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The future for the Afghan army: downsizing before it has upsized?

April 13, 2012

By Tim Foxley

I find this story a real cause for concern – it looks to be a plan to rapidly downsize the personnel strength of the Afghan National Security Forces.  General Wardak, Head of the Afghan Ministry of Defence tries to suggest that there is logic behind it – calling it “a conceptual model for planning purposes”.  I am not convinced that actually means anything.  But this, above everything, is about the future cost that the international community is willing to pay for the Afghan army post-2014.  Figures have bounced around between $4Bn – $12Bn per year.

NYT: “Afghanistan’s defense minister said Tuesday that his government and the international coalition paying for the war effort had agreed in principle that Afghan security forces would undergo a significant reduction to about 230,000 personnel after the NATO mission ends in 2014.

Under current plans, Afghan security forces are to reach a peak of 352,000 by late this year. Afghan and alliance officials agree that it would be unwise to begin reducing that number before the end of 2014, because in the coming months the number of foreign forces will be reduced and Afghans will be taking over the leading role in defending their nation.

The defense minister, Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak, noted that the projected reductions beyond 2014 were the result of “a conceptual model for planning purposes” of an army, police and border-protection force sufficient to defend Afghanistan. But it also must be sustainable in the future with decreasing foreign contributions.”

I have never had a comfortable sense that the ANSF size, equipment, capabilities and training has ever been based on a thoughtful, long-term, look at what the country might need to be able to do in terms of meeting its security needs.  The size of the ANSF has ballooned wildly over the years – I remember when the “magic” figure was 74,000, of which 60,000 were soldiers and the rest were Air Force and border guards.

The rationale for the settling on the number of 352,000 was highly suspect.  A figure of 400,000 was discussed by President Obama and his military advisors in 2009 and highlighted by Bob Woodward in “Obama’s Wars” as having more or less been plucked out of the air based on questionable counter-insurgency doctrine that suggested that one soldier per 50 – 60 civilians might be about right to protect the population.

But the international community has been banging the drum for 352,000 for a while now and it seems highly premature – and slightly hypocritical – to start talk of slashing this figure by a third even before the originally agreed size has been reached.  This force is something that the international community ought really to be prepared to underwrite – and be grateful that it is not international troops now doing the work – probably for at least ten years.  Otherwise, it unhelpfully sends another message of international community reluctance.

Final worrying thought – another 100,000 unemployed ex-soldiers on the street/in the fields…?

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