The transition of security responsibilities to Af ghan National Security Forces is set to enter into a critical phase from next month when five large cities around the country will be handed over to the Afghan forces. Mazar-e- Sharif, Bamyan, Panjshir, Herat and Mehtarlam are the major cities considered for the first phase of the transition process. The town of Lashkargah, the capital of volatile Helmand province in the south, has already been handed over to Afghan forces. According the plan of security transition drawn up by the Obama Administration in coordination with the government of Afghanistan, next month, July 2011, will mark the official start of the transition process, due to complete by 2014, while at the same time the fist contingent of U.S. troops will be pulled out of the country.
While the ground realities in Afghanistan do not permit a premature withdrawal of foreign forces, the U.S. government and in particular President Barack Obama himself are under pressure to start the withdrawal of their troops from the unpopular war in Afghanistan. One reason is that Mr. Obama's hopes for running a successful re-election campaign in the lead-up to the 2012 presidential elections hinges, among other things, on making good on the promise of troops withdrawal from Afghanistan he made to American public before and after his election to presidency. For him this has been a major point of contention with his Generals who, given the tough realities of the ongoing war, do not favor any significant drawdown of troops for now.
The fledgling Afghan security forces are already in the front line of the war against the Taliban and other militant groups all across the country. The US led forces provide the Afghan National Security Forces with strategic, operational and tactical assistance with the number of Afghan National Army units capable of independent action is going to increase in coming months. In spite of the progress made in recent years in training and equipping the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, there remains a host of problems, challenges and shortcomings that paint a bleak picture on the security front in post-2014 Afghanistan unless several issues are effectively addressed. The U.S. government and the Ministry of Defense of the government of Afghanistan are considering a total army and police strength of around 400,000 for Afghanistan by 2014. The numbers of Afghan National Army currently stands at around 170,000 troops. This number would hit 250,000 by early 2014 assuming that the pace of recruitment and training of army cadres continues at the same rate as before. This number is still far below what is actually required to reverse the tide of burgeoning Taliban insurgency and keep the country stabilized after the majority of foreign troops depart by 2014.
Quantity alone, of course is not the key to solving the problems faced by the Afghan National Army in securing Afghanistan in a post-2014 environment. Quality is another worrying matter that further contributes to concerns regarding the preparedness of Afghan National Army. According to the US Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan's Reconstruction, in his report to US Congress, close to one-fourth of recruits in Afghan National Army are absent from duty in any given time. This high desertion rate, according to the statements of NATO training mission officials including its chief, William Caldwell, is one of the biggest challenges faced by the Afghan National Army. Another pressing problem is that in the rush to increase the numbers of soldiers, the quality has been overshadowed. The duration of training courses has been made shorter while many units and battalions grapple with shortage of supplies and equipment. Absence of an air force capable of providing aerial support to ground units of the army, heavy weaponry and an intelligence apparatus are other areas of shortcomings. Political problems are another area of concern that can undermine the security situation in the country especially after 2014. The ongoing tension between the executive, legislature and the judiciary over the issue of Parliament has worked to cast a long shadow over the whole situation. The government appears to be engulfed in internal fighting over the Parliament issue at a time when the Taliban's insurgency is intensifying by each passing week.
It is a matter of certainty that international commitment to training, equipping and supporting the Afghan National Army must continue for many more years if this fledgling institution is to tide over the transition period. The government of Afghanistan will be increasingly brought under pressure to contribute to the expenses of its army given the fact the western financial commitment to Afghan National Army cannot be open-ended. The budget for security provision in Afghanistan reaching tens of billions of dollars annually means that the government of Afghanistan must become financially independent in the long-term to be able to support the huge financial costs in the face of declining financial support from the west. All the efforts towards providing security and stability in Afghanistan in the run-up to the 2014 deadline and beyond must go hand in hand on multiple fronts. In addition to the internal factors as discussed above, external aspects must also be tackled appropriately. The presence of insurgent safe havens across the borders of Afghanistan must be dealt with firmly. As long as these safe havens exist and continue to unleash waves of insurgents on our soil, the insurgency will stand resilient.
The realities discussed above are some of the most immediate concerns that the government of Afghanistan in partnership with the international community need to address. Otherwise, in spite of the ongoing negotiation process with Taliban, the bloody war in Afghanistan will increasingly become a war of attrition that will continue for many more years and drain the limited financial and political capital that Afghanistan has. The scale of the challenges ahead is massive and requires sustained attention of the government and the international community for many more years until the situation can be stabilized. The key lies with the leadership of the country and whether they will be able to overcome these difficult times, correct the past mistakes and keep their faith and conviction in themselves and the mandate they have received from the people. So far, the response of this leadership has been feeble and has fallen short of what the tough times require.