Last week NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen reaffirmed the alliance's commitment to Afghanistan, making the point that, "NATO will stay for as long as it takes to succeed ... but that does not mean forever." For NATO and Western forces to leave Afghanistan as a "stable and secure" state, indigenous security forces will eventually have to be able to stand alone. Yet behind the cacophony of headlines about calls for more US or European troops, the capacity of the Afghan army to "stand alone" is both under-reported and largely misunderstood.
Misunderstanding comes in the form of oversimplified "Afghanisation" ideas such as those held by Senator Carl Levin, the leading Democrat on the senate armed services committee, who last month declared the need to "focus on the strength of the Afghan forces in a way that we have not yet done." He continued, "We need a surge of Afghan security forces. We have not done enough to put that in motion."
Levin's ideas hark back to the Vietnamisation and Iraqisation strategies that both failed as they didn't take into account the difficulties of building national forces within divided nations.
Obama's current plan is a slightly more complex idea based on the counter-insurgency principles of surging to regain the initiative, utilizing a population-centric approach based upon protecting civilians rather than solely killing the enemy. Theoretically, building up Afghan state institutions such as the army and police occurs simultaneously and is assisted by the stability that the surge provides.
Institution-building has resulted in a massive increase in the size of Afghan security forces. In 2008 the joint coordination monitoring board of the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) approved the decision to increase the strength of the Afghan national army (Ana) from 82,000 to 134,000 by 2013, making it the largest force in Afghan history (speculation suggests this may be raised to 240,000). By 2011 Isaf hopes that the Ana will consist of 21 brigades including 18 infantry brigades, one mechanised brigade, one HQ security support brigade and a commando brigade.
The training of the Afghan army is an area of particular responsibility for the British. In April Gordon Brown announced that, "British forces will increasingly concentrate their efforts on the training and development of the Afghan National Security Forces."
In total the aim is to have 400,000 Afghan security personnel by 2013. Experts speak of the "indigenous Afghan army" as if it were a maturing wine that simply needs time. However, there are serious questions about the national identity of this force and its ability to survive in the longer term -- both vital pillars of Rasmussen's exit strategy from the country.
Cost-wise, there are questions about how a desperately poor country with an annual federal government budget of $4bn will be able to maintain a security apparatus of nearly half a million men. By contrast the US currently spends $4bn a month on military operations in Afghanistan.
Time-wise, the training clearly has a long horizon end point, yet NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal himself has warned that it is the next 12 months that may risk "an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible."
Patrick Hennessey, a former soldier who spent time leading an operational mentoring and liaison team, training and mentoring the Afghan army, revealed at a recent lecture the challenges facing the Ana, in particular the dangers of trying to turn them into a NATO-esque force. Hennessey told of the small numbers of Pashtun troops fighting in Helmand and how a Tajik-officer-dominated force could be construed as the "Northern Alliance" with new uniforms rather than a national force.
A recent Rand report into the Ana outlined the difficulty in melding of ethnic groups:
Tensions run high among some groups, and their members have little first-hand experience associating with people from other groups. Adapting to such an intense cultural change takes time, and many do not make the transition.
A national identity and unity of purpose are the critical bedrocks of the success or failure of the Ana and by extension the longer-term plans of Isaf for the country. Whereas in Iraq the US disbanded a national army and then used the surge to create the space to reconstitute it from the bottom up, in Afghanistan the initial war was won by choosing one side in a civil war. With continued reports emerging concerning Hamid Karzai's election corruption and questions about his ability to unite the country, the critical question for the western military alliance is whether it is possible build a national army in a deeply divided nation.