Afghanistan at the Crossroads: Insights on the Conflict
The Cost of Afghan Security Forces
Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, commander of the NATO training mission in Afghanistan, announced Jan. 5 that the United States and its NATO allies would spend $11.6 billion to train and equip Afghan security forces in 2011. This sum reflects the radical acceleration and expansion already under way of efforts to field a viable indigenous military, gendarmerie and police force. The force that is currently being stood up is expected to cost $6 billion annually to sustain. This "Vietnamization” of the conflict is an important part of the current strategy. But it is worth noting that $11.6 billion was almost exactly the gross domestic product of the entire country of Afghanistan in 2008 — $11.76 billion, according to World Bank estimates — and the annual expense of $6 billion far exceeds the Afghan government’s annual revenue. The Afghan security force now being created, in other words, far exceeds the indigenous force that Afghanistan could possibly field and fund on its own. The $6 billion also exceeds the combined foreign military financing that the United States provides to both Israel and Egypt, the two biggest recipients of such aid. Given the current expense of prosecuting the Afghan war — it is estimated that each U.S. soldier in Afghanistan costs $500,000 a year — $6 billion a year can be seen as quite a bargain. And if an effective Afghan security force can be created and sustained by the Afghan government and through the financial commitment of its outside patrons, that force could prove to be a powerful ally. But questions and challenges remain. The fledgling central government is still a weak and artificial entity in a society characterized by local loyalties and power structures. If foreign aid monies intended to sustain government security forces in the years ahead are not equitably and effectively distributed to those forces, they could quickly revert to fleecing the local population. The longer-term risk of Afghan security forces — better trained and equipped than they have ever been — reverting to warlordism remains very real.
Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction
Also noteworthy over the past week was the forced resignation of the head of the U.S. Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), former U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. Arnold Fields. Not only Afghan security forces but almost all development projects in Afghanistan subsist on outside aid. But Afghan society has never known Western standards of transparency, and the current government in Kabul is widely regarded by Afghans as the single most corrupt entity in the country. This government’s ability to effectively disseminate enormous amounts of aid monies remains a critical question. The U.S. Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency reviewed SIGAR's work and found it lacking in terms of quality and strategic vision. And the American Congress had reportedly been pushing for the removal of Fields for more than a year. This would indicate that the central authority overseeing American financial support to Afghanistan may not have been effectively carrying out its mission. And this means that, despite time being short and efforts to reshape Afghanistan reaching their peak intensity, there is yet another area where the United States and its allies have a great deal of catching up to do. (click here to enlarge image) Reshaping Afghanistan is obviously going to be a work in progress long after 2014. It does appear that progress is being made in establishing security in key parts of Helmand province. While it is not yet clear that the optimism over a tribal agreement in Sangin that U.S. Gen. David Petraeus expressed Jan. 10 is fully warranted, recent gains do raise the central question of how quickly development projects and other efforts to reshape economic conditions can preserve those gains. Security can be established in key areas, at least for the winter, but the longer-term sustainability of that security rests in part on the effectiveness of indigenous security forces. And their effectiveness rests in part on whether they are paid in full and on time and whether they regularly receive their allotment of supplies. While the eradication of corruption may not be an achievable objective in Afghanistan anytime soon, the effective oversight of foreign funding — at least an accurate sense of where it is and when it is not reaching its intended target — remains a critical factor in the success of the U.S./NATO strategy. It is particularly important in terms of the economic development that is such a key part of sustaining long-term security in the country.
Complaints About the Kandahar Offensive
Mohammad Sadiq Aziz, an adviser to President Hamid Karzai and leader of a government delegation investigating damage claims by local Afghans in Kandahar, presented his findings to Karzai in Kabul on Jan. 11. The delegation said International Security Assistance Force troops and Afghan security personnel engaged in military operations in Arghandab, Zhari and Panjwai districts had caused undue damage to property and crops to the tune of $100 million. Especially in the early phases of clearing operations, damage to property and crops is bound to occur. This damage can often be attributed to Taliban booby traps and improvised explosive devices that are uncovered and require detonation rather than less destructive means of neutralization. In such cases, reparations and rebuilding are supposedly part of the process. The question is not so much whether clearing operations can be destructive — they can be — but whether the government can adequately address subsequent public concerns. If damage is done and the population seeks and receives redress through the political process, that’s a good sign. But if the operation alienates people and turns them toward the insurgency, it has done more harm than good.