Earlier this week, the congressionally-mandated watchdog for Afghanistan released its quarterly report, generating controversy about the military’s redaction of territorial control statistics. Also for the first time this quarter, US and Coalition authorities are restricting access to key indicators of Afghan security force development. The lack of transparency comes on the heels of a new strategy to enhance Afghan forces in order to supplant Coalition troops in the fight against the Taliban.
Each quarter the Special Inspector General Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) produces a report on progress in Afghanistan for the US Congress and the American public. For its most recent January report, US and coalition authorities have classified the release of indicators related to Afghan National Defense Security Forces (ANDSF) development and strength. For the first time, the report will not include target and current personnel levels within:
- The ANDSF as a whole
- Afghan National Army (ANA)
- Afghan National Police (ANP)
- Afghan Air Force (AAF)
Without these numbers, the American public has no way to track the coalition’s goals and progress for Afghan force development, even as it pays upwards of $70 billion for these training efforts.
In the previous report from October of 2017, military authorities permitted SIGAR to release rounded and general figures for personnel-levels. This type of unreleased data remains available within a classified annex, but the American public and many Congressional staff members lack access. “USFOR-A and RS gave no justifications for the classification changes to SIGAR data this quarter,” according to SIGAR’s report.
The lack of transparency is particularly troubling given the stated strategy of relying on Afghan forces to take the fight to the Taliban in 2018. Given the small size of the international force, roughly a tenth of its size in 2010, the Coalition intends to leverage improved Afghan forces to fracture the Taliban. NATO recently listed “better Afghan forces” as the key differentiating factor in 2018. The United States has invested heavily in improved training, creating a new “teaching” brigade that will deploy to Afghanistan soon. But without any reporting on force targets, personnel levels, and attrition, there is no way to gauge this mission’s success.
Without metrics on Afghan force development, insurgents-killed becomes the de-facto measure of progress. However, Taliban body count is often a misleading barometer of security improvement. Special forces regularly conduct offensives that result in large Taliban casualties, but fail to measurably improve security in the long run. Without an appropriate hold force, the Taliban quickly returns to recapture lost terrain.
Without a window into measurable ANDSF progress, it’s difficult to imagine that past development issues and failures will not continue. In the past, SIGAR noted the frequent rotations of “misaligned” trainers. Additionally, in a lessons learned report last year, the watchdog consistently highlighted the ANDSF’s issues with debilitating attrition, corruption, and illiteracy. The Afghan Army struggles to go on the offensive without coalition combat enablers, as the Air Force still cannot provide consistent close air support.
SIGAR was, however, able to release new data on the aviation component of the Afghan special forces. For the first time, SIGAR released the following metrics on the Special Mission Wing (SMW): airframe types and numbers, pilot and aircrew numbers, nature of missions. But given the emphasis on special forces development, these metrics may provide an overly rosy view that is not representative of Afghan force development as a whole.
Whereas progress within the ANDSF has been sluggish, the coalition has invested heavily in developing Afghanistan special forces. While this counterterrorism force is capable of going on the offensive against the Taliban, its successes are often short lived and fail to improve Afghan security. Overprioritization of special forces is shortsighted, as it achieves American foreign policy goals without reducing Afghan dependency on coalition support.