Afghan military forces face heavy turnover rates and a lack of quality equipment, shortcomings that are keeping the country from being self-sustaining even after 18 years of war and $83 billion in U.S. security support, the top U.S. watchdog for the Afghan mission said Monday.
John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), said the constant turnover, shifting agendas and the division of labor across agencies, military branches and countries have consistently undercut the Afghan rebuilding process.
“Without the guidance of a comprehensive, expert-designed and enduring multiyear plan to guide all security-sector activities, the U.S.’s approach often changed with each personnel rotation,” Mr. Sopko said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on Monday.
The SIGAR office, which has long been sharply critical of U.S. and Western reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, completed six “lessons learned” reports to evaluate what worked and what failed in the rebuilding effort. The most recent report on the Afghan security forces was released in June,
The basic problem, Mr. Sopko said, was often just trying to figure out who was in charge. Too often, he said, “no single person, agency, military service, or country responsible [was] for the oversight of all U.S. and international activities to develop the Afghan security forces.”
Over the course of the 18-year war effort, the U.S. government has poured $18 billion into equipping Afghanistan’s military, including over 600,000 weapons, 70,000 vehicles and more than 200 aircraft. But despite the support, the Afghan security forces still are not able to stand on their own against the threat posed by the Taliban and other Islamist insurgent movements. Many of the problems identified years ago still have not been resolved, Mr. Sopko said.
For example, in 2017 the U.S. Army created six Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs) designed to accompany Afghan forces on operations, but failed to communicate to incoming advisers about religious customs that could affect the deployments.
“Many advisers were unaware that the Afghan security forces prioritize the evacuation of deceased personnel over critically wounded based on religious customs,” he said.
James Cunningham, SIGAR’s project lead, emphasized the need for a shift in the reconstruction mindset from a combat “exit strategy” to viewing the Afghanistan mission as part of a long-term foreign policy.
“I think we’re starting to have some highlights that show this is the outcome of long-term security assistance,” said Mr. Cunningham. ” … Let’s be honest to the American people. We should have been honest years ago and said this was going to take a long time.”
Among the 36 recommendations outlined in the report, the SIGAR’s office said plans must be developed now for peacetime challenges such as drug trafficking, economic development and security.
“Failure to plan now is planning to fail once peace is declared, ” said Mr. Sopko.
The challenges still face the U.S.-backed government in Kabul were on display Sunday with an attack at the office of Amrullah Saleh, the running mate of President Ashraf Ghani in September’s planned national elections. The Afghan security forces were caught in a shoot-out inside the office building after a bomb went off that killed 20 people. The vice presidential candidate was injured along with 50 others.
U.S. officials also announced Monday two American service members had been killed by an Afghan soldier, a so-called “green on blue” attack, in the southern city of Kandahar. The Afghan soldier was wounded in the incident and is being held in custody, U.S. officials said.
The Trump administration is in direct talks with the Taliban about a peace accord that would allow the bulk of some 15,000 U.S. troops in the country to leave. But the Taliban have continued attack on government targets as the talks have proceeded and are demanding all U.S. and foreign troops pull out before talks with the Afghan government can begin.