending on how you look at them — and the explanations for the numbers are only slightly less painful to read than the online arguments about whether it's blue/black or gold/white.

The release was intended to provide some "perspective" on the capacity of Afghan troops as America decides whether to extend the presence of US troops beyond current deadlines. But the only real perspective offered is that President Barack Obama is waging a global war on both terror and transparency.

There's a lot at stake for General John Campbell, commander of all NATO and American forces in Afghanistan. Late last year, Campbell and US military leadership decided to classify all data related to American interactions with the Afghan National Army (ANA). Much of that data was previously unclassified; the change was in response to a Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) request for information on the ANA.

What was classified included everything from the number of Afghan soldiers who had completed literacy training to the number of soldiers who were actually in the Afghan army. As VICE News reported last month, one possible reason for the sudden secrecy was the rapid decline in Afghan troops that began in January of 2014 when the Afghans assumed full control of the country's security. NATO and the US recently said that they will now declassify some of the ANA data, and this week SIGAR released a supplement to its January 2015 quarterly report that details what's been declassified.

It's true that recruiting that many people would help balance out the numbers of Afghan troops who are heading for the hills. The thing is, those number aren't based in reality. 

Included in the declassified info were end-strength numbers for the ANA. Per SIGAR, in November 2014 ANA and Afghan Air Force (AAF) soldiers, airmen, and civilians totaled 169,203. Last week's NATO statement lists "approximately 173,000 soldiers, airmen, and Ministry of Defence (MoD) civilians serving in the Army." Which happens to be the same number quoted by the Department of Defense in a report to Congress last October, which used figures from August 2014.

In August, the Afghan army numbers broke down like this: 173,000 personnel, which included 159,000 soldiers, 6,000 airmen, and 8,000 civilians. In November, SIGAR reports that number had dwindled to 169,203. By February, NATO reported a total force back up to 173,000.

Related: The real reason the US military was suddenly so secretive about Afghanistan

This would mean that in the space of a few months, the Afghan army reversed its nearly year-long trend of 25 percent to 30 percent attrition rates and managed to increase the size of the force by 4,000 soldiers. This brought its reported end strength right back to August 2014 levels, which were the last numbers publicly available on the size of Afghanistan's security forces. Lieutenant Colonel Chris Belcher, deputy director for public affairs for NATO's Resolute Support mission, confirmed that current ANA end strength is 173,000, and the similarity in the two numbers is "merely coincidental as the ANDSF goes through a natural cycle of attrition and recruitment of personnel."

The Afghan army has long had an attrition problem, but it wasn't always this severe. In December 2009, the ANA had about 100,000 troops. By the end of 2013, that number stood at slightly more than 182,000. By August 2014, the number had dropped to 159,000, with an additional 6,000 air force personnel, for a total army head count of 165,000, plus an additional 8,000 civilians.

Things started going really poorly in 2013, right after the ANSF took over security responsibility for NATO, when their casualty rates increased by 49 percent from the previous year. The Afghan military wasn't able to replace those troops at a fast enough rate. The reason, according to NATO and the Americans? Lousy recruiting.

(Right-click to enlarge)

The problem, Belcher says, is that throughout 2014, the Afghan army didn't set its recruiting goals high enough. "High enough" meaning "at levels sufficient to outpace attrition rates, which resulted in a decline in ANA end strength." NATO advisers noted the decline, and in November 2014 — when Lieutenant General Joseph Anderson, Campbell's second in command in Afghanistan, said that Afghan losses were "not sustainable" — NATO started working with the ANA to raise its monthly recruiting targets. As of December, Belcher says, the Afghan army had a plan to "maintain increased recruiting and training output, which commenced at the end of January 2015. Since November 2014, ANA strength has steadily started to increase."

The best way to beat attrition is to convince the people you already spent time and money training not to leave in the first place: Pay them better, equip them better, and generally make the decision to quit and go home a little harder. The US has not had much luck with this; over the years they've blamed attrition on everything from bad equipment to farm kids wanting to go home and help Dad with that year's poppy harvest.

