Pentagon Lowers the Standard for Afghan Forces
The spotlight was on the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) last week as experts testified before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on corruption in Afghanistan and the implications for developing effective army and police forces.
No surprises came out of the hearing. The Congressional Research Service’s Kenneth Katzman detailed examples of corruption in the ANSF, from demanding bribes to revenue embezzlement to selling U.S. and other donor-provided equipment.
Afghanistan’s corruption problem isn’t new. The real story here is the failed U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. After ten years and more than $50 billion in security aid the U.S. is no closer to success in combating corruption and developing stable local security forces. Worse, the Pentagon may be trying to cover up the failure.
U.S. anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan have been inconsistent and ineffective. As Brookings scholar Vanda Felbab-Brown explained it at the recent hearing, “I see U.S. policy over the decade oscillating between ignoring corruption because of its sheer size, because focus has been far more on the military side than on the political aspect of the effort, and then embracing goals that are unrealistic, [saying] ‘we’re going to wipe out corruption.’”
Lack of an effective plan for combating corruption hasn’t stopped the U.S. from spending billions to train and equip the Afghan security force. The running total is $52 billion, including over $11 billion in 2012.
The cost of maintaining the Afghan security forces is expected to drop sharply over the coming years, but not enough for Afghanistan to be able to pay for it. The IMF estimates that Afghanistan will not be able to finance its own security spending until at least 2023. Till then, international donors will be picking up the tab.
$50 billion is a lot of money for a program that might not even be working. Of course, it’s hard to judge how effective U.S. efforts to train Afghan forces have been because the Pentagon keeps changing the tools used to assess the performance of ANSF units.
The Government Accountability Office notes that within the last year the Department of Defense eliminated the highest ANSF capability rating. Instead of “independent”—meaning local forces can operate without assistance from coalition forces—the highest rating is now “independent with advisors,” meaning a unit can execute its mission and call for coalition forces when necessary.
In 2011, no Afghan units were rated independent. In 2012, 7% of army units and 9% of police units were rated “independent with advisors,” the new highest level of capability.
In other words, even by at lower standards, less than 10% of the force that has cost $50 billion U.S taxpayer dollars can operate semi-independently.