Quality Is Improving in the Afghan National Army

At the recent NATO Lisbon Conference and the succeeding U.S. December Review, world leaders and key decision-makers are assessing progress in Afghanistan. One of the main questions is how well the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) is developing, in terms of quantity and quality. Why is that important? ANSF institutional development is the coalition's ticket to military draw-down in Afghanistan -- the faster quality ANSF units can be fielded, assume security responsibilities and sustain themselves, the faster the coalition can reduce forces. The faster the coalition can reduce forces, the less "blood and treasure" coalition countries have to expend. In the end, Afghanistan can only be secured by Afghans.

Growth, a more straightforward measure of progress, shows the ANSF has and continues to meet its goals. Overall, the ANSF grew by over 36% in the past year, despite concerning attrition rates. The Afghan National Army (ANA), a component of ANSF, leapt up 49% from 97k to over 144k soldiers. However, growth in quantity is only half of the effort to develop the ANSF.

The key question to answer, therefore, is whether quality has accompanied that growth. From our perspective, Yes, it can and has. Any assessment of quality with regard to security forces must consider operational effectiveness -0 how well security forces bring about security. A prime example of improving quality in the ANA is the how well newly formed units are establishing security, especially ones decisively engaged in fighting. At the forward edge of clearing operations in one of the most contested areas of the Kandahar environs, the ANA 3rd Brigade, 205th Corps (3/205), a unit which existed only on paper less than a year ago, and their U.S. partner unit, 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (2/101), have made progress in clearing Taliban foot soldiers from its very birthplace, Zhari District, Kandahar Province.

Formed within the past year with a new commander, staff, leaders, and troops, 3/205 partnered with one of the most decorated units in the U.S. Army (2/101) to train, live, and fight side-by-side. "Partnering," as the military calls it, is a forcing function for a quick and thorough education of invaluable lessons gained from combined real-world operations. The soldiers of the Afghan 3/205th, most new to the military, learned the essential skills of soldiering and fighting from their partner U.S. soldiers, many of whom had previous Afghanistan and Iraq combat experience. Similarly, the Afghan leaders, most new to their levels of responsibility but with previous knowledge and experience, worked shoulder-to-shoulder with their U.S. counterparts. Together, they led their troops to face the Taliban.

Throughout the late summer and fall, the dynamic team of 3/205 and 2/101 cleared areas previously untouched by coalition units, deep into the heart of darkness where Mullah Omar founded the Taliban. Security improved in the area and along the section of Afghanistan's Ring Road that runs through it. The end result is a rapidly improving formation of Afghan officers, non-commissioned officers and soldiers who through continued partnering will eventually become an operationally effective and self-sufficient Afghan fighting organization.

Progress in Afghanistan is less a sprint than a marathon. To say that the enemy will not re-attack and challenge Afghan and coalition forces in these cleared areas would be naïve. To say that the 3/205th or any of the other new unit associated with the recent growth are currently ready to assume full responsibility for security would be disingenuous.

However, the coalition is well into the marathon and has developed momentum. When the Taliban re-attack and challenge 3/205, they will encounter a battle-hardened and experienced Afghan unit. Similarly, the coalition is on the path to building the institutions and enablers that will lead to the ANSF eventually being able to assume full responsibility for security and to sustain themselves. In the coming year, NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A), the organization charged with developing ANSF, is focusing on building the enabling forces that will empower Afghans to be more self-sufficient, e.g. logistics, medical, and military intelligence.

Ultimately, success in bringing security to Afghanistan depends on ANSF development, both in quantity and quality. If the case of the 3rd Brigade, 205th Corps is an example, then we have good reason to believe it will happen.