By Paula Broadwell
Best Defense guest columnist
Beyond the noise emanating from the air strikes and guns that surge forces are firing in Kandahar, another surge has occurred over the past year - a surge in the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).
Total ANSF growth, starting from November 2009 to present increased from 191,969 to 255,506, an increase of 63,537 (33 percent). The Afghan army has grown from 97,011 to 136,164, an increase of 39,153 (40 percent) and the national police from 94,958 to 117,342, an increase of 22,384 (24 percent).
In November 2009, only 35 percent of all soldiers met the minimum qualification standards with their personal weapon. There was an unworkable 1:79 trainers to troop ratio at the firing ranges where Afghan soldiers were attempting to learn. Ten months later, the average unit has a 97 percent qualification rate at the range and the instructor to troop ratio has decreased to 1:29, thanks to increasing support from coalition partners.
The quality of the troops may in some way be reflected through public trust. The Afghan Minister of Defense, Abdul Rahim Wardak, mentioned that the Afghan National Police (ANA) is perceived as the most trusted public institution in Afghanistan during a Rehearsal of Concept drill in Kabul in October. According to the results of an Afghan nation-wide survey (sample 6,700), 71 percent of Afghans feel a favorable impression toward the Afghan National Police (ANP) and 74 percent feel favorably towards the ANA. (By comparison, only 23 percent of Americans surveyed in a Gallup poll this month felt favorably towards the U.S. Congress.)
Last fall, the daily ISAF training capacity for the ANA was 6,000 seats, resulting in a backlog of the Afghan troops in the pipeline. Today, the ANA daily training capacity has increased to 20,000 seats (up 233 percent) and the ANP training capacity has increased 38 percent, from 7,740 to 10,661 seats. In 2009, there were zero Afghan trainers. Today, there are 1,800 Afghan trainers in the ANA and 800 in the ANP, and those numbers are growing. A critical assumption here is the continued support of coalition trainers.
In spite of the quantitative and qualitative progress, three significant challenges could impede the professionalization of the Afghan security forces: leader development, low literacy, and losses through attrition. Here are a few things Caldwell's team has initiated to address those issues.
Professionalization of the force requires development of institutions, systems, and enablers to support the infantry and police security forces. "Enablers," for example, are critical to the system's maturation, yet in 2009, there were no branch schools. Today there are nine: Engineer; Legal; MP; Logistics; Religious and Cultural Affairs; Intelligence, Finance, Infantry, and Artillery. Human Resources and Signals schools will open later in 2010, and Armor school in 2011. There were no logistic bases last fall. Today there are four operational regional centers with a national center to be established by the end of 2010.
Education of this force is also critical to professionalization, but it takes time as we can see in western professional development pipelines for NCOs and officers. NTM-A has developed a "backbone" of NCOs, from 1,950 to 9,300, an increase of 7,350 (376 percent). The National Military Academy of Afghanistan had 300 applicants in 2005 for 120 spaces, and 3600 applicants this year for 600 spaces.
These are great programs for Afghans who are already literate, but illiteracy (70 percent of Afghans) remains one of the greatest challenges for the Afghan general purposes forces. Literacy for them is a matter of life and death. If soldiers cannot read a map to call in air support and MEDEVAC helicopters, the minutes lost by using geographic features to talk the aircraft into location translates to lives lost. NTM-A instituted mandatory literacy training for all ANSF a year ago and has since enrolled 27,105 Afghans. After 64 hours of mandatory training, nearly 100 percent of ANSF troopers list "literacy training" as their favorite endeavor. They proudly wear a symbolic pen in their shirts as a sign of literacy.
In the last but not least of the challenges, arresting ANSF attrition is also a serious constraint, averaging 5.39 percent per month over the past 12 months. The issue is not systemic, but specific to those units where fighting is hardest and furthest from home. Increased pay, assisted leave, and a new system of role modeling may help. Time will tell.
Hopefully, the upcoming Lisbon Summit will allow some time for COIN math homework. While they're balancing equations on the chalkboard, attendees there should be sure to note that while the surge of ISAF forces are on the offensive in Kandahar, there is also another important silent surge occurring in the country. Attendees will also hopefully realize that coalition forces must meet their promised trainer contributions for the conditions-based transition process to work and the ANSF to ultimately receive a passing grade on its report card.Paula Broadwell is a Research Associate at the Harvard University Center for Public Leadership. She is the author of the forthcoming book, All In: The Education of General David Petraeus (Penguin Press, 2011).
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.