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Afghan Security Forces Pass First Test, But Questions Remain

Soldiers of the Afghan National Army shown here taking part in a training exercise in Kabul in October 2013.
This year's fighting season was a crucial test for Afghanistan's nascent army and police forces, which had assumed full responsibility for the country's security for the first time.

With the fighting season nearly over, the results are mixed. While the Afghan security forces have managed to hold off the Taliban, they have been unable to make any major gains themselves and have suffered record numbers of casualties.

The casualty figures released in October by the Afghan government will do little to quash doubts about the ability of Afghanistan's security forces to maintain order after the majority of international combat troops leave at the end of 2014.

The Afghan Interior Ministry on October 29 revealed that 2,052 members of the Afghan National Police (ANP) and Afghan Local Police (ALP) were killed and more than 5,000 were wounded between April, when fighting traditionally begins, and the end of October, when fighting slows down for winter. The figure for the whole of 2012 was around 1,800 for the police forces.

Over that time, the Taliban launched 6,604 operations, 50 suicide attacks, and 1,704 direct attacks on police -- a marked increase from last year. Many casualties sustained by Afghan forces were in rural areas of the south and east, where the Taliban is strongest.

To safeguard morale, Afghan authorities have not revealed this year's death toll for the Afghan National Army (ANA), although it was described in September by the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Joseph Dunford, as "unsustainable."

U.S. General Mark Milley, the commander of NATO ground forces in Afghanistan, said in September that 50 to 100 Afghan soldiers were being killed every month and that was comparable to fatality rates for U.S. forces during the Vietnam War.

Last year, the Afghan government said 2,970 police and soldiers were killed. Afghan officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have admitted the number of fatalities suffered by the ANA has increased markedly, making it the bloodiest year for Afghan forces since 2001.

There have been persistent questions over the competence of the Afghan army and police, which suffer from a high rate of desertion, a poor reenlistment record, low morale, and inadequate equipment and training.

Attrition The Problem

David Young, a civilian adviser to NATO in eastern Afghanistan and an adjunct fellow at the American Security Project in Washington, says high casualty rates are sustainable as long as Western donors fund the recruitment campaign and training to replace those lost on the battlefield.

But he says the high number of casualties is still a major concern, especially if those casualties lead to higher attrition rates, which Young says poses the biggest threat to the Afghan armed forces.

"Even before these casualty rates, Afghan security forces already had to replace a third of their ranks every year due to attrition," Young said. "Now, because of obvious morale issues of violently losing so many forces, these latest casualty rates actually pose a bigger threat to attrition than they pose on their own as casualties."

While Afghan forces have taken significant casualties, they have not been overrun by the Taliban as some skeptics had predicted.
Attracting recruits will continue to be a serious problem for Afghan security forces.
Attracting recruits will continue to be a serious problem for Afghan security forces.

The Taliban has also largely failed to meet its key strategic goals for this year's offensive: to kill high-level Afghan officials, carry out even more infiltration attacks against foreign forces, and break the will of the nascent Afghan security forces.

The Taliban's assassination campaign did take a toll but mostly on lower-level police and district officials. The exception was the assassination of Arsala Jamal, the governor of Logar Province, who was killed while giving a speech in a mosque on October 15. But the Taliban have denied responsibility for the attack.

The Taliban had promised to increase so-called "insider attacks" carried out by Afghan soldiers, or insurgents posing as Afghan soldiers. The militants claimed responsibility for most of the 60 deaths attributed to such attacks in 2012. But with new security measures in place that number fell to 15 in the first 10 months of this year.

The Taliban's pledge to carry out spectacular attacks in Kabul and other major cities has also largely failed to materialize, with many either not hitting their targets or being foiled by Afghan intelligence.

Securing The Cities

While Afghan forces have taken the fight to the Taliban and conducted cleanup operations in Taliban-held areas, moving forward they are expected to focus on securing the mostly densely populated areas, leaving large swaths of the countryside vulnerable to Taliban infiltration.

Ryan Evans, the assistant director at the Center for the National Interest, a nonpartisan public-policy institution based in Washington, says that is not only a reflection of Afghan security forces' fighting capabilities but also of major cuts in foreign military funding.

The Afghan security forces are expected to be reduced in number from the present 352,000 to around 230,000 by 2015 as aid is cut from $7 billion to around $4 billion after 2014.

"This is a pattern that we've seen in Afghanistan for the past 30 years," Evans said. "When the Soviets left, the Afghan National Security Forces fell back on urban centers. They've been making this shift in the past couple of years in anticipation of the U.S. leaving. They have formed these so-called 'rings of steel' around district centers and provincial capitals, and I think that will only accelerate."
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.