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The Afghan Army as the backbone of the new Afghanistan

Western soldiers are expected to leave Afghan territory for good
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AP/RAHMAT GUL  -   Afghan army commandos attend their graduation ceremony after a three-and-a-half month training programme at the Commando Training Centre on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan

The Afghan army will assume a new role after foreign troops leave.

A lot has been written around the world predicting the fall of the Afghan government to the Taliban on 11 September 2021, and the political, social and economic consequences that this change of regime would entail. But the truth is that only four months remain before the definitive departure of Western troops, and it is not clear what the situation in the country will be during this transition period, and even less so from September onwards. Most people are focusing on what will be the backbone of the new Afghanistan, the ANDSF or Afghan Security Forces and Corps, which will have the two main missions for the country's security and stability:

  • Protect and supervise that the peace agreements reached are carried out by the Taliban.
  • To prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a haven for terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda or Daesh.

Some fundamental questions arise: 

Will the Afghan army alone be able to repel the Taliban onslaught of the spring and summer offensive, or will the idea that the Afghan security forces will be able to contain the Taliban militiamen soon crumble? 

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AP/RAHMAT GUL - An Afghan National Army soldier stands guard at a checkpoint ahead of the presidential election scheduled for 28 September, in Kabul, Afghanistan

What will happen to the Afghan army if US and international military support and funding are significantly reduced? Is this army model sustainable in the medium to long term?

Which capacities will the United States and NATO continue to support Afghan government forces with?

And above all, will the Afghan army be just a permanent defence against Taliban attacks, or will it be able to perform the functions of any other army in the world, ensuring the peace, stability and sovereignty of the Afghan state?

The Afghan Army

The Afghan National Security and Defence Forces (ANDSF) is the Afghan national army (as well as the police and other forces imbued within it), and it is the body on which much hope rests to contain a possible Taliban offensive and thus maintain stability in the country after Western troops leave on September 11.

There are many pessimistic opinions about the Afghan army after this summer without foreign support, and many military experts claim that without American air support and with an almost certain decrease in foreign funding, its effectiveness will be greatly reduced in the short to medium term.

According to the Global Firepower website11, Afghanistan ranks 75th out of 140 countries in the ranking of the world's military forces. Although the figures referred to in this database take into account the current international support for its armed forces.
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Composition and structure

The ANDSF would essentially be divided into;

ANA, Afghan National Army, which includes the Air Force (AAF) and the Special Operations Corps.

ANP, the Afhan National Police, which was initially created and organised as a regular Security Force, but has since mutated into a kind of multi-purpose paramilitary force and performs functions ranging from policing, public protection and criminal investigations. However, due to the current counter-insurgency situation, its main functions are to complement the ANA in the counter-insurgency fight2.

Within the latter, the Police Special Forces (Qeta'at-i-Khas) is a unit used to perform complex combat missions, without ANA support, and often suffering heavy casualties.

The Afghan Local Police (ALP), which was created by ISAF (International Security Assistance Force, or NATO's mission in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014) with some 30,000 members to increase the protection of civilians at a more local or provincial level. Its main missions are to protect public facilities, prevent terrorist infiltration and provide a safe space to facilitate normal governance and development. ALP members are hired and paid by the provinces and police districts themselves, i.e. they basically work where they live, which gives them advantages in terms of loyalty to the city they help protect, and they also receive popular support. Due to the type of violence that Afghanistan is experiencing, this is the corps, proportionate to its size, that suffers the most casualties in the country3

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REUTERS/OMAR SOBHANI - Afghan National Army soldiers stand guard at the scene of a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan April 29, 2020

The total authorised strength of the ANDSF would be 352,000, a figure that has never been reached. Available data4 reveal the following numbers:

  • The Afghan Ministry of Defence states that they have 185,478 members, divided between the Army, Special Operations and Air Force.
  • The Afghan Ministry of Interior claims to have 103,224 members divided between different police forces (ANP and ALP).

