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Dec 31, 2012 | 12:11 GMT

Afghan Security in 2013 and Beyond

Afghan Security in 2013 and Beyond
Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images

The International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan will continue to reduce troop numbers and significantly curtail combat power on the ground as it implements the next phase of its strategy, putting Afghan National Security Forces into the primary combat role throughout the country. These security forces will be severely tested in 2013 as they begin taking the brunt of the casualties, are forced to make battlefield decisions and attempt to handle logistics with limited support. The Afghan forces' success in assuming these roles will heavily influence ongoing negotiations with the Taliban and will shape the potential settlement.

The 2012 fighting season highlighted some significant trends and contained some important milestones. So-called green-on-blue attacks, where Afghan troops turned their weapons on their allies in the International Security Assistance Force, dramatically increased at the end of 2011 and continued through 2012. Green-on-blue attacks accounted for 15 percent of coalition casualties, up from 2 percent prior to the spike in late 2011. This significantly disrupted training, forcing a monthlong hiatus.

Afghanistan locator

Delays in training are seriously detrimental for Afghan security. The Afghan National Security Forces have roughly 350,000 members, but an estimated 20-25 percent of the forces have to be replaced annually due to desertion and lower-than-desired contract renewals. This means thousands of security personnel have to be trained monthly to keep up with replacement. The green-on-blue attacks not only stopped this process for a month, they drove a permanent wedge of distrust between the trainers and trainees. They also limited joint operations on the battlefield, which are critical to handing over responsibility and accountability. Insider attacks dropped off sharply toward the end of 2012 due to measures put in place by coalition forces to protect personnel, but these same measures also degraded training, trust and cooperation between both sides. Meanwhile, green-on-green attacks (Afghan on Afghan) have also been a consistent occurrence throughout the year, damaging the internal cohesiveness of the Afghan National Security Forces from within.

The surge troops provided by the United States were withdrawn in September, reducing U.S. troop strength to 66,000 while the rest of the coalition provides an additional 37,000 personnel. This reduction of manpower had great effect on Helmand province, where the U.S. Marine presence was more than halved. The result was a significantly reduced number of coalition troops who served in a pure support role in an area that had once been a hotbed of militant activity. Helmand served as the first serious test case of the future coalition strategy. The reduced coalition presence stressed the Afghan security forces and exposed many of their flaws as they struggled with their new expanded role, but security in Helmand has not been significantly destabilized. As a whole, Helmand has served as a proof of concept for the next phase of the strategy.

Future Security

In November 2012, it was announced that there would be a large restructuring of U.S. forces deploying to Afghanistan. Brigade Combat Teams — numbering about 3,500-4,000 troops — that are designed for a direct combat role would be replaced by a new unit structure. The new brigades, labeled Security Force Assistance Brigades, will be only about half the size of Brigade Combat Teams, and their role will be purely for training and support of Afghan National Security Forces. Four such brigades are intended to be in place by early 2013. Other coalition partners such as the United Kingdom will also continue to reduce their footprint throughout the year. British troop strength will be cut in half by the end of 2013.

Afghan National Security Forces have been going through phased territorial handovers over the past two years and are now responsible for territories that contain 75 percent of Afghanistan's population. The enforcement of security in this territory has been backed by significant coalition ground combat power. The Security Force Assistance Brigades and coalition partner drawdowns will continue to reduce manpower and significantly reduce ground combat power, essentially removing the safety net that the Afghan security forces have been operating under. Using the example of Helmand, 2013 will likely be a very trying year. Afghan National Security Forces casualties will increase greatly while coalition casualties decrease. Many of the Afghan National Security Forces' shortcomings will be exposed, including the troops' lack of battlefield experience in a primary role, lack of long-term in-depth training, corruption, desertion and inexperience in handling logistics. International Security Assistance Force support will be limited to close air support, special operations forces and continued training and advising.

The results of this process through 2013-2014 will have a direct effect on negotiations, which have been slowly progressing. The International Security Assistance Force has managed to secure the majority of the territory in Afghanistan. As local security forces assume the primary combat role, they also assume responsibility for maintaining these holdings. Failure to do so will embolden the Taliban and other militants. In other words, the Afghan National Security Forces need to present enough of a threat to the Taliban to force them to want to reach a settlement instead of waiting for the withdrawal of the majority of foreign forces before trying to retake the country by force.

No official agreement has been settled upon dictating the size and mission of the U.S. and select allies' force after 2014. Estimates on composition and support ability have already slowly started to shrink from the originally floated 25,000. The latest number is supposedly somewhere between 6,000 and 15,000, with the majority of these troops concentrated near Bagram and Kandahar airfields. Similar plans were laid for Iraq but failure to come to a consensus on the status and rights of these troops led to a full drawdown at the end of 2011. Kabul faces similar negotiations and cannot solely rely on a robust post-2014 foreign force to guarantee its security. 

This makes the 2013-2014 transition period all the more important for efforts to establish a legitimate local security force capable of exerting pressure directed by the government in Kabul. The International Security Assistance Force's presence is shrinking, and the force will likely be limited in capability and mission by 2015. What happens between now and then will likely determine the future level of success for the Afghan security forces.

Afghan Security in 2013 and Beyond
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