KABUL — When a suicide bomber sparked a breakout from Kandahar's Sarposa prison last June, by blowing up himself at the front gate, the local Afghan police — to no-one’s surprise — were caught unprepared.
Nearly 900 prisoners swarmed to freedom through the wrecked entrance. The 400 or so Taliban among the escapees then took over several villages near Kandahar, a blood-drenched hotbed of insurgency south of the capital.
At this point, the soldiers of the Afghan National Army (ANA), stepped in and performed impressively, working alongside NATO troops in major operation to find the escapees.
In doing so, the Afghan army units, from Kabul and Kandahar, lived up to a report last month to the U.S. Congress stating that “ANA operational capabilities grew markedly during 2008.”
The Congressional Research Service analysis noted approvingly that the ANA “deployed more than 1,000 soldiers south from Kabul, providing over half of the air lift required to transport them, within 24 hours.”
The report praised other ANA actions, including 35 combined air-assault missions in eastern provinces “most of them ANA-led,” and the ANA’s development of elite commando "kandaks," or fighting units.
These post-mortems of ANA operations are currently being used by Kabul and Washington as insights into both the Pentagon’s problems and the likely future direction of the Afghan war.
They address a question central to military strategies being devised here and in several Western capitals: When, if ever, will the embattled country’s own forces be able to maintain security without outside help?
When can young men from the United States and 41 other nations in the anti-Taliban coalition have relief from the Afghan war’s mounting death tolls. According to official figures, as of Feb. 4, 645 U.S. troops had died in the war and 422 soldiers of other nationalities.
Though the ANA is undoubtedly making some progress, the blunt, unpleasant answer to these two questions is: not for many years yet.
Before the Pentagon can begin withdrawing forces with the vigor President Barack Obama’s new administration hopes to marshal soon in Iraq, much more will need to be done to improve Afghan security forces.
Following his apparently successful counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq (a so-called “surge” involving the addition of more GIs to the forces already deployed there), General David H. Petraeus, as the new chief of U.S. Central Command, has been charged with pulling the Afghanistan effort from the brink of failure.
He has no illusions about the challenge, which may indeed be greater than he faced in Iraq. As he told Foreign Policy magazine last month, Afghanistan “has a smaller amount of educated human capital due to higher illiteracy, as well as substantial unemployment, an economy whose biggest cash export is illegal (opium), and significant corruption.”
Afghanistan’s position — straddling invasion routes between Central Asia and today’s India and Pakistan — has generated a centuries-old suspicion of foreigners. Ancient Persians dubbed the region “the land of the unruly.” The country’s mountainous spine is called the Hindu Kush (literally: place where Hindus are killed).
Most ANA recruits receive their basic training at the Kabul Military Training Center (KMTC) a short drive out of the capital. Here, about 1,200 trainers teach basic combat skills, graduating a "kandak," or fighting unit, of the same number of men, 1,200, every 10 weeks.
As of late December, the Afghan army numbered about 68,000 soldiers. Another 80,000 or so Afghans are assigned to the country’s other security forces (e.g., air corps, police, border patrol). The goal is to train 134,000 for the ANA by the end of 2011.
Will a force that size mean that the Allies can leave? No one seems sure. In this eighth year of the Afghan war, the highest circles in Kabul, Washington and London continue to fiercely debate the total needed to make Afghanistan a stable, peaceful nation.
The outgoing head of the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, Major General Robert Cone, says bluntly “134,000 probably isn’t enough.” Another senior U.S. commander says total forces would have to grow to 300,000.
By some calculations even that would still be nowhere near the number needed.
The Soviet Union introduced about 130,000 troops in the 1980s. When Soviet generals, in the face of rising casualties (an estimated 26,000 fatalities by the 1989 withdrawal), decided that something like a force of 300,000-400,000 would be necessary, secretary-general Mikhail Gorbachev elected to cut and run.
The U.S. Army’s new Counterinsurgency Field Manual, a document overseen by Petraeus himself, appears to call for as many as 650,000 for Afghanistan – or more than three times the current Afghan-Coalition’s mass (and well over the 545,000 troops peak U.S. commitment in Vietnam).
Former U.S. ambassador to Kabul, Ronald Neumann, has suggested raising a large conscripted Afghan force. He gives the example of Korea, where America helped mobilize a 700,000-man South Korean army in the 1950s in a country that then had a population two-thirds of present-day Afghanistan’s.
Asked to comment, Neumann’s successor, Ambassador William Wood, politely but bluntly rejected the idea.
“All I can say is that I think we’re getting adequate numbers, and better training than they’ve ever gotten before,” he told me last year in an interview at the Kabul embassy. “Large numbers of draftees who are not adequately trained, led or equipped give us more of a problem than a solution. Unfortunately, even with the draft you can’t produce a baby in less than nine months.”
Anthony Paul has reported on Asia and the Middle East for publications including Fortune, Reader’s Digest, Asiaweek, and the Singapore Straits Times. His first dispatch from Kabul came in the wake of the April 1978 communist coup.