Despite these numbers, the reality could be very different. Corruption and the need to raise funds mean that Afghan officials substantially inflate the lists of soldiers, with some major military bases actually having half the number of troops they theoretically have. There is also considerable absenteeism, soldiers who never show up for work and who are known as "Ghost Soldiers", which was a serious enough problem that a biometric recognition system was introduced in Afghanistan to control the members of the ANDSF who did not show up for work and continued to be paid.

Even so, American reports indicate that the current reality would correspond to 90% of these official figures, i.e., the army would have a real figure of 96,000 members.

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AFP/ WAKIL KOHSAR - A US Marine watches as Afghan National Army soldiers raise the Afghan national flag on an armed vehicle during an IED training exercise

As for the current level of recruitment, there has been a notable reduction in new recruits in recent years, due, among other things, to the low morale that the pact with the Taliban has brought about (creating the feeling that the Taliban militiamen have won the war) and the subsequent withdrawal of foreign troops. As an example we can look at the recruitment situation in the north of the country, which has always been a "mine" for soldiers mainly due to ethnic differences with the south, recruitment in this region has dropped from 3,000 to 500 new soldiers per month5.

On the other hand, some military circles criticise the military training that has been given to Afghan soldiers, at least by the United States, as it has trained Afghan soldiers as exact copies of the American army, linking their tactics and strategies to the infinite American logistical and aerial possibilities, so that the withdrawal of this foreign support would greatly affect the counterinsurgency combat effectiveness of the Afghans. This fact is also proving fundamental in the morale of Afghan troops, which has been declining significantly since the agreement was signed with the Taliban in February 2020, and is currently resulting in the abandonment of dozens of military checkpoints by the officers who kept them operational.

As for Afghanistan's air power, which will be so important for maintaining operations against Taliban insurgents and terrorists, the WDMMA6(World Directory of Modern Military Aircraft) notes that the Afghan Air Force will have 271 units in 2021, distributed as follows (Fig. 1):
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The same website reports the delivery between 2021 and 2022 of 130 new American helicopters model MD530F (Fig.2), an aircraft with significant attack capabilities and also oriented to Special Operations missions to combat the insurgency in this case.

It is precisely the maintenance of Afghan military aircraft that is one of the points of greatest concern for maintaining current capabilities due to the costs involved and the specialisation required in this field.

But these data, pessimistic in principle, should not cloud the sacrifice of Afghan soldiers for the security and stability of their country, since more than 66,000 Afghan soldiers have died in combat since hostilities against the Taliban began in 2001. General McKenzie himself, the head of Western troops in Afghanistan, has recently spoken out in praise of the Afghan military forces, saying that they are ready to meet future challenges in their defence of the country against the Taliban.

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PHOTO/ Ministry of Defence Press Office via REUTERS - Handover ceremony at Camp Anthonic from the US Army to the Afghan Defence Forces in Helmand province, Afghanistan

On the other hand, the American training mentioned above has borne fruit in the form of a very effective Special Operations Corps, which is often used for missions that in principle are not theirs, but which help to cover the shortcomings of the regular army and save some critical situations. The Special Operations Corps is made up of some 20,000 soldiers and they would be responsible for the main missions on critical targets, in addition to intelligence gathering to try to curb the Taliban's aspirations for power.

Funding and foreign support - how long can the ANDSF survive without US and NATO assistance?

There are three main international financial sources of funding for the Afghan security forces7:

  • NATO's Afghan National Army Trust Fund (ANAF).
  • LOTFA, or Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan, administered by the United Nations development programme.
  • ASFF, or Afghanistan Security Forces Fund on the US side (note that the US funds the Afghan State Security Forces to the tune of $4 billion a year, and that without "boots on the ground" to oversee that money, the US Congress is likely to reduce that amount).

Fear of losing foreign funding is a constant in the analysis of an Afghanistan without US and NATO troops. The loss of "boots on the ground" will mean a significant reduction in oversight of funds sent to Afghanistan. The collapse of the ANDSF would be only the first domino to fall, as it would mean the consequent collapse of the Afghan economy and the gradual return of security to the hands of regional militias and warlords leading to civil war8.

