A deadly spring offensive launched by the Taliban in Afghanistan has put the spotlight on the countrys fledgling army, which Western officials and analysts say is being undermined by corruption, the lack of rule of law and a weak government in Kabul.
The army and police also have had to contend with high attrition rates and low levels of literacy among recruits.
“To be honest, it is weak Afghan government capacity, corruption, and a lack of rule of law that undermines any security handover and gains more than illiteracy and lack of equipment,” said a U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity citing the sensitive nature of the subject.
President Obama has said he will start withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July with the aim of ending the U.S. combat mission and handing over security responsibility to the Afghan government by 2014.
However, analysts and Afghan officials doubt the Afghan security forces will be ready on time.
The death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a U.S. commando operation in Pakistan last week has prompted calls from some members of Congress for a quicker withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project and former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, said a large number of Afghan National Army (ANA) units lack the kind of leadership that would help them be effective by 2014.
“With the number of ANA divisions that have been able to become effective in the past three years or so, we have shown we are capable of fixing it, but I dont think we are capable of fixing it fast enough by 2014,” he said.
An Afghan official, who spoke on background, was similarly pessimistic.
“We’re not reluctant to take over the defense of our nation, but you cannot hope that by 2014 you will have an army in place,” he said.
A U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report in January cautioned that the high rate of attrition could have a negative impact on the Afghan armys ability to meet its goal of 171,600 personnel by October.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has insisted that Afghan forces will take the security lead from the NATO-led coalition in some provinces in July.
Afghanistans ambassador in Washington, Eklil Hakimi, also expressed confidence that the handover will proceed as planned, based on conditions on the ground.
The Afghan army is slated to take control of areas with low levels of insurgency, while the coalition forces will continue to have the primary responsibility of fighting the Taliban in its traditional strongholds in the southern and eastern regions of Afghanistan.
Insurgents and criminals in the north and northeast sometimes masquerade as Taliban but are more often criminals involved in drug trafficking and highway robbery. The Taliban heartland is in the south.
Over the weekend, the Taliban launched an offensive, which included suicide bombers, in the southern province of Kandahar. U.S. officials said the attack was the start of the terrorists spring offensive.
Mr. Hakimi said he expects the Taliban to try to regain areas lost to Afghan and coalition forces last winter.
“We’d be stunned if they didn’t try,” he said.
Afghan security forces have been working jointly with U.S. troops to counter the Taliban offensive in Kandahar. Mr. Hakimi credited them with preventing the Talibans offensive from becoming the spectacular attack the terrorists had planned.
However, a Western diplomat, who spoke on background, cautioned that the overall gains in Afghanistan could be reversed.
“It is therefore crucial … particularly during the traditional summer fighting season, to continue to put pressure on the insurgency and extend the reach of the Afghan government,” he said.
Kandahar province is governed by Mr. Karzais brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who is frequently the target of corruption allegations.
Shahmahmood Miakhel, a former deputy minister of interior in the Karzai administration, said the Taliban owes its continuing influence to the lack of good government in Afghanistan.
“The Taliban’s physical power has been degraded, but its influence has not been reduced due to an absence of police and government structures,” said Mr. Miakhel, who heads the U.S. Institute of Peaces Afghanistan program.
David Kilcullen, author of “The Accidental Guerrilla” and a counterterrorism specialist who has worked in Afghanistan, said the Karzai administration must focus on improving its legitimacy through reform and rule of law.
“Unfortunately, this is something only Afghans can do. We can help, but they have to want it, too,” he added.
“No amount of know-how or enthusiasm on the part of outsiders can compensate for lack of will on the part of relevant officials.”
The Pentagon leads U.S. efforts to train and equip the Afghan army. Since 2002, U.S. agencies have allocated about $20 billion in support of this effort and sought $7.5 billion more for fiscal 2011.
A key question on the minds of Afghan officials and analysts is whether the international community will be willing to sustain its financial investment in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
“After 2014, the Afghan army will still need technical and financial support. The big question is whether international support can be maintained for the next five to 10 years,” said Mr. Miakhel.
The Afghan government, which covers a fraction of the cost of training and equipping Afghan security forces, spends the largest portion of its annual budget on the army.
Afghanistan does not use a draft system mainly because it lacks an adequate law enforcement or legal structure to enforce it.
The January GAO report found that the Afghan army had grown at a faster rate than expected between January and July 2010. However, Western officials say they are most concerned about quality, not quantity.
Mr. Kilcullen flagged the ethnic imbalance in the Afghan army as another area of concern.
He said there are too few Pashtuns and too many members of northern ethnic groups in the army for it to be truly representative of the Afghan population. Pashtuns make up 42 percent of Afghanistans population and are the majority.
The Taliban is also made up primarily of Pashtuns.
The dearth of top-quality army leadership is another concern frequently cited by Afghan and Western officials. Leadership training has been hampered by the high levels of illiteracy among Afghans.
Some Afghan officials are worried that the Taliban may try to exploit what they refer to as the armys Achilles heel by assassinating the few qualified officers in the service.
The absence of what Afghans refer to as an “army culture” is another considerable challenge to building a force from scratch.
“Now, it is all about saving yourself and your family, not saving the country,” said the Afghan official who spoke on background.