The other way is to recruit more people than you lose. This is a bad idea, because constant turnover means your army doesn't have the opportunity to mature into a competent fighting force. Nevertheless, there is going to be a whole lot of recruiting in yet another bid to keep the ANA from becoming an army of none.

Since taking over for the Americans, Afghans have suffered heavy losses, but per NATO's release last week, that's "not deterred other Afghans from volunteering to step in and serve their country. The ANA has increased its recruiting efforts and is currently projected to recruit between 4,000-6,000 new recruits per month during the next few months."

It's true that recruiting that many people would help balance out the numbers of Afghan troops who are heading for the hills. The thing is, those number aren't based in reality. Ever since January of last year, Afghan army gains from recruiting have plummeted.

Reporting from the Department of Defense shows that from January through August of 2014, monthly gains never came anywhere near the minimum of 4,000 per month that NATO is projecting would be necessary to balance out the attrition numbers. Which means either the Afghan army will suddenly become a whole lot better at recruiting, or NATO's Afghan projections are once again overly optimistic.

The thing is, we'll probably never know exactly how many people are in the Afghan army. Belcher noted that since Afghans "took the lead while still developing their capabilities in personnel administration, end strength numbers will fluctuate throughout the year." In other words, the dress is either blue/black or gold/white: troop numbers are either up or they're down, because it's impossible to tell. This is borne out by SIGAR's January supplemental release, in which NATO admits it won't be able to validate ANA numbers until the Afghans finish installing their human resources systems. Even then, "SIGAR believes it is unlikely [the NATO mission in Afghanistan] will have the personnel and resources to validate ANA personnel numbers other than by analyzing reports based on Afghan inputs into the new system."

Even after the ANA is finished putting systems in place to track its people, when it comes to troop numbers, the Americans are just going to have to take the Afghans' word for it.

Fewer numbers aren't the only problem. A new UN report has found that Afghan forces in 2014 tortured fewer detainees than they used to, but that torture is still reportedly widespread. Only one case of reported torture has resulted in criminal prosecution since 2010, and it's that lack of accountability that has typified the Afghan government response in the past.

A report this week from Human Rights Watch details abuses by eight people with direct links to Afghan security forces, and asks President Ashraf Ghani's new regime to make right the sins of the past. Some of the impunity can be traced directly to American influence, as the US supported some of these people for the sake of the country's security.

The report singles out people like provincial police chief Brigadier General Abdul Raziq in Kandahar and Azizullah in Paktika. Those men, along with Abdul Rashid Dostum, are some of the most problematic examples of US support for people willing to lock insurgents in shipping containers and beat them with electrical wire. But now that Dostum is one of Ghani's vice presidents, further legal action against him is unlikely. After all, it's 2015, and a Facebook apology atones for war crimes.

Related: A warlord, a drug smuggler, and a killer: Meet some of America's friends in Afghanistan

Instead of doing what they can to support legitimate Afghan forces, every warlord/former warlord/provincial governor/vice president wants an army of his own. Leading by example, Dostum has asked the government to fund a 20,000 strong militia that he insists will support the country's security. Other people are taking advantage of the alleged rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan to raise their own personal forces. A new militia in Balkh, supplied and funded by former members of the Northern Alliance, calls itself Marg [Death] and claims it has 5,000 members ready to defend their homes. Balkh's governor has been a vocal opponent of Ghani's, and a force that size could be problematic if the political situation in Afghanistan were to degrade into civil war.

Last month, Campbell told the Senate, "On the battlefield the [Afghan national security forces] fought courageously and displayed their increasing capabilities." No one is calling the courage of Afghan soldiers into question. What is open for debate is how a force that's been dramatically shrinking is "increasing capabilities" when it comes to fighting the Taliban.

Because even if NATO does manage to compensate for losses with new recruits, it means an increasing number of Afghan troops will be dangerously inexperienced. Training is what makes an army — the kind of training and development that's impossible to achieve when 25 percent to 30 percent of your force is walking off the job every year. But if NATO leadership can prove that the Afghans are putting enough soldiers on the front lines, they can convince Congress and the president that all the ANA needs is a little more help for a little longer than planned.

Follow Gary Owen on Twitter: @ElSnarkistani