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AFP/AFP - Map showing parts of Afghanistan currently under government control and territories under Taliban influence

The personnel and offices that both the US and NATO leave in Afghanistan will play a key role in continuing to effectively fund the Afghan army, as the Afghan government's corruption record is well known, with Afghanistan ranking 165th out of a possible 180 on Transparency International'six corruption index.

Regarding military training and logistical support, we have to refer to the latest SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction) quarterly report for the latest updates in Afghanistan10. Here we should take into account the departure of Western military personnel who will no longer train and support the Afghan military and this situation will have a particular impact on the Afghan Air Force mainly due to:

  • The number of qualified personnel required to maintain the operational level of aircraft is still far from ideal. There is a shortage of instructor pilots, co-pilots, systems operators, etc.
  • Flight crews are also in a precarious situation, with a lack of trainees with the necessary qualifications to become pilots. COVID-19 has also helped form a large group of pilots who have started their training, but have not yet completed the necessary training to start operating on their own.
  • The Afghan police also lacks the necessary number of highly qualified personnel to continue the training of current and future police.

But in addition to the Western military, there are also contractors working in this regard; according to the report there are currently 16,832 contractors supporting operations in different capacities, of which 6,147 are US citizens, 4,286 are Afghans and 6,399 come from other countries. According to what was stated in the US Congress by the current head of the foreign force in Afghanistan, General McKenzie, all non-Afghan contractors will also leave the country, and this will mainly affect the maintenance of ANDSF vehicles, aircraft and military equipment, losing operational capacity to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the ability of the ANDSF components to transition in this regard.

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REUTERS/JIM HOLLANDER - Cardboard poster reminding that Taliban forces can be anywhere and everywhere in southern Afghanistan December 1, 2001
Military balance between the ANDSF and the Taliban

The true size of the Taliban forces has always been very difficult to define due to the characteristics of the group and the geographical context where they are located, but reviewing the most recent study (2017) on the real size of this group, it gives a figure of more than 200,000 members, which would include 60,000 fighters, 90,000 members of local militias and the remaining facilitators and support elements11.

The report by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC)12 makes a comparison of what the forces of both sides would look like once the foreign troops have left Afghanistan, taking into account five main factors:

  • The size of each army
  • The external assistance they receive
  • The use of force
  • Material resources
  • The cohesion of their armed forces.

This report is summarised by CTC in a table (Fig. 3) where it refers, one by one, to the five factors taken into account for the comparison of forces and concludes that, once the foreign military forces have withdrawn, the Taliban will have a slight military advantage.
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Prospects

Afghanistan is a state that, although its government wants to maintain power in a centralised manner (perhaps too much so), is very heterogeneous in almost all respects, and this is how the future of this country will look from the moment the last Western military leaves Afghan soil, which will most likely be before 11 September 2021. And within this diversity, the Afghan army will have to survive the factional and ethnic differences that have historically divided the Afghan population.

The mission that the army will be given in the new Afghanistan will depend on the peace talks being held between the central government and the Taliban (now practically non-existent), and it will have to be decided whether the army is to be given the role of defender of Afghan territorial integrity, sovereignty and dignity and become the first line of defence against terrorism and regional and international threats, or on the contrary, it will only be a tool for containing a possible Taliban offensive. 

