The Pentagon Won’t Reveal the Afghan Military’s Size
So much for transparency
On paper, America’s war against the Taliban in Afghanistan is over. Major combat operations ended and the majority of U.S. troops came home in December. In reality, the country’s conflict is far from finished.
The United Nations has tracked civilian casualties in the country since 2009, and recently released its numbers for 2014. The fighting is getting worse. The report notes that 3,699 civilians died during the fighting and almost 7,000 were wounded. That’s a 25-percent jump from 2013.
One way the Pentagon wants to keep the country from sliding further into chaos is through funneling money and support into the Afghan National Security Forces. This mix of police and soldiers is the principle bulwark against the continued threat from the Taliban.
It’s curious then, that a new letter from the U.S. government’s watchdog, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, suggests the Pentagon plans to reduce the number of soldiers in the ANSF.
Which—if true—could lead to more death and fighting.
According to a 2014 Pentagon report to Congress, Washington authorized an end-strength of 352,000 soldiers for Afghanistan’s security forces. At the time of the report, the ANSF was at 97-percent capacity.
Those are pretty good numbers, and combined with almost 30,000 local police, makes a strong security force.
But in 2014, Congress asked the military think-tank Center for Naval Analyses to look into the issue. The CNA’s number crunchers estimated Afghanistan needs about 370,000 soldiers and police to maintain stability.
“This force is not likely to defeat the Taliban militarily,” the report noted. “But that if it can hold against the Taliban insurgency through 2018, the likelihood of a negotiated settlement to the war will increase.”
But the Combined Security Transition Command in Afghanistan—the NATO-led and American-backed military transitional force—is toying with reducing the number of Afghans fighting for their country.
The plan is part of a classified CTSC-A report on “force optimization” in Afghanistan, which is an oblique reference to cutting the size of the ANSF. By how much? We don’t know—and neither does Congress’ watchdog.
“In discussions with my staff, CSTC-A officers stated that a recent report on ‘force optimization’ lays out a plan for a future reduction in the end-strength of the ANSF,” stated a Feb. 19 letter SIGAR sent to Gen. John Campbell, the transition team’s commander.
“This apparent discrepancy between assessments of requisite ANSF end-strength raises questions regarding the U.S. government’s ability to anticipate future costs associated with support of those forces,” the letter continued.
The reduction not only complicates budgeting, it speaks to a failure of the transition team and the leadership back home to communicate their plans for Afghanistan’s future.
America has spent a lot of money training and supplying Afghan security forces—more than $50 billion.
The people in charge haven’t always spent that money wisely. The Pentagon bought the Afghan military planes it can’t fly, more guns than it knows what to do with and river patrol boats it never sent to the country.
It’s true that Washington needs better oversight and accounting when it comes to spending in Afghanistan, but curbing ridiculous overspending, training more pilots and making sure equipment gets where it’s supposed to go are all doable.
Cutting down on the number of Afghans defending their country is not. It might be that a reduction in troop strength is just one of many ideas, or that SIGAR and CTSC-A experienced a breakdown in communication.
This recent letter is SIGAR’s second attempt to get the transition team to hand over the memos about a reduction in troop strength.
But even if SIGAR finds out, there’s a chance the public never will. Campbell decided a few months ago that information about the size of Afghanistan’s military is classified.
“The decision leaves SIGAR for the first time in six years unable to publicly report on most of the U.S.-taxpayer-funded efforts to build, train, equip, and sustain the Afghan National Security Forces,” SIGAR shot back in its most recent quarterly report to Congress.
Campbell and his crew relented in early February and decided to release some of the information about ANSF troop strength, but neither SIGAR nor the transition team have made the information public.
This letter from SIGAR to Campbell is another wrinkle in the story. If the Special Inspector had all the information it needed from Campbell, it wouldn’t send out letters asking for more, especially about something as basic as troop strength.
Less and less information is making it out of Afghanistan, and what we learn isn’t pleasant. It’s a stark reminder that the war continues, even as America turns away.