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AFP/ WAKIL KOHSAR - An Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier stands guard at an outpost against Taliban fighters in Kajaki, northeastern Helmand province

The real capabilities that the United States and NATO will provide once they have withdrawn from the Afghan state are, apart from purely economic ones, unknown. The Americans have just announced the possibility of continuing to train the Afghan military from bases abroad, mainly Qatar and Uzbekistan, using the well-known "over the horizon" system, which basically involves solving security problems remotely and without boots on the ground, but which at the moment seems ambiguous since the current remote solutions that exist are unrealistic (the current American bases are very far away and support from the sea would mean crossing Iran or Pakistan...). But the fact is that no official US or NATO source has made any pronouncement on military intervention in the event that things go wrong in Afghanistan, and here are the three main scenarios that we could see from this summer onwards and which could require such an international intervention:

The ANDSF is beginning to lose battles unequivocally and definitively after the departure of Western troops. As we will see below, there are armed disputes between the central government and the Taliban in almost 200 districts in Afghanistan, and sufficient pressure from Taliban militiamen could tip the balance in their favour, endangering the government in Kabul.

  • If Afghanistan fragments definitively between Taliban, government, extremist factions, warlords... which would lead to a bloody civil war with an outcome, at this stage, difficult to determine, but with clear consequences for the civilian population: waves of refugees, non-existence of the most basic human rights... death and destruction.
  • If the Taliban continuously and persistently attempt to overthrow the Afghan government, this situation would be very similar to that of the Taliban. This situation would be very similar to the previous point, we would witness a scenario of continuous terrorist attacks and battles for power in rural areas, but especially bloody will be the Taliban's attempts to seize power in key cities, since it will be in the urban centres where the central government will have to defend the country. Reaching a point of no return, in favour of the Taliban, could mean the return of Western troops to Afghanistan.

With a more than complicated military situation in the country, where 78 of the 407 districts into which Afghanistan is divided are controlled by the Taliban and another 19313 are under military dispute with the government, we will have to discover, as Western troops leave the country, the Taliban's offensive intentions and the Afghan army's ability to keep them at bay, if not defeat them.

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REUTERS/BAZ RATNER - A U.S. soldier from the 5-20th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division

As for the military resilience of the ANDSF after September, we have seen that the maintenance of Afghan air capabilities will make the difference in the conflict with the Taliban. With contractors responsible for the general maintenance of the air force leaving the country, the lack of skilled air force professionals and the decline in air support from Western forces, it will be very difficult to keep this capability operational as we have known it up to now. In addition to air power, the United States Institute of Peacexiv highlights other potential vulnerabilities in the ANDSF, including a lack of leadership among its commanders, poor intelligence collection, and insufficient operational and logistical capabilities.

As soon as the last Western soldier leaves Afghanistan, we will be able to test the capabilities and cohesion of the Afghan armed forces.

References:
  1. https://www.globalfirepower.com/country-military-strength-detail.php?country_id=afghanistan 
  2. https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/PW115-Afghanistan-National-Defense-and-Security-Forces-Mission-Challenges-and-Sustainability.pdf
  3. https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/PW115-Afghanistan-National-Defense-and-Security-Forces-Mission-Challenges-and-Sustainability.pdf
  4. https://ctc.usma.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/CTC-SENTINEL-012021.pdf
  5. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/28/world/asia/afghanistan-security-forces.html 
  6. https://www.wdmma.org/afghan-air-force.php 
  7. Afghan National Army (ANA) Trust Fund – NATO  
  8. http://www.ieee.es/contenido/noticias/2021/03/DIEEEO25_2021_OSCPIL_Afganistan.html
  9. https://www.transparency.org/en/countries/afghanistan?redirected=1
  10. SIGAR, Quarterly Report to the United States Congress, April 30, 2021, 72,
  11. https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/quarterlyreports/2021-04-30qr.pdf.
  12. See Giustozzi, “Afghanistan: Taliban’s Organization and Structure,” pp. 5, 12. Giustozzi’s estimates have been endorsed by several other analysts. See Rupert Stone, “The US is greatly downplaying the size of the Afghan Taliban,” TRT World, January 7, 2019
  13. https://ctc.usma.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/CTC-SENTINEL-012021.pdf.  Pág. 22
  14. https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2021/05/taliban-takes-control-of-two-districts-in-afghan-north.php
  15. https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/PW115-Afghanistan-National-Defense-and-Security-Forces-Mission-Challenges-and-Sustainability.pdf