December 11, 2009

Train the Afghans

By Srinath Raghavan

Dec 11 : U.S. President Barack Obama's recent speech announcing a troops "surge" in Afghanistan contained few surprises. But it underscored his concern about the domestic political aspects of the decision. Immediately after stating that 30,000 additional troops would be sent to Afghanistan, he added that withdrawal will commence after 18 months - in July 2011. This is understandable. Since the end of the Vietnam War, American interventions abroad have always been influenced by the mood and rhythm of politics at home. Think of Bill Clinton's startling announcement prior to the Kosovo war of 1999 that no American ground soldiers would be committed to the fight. The idea of escalation followed by a quick withdrawal has a precedent too. After the death of 18 US Marines in Somalia, Mr Clinton adopted this very strategy.

As with Somalia, this decision does not augur well for Afghanistan. The nature and quality of the Taliban insurgency suggests that an Iraq-style "surge" will be difficult to pull-off in the time frame envisaged. In this context, India must start seriously contemplating its options.

For a non-traditional donor, India has made a generous contribution of $1.2 billion towards reconstruction and development of Afghanistan. New Delhi is Kabul's largest regional donor and its fifth-largest global donor. Nearly 4,000 Indians are at work in Afghanistan, constructing roads and buildings, creating schools and hospitals, helping with sanitation and agriculture. As India has expanded its reconstruction efforts, Taliban attacks on Indian nationals have escalated, raising costs and delaying projects. In response, New Delhi has stationed paramilitary personnel to protect its workers.

As American forces prepare to drawdown, attacks on Indian installations are bound to increase, so jeopardising our existing effort - never mind further progress. If India persists with its current policy, it will, by the summer of 2011, have to make some tough choices: either increase the security presence in Afghanistan, or accept a gradual atrophy of its developmental efforts. The former option is likely to be self-confounding: the presence of foreign troops invariably breeds ill-will with the local populace. The latter scenario would be unfortunate. Successive opinion polls show that a great majority of the Afghans, including the Pashtuns, welcome India's activities in their country.

The best way to insure India's efforts and demonstrate its long-term commitment would be to contribute to the training of the Afghan National Army (ANA). And there is a significant role India can play.

Currently, the ANA stands at about 91,000 soldiers organised into 117 battalions. The existing plans for its expansion are ambitious. The initial plans to develop an independent, fully-capable Afghan military by 2010 were scrapped and replaced by plans to field 134,000 ANA troops by 2014. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) recently revised this projection upwards, calling for 134,000 troops by December 2011 and 240,000 by 2014. This would mean that by 2011, 122,000 troops would be on active duty and 179 total battalions would have formed.

However, the Western coalition has not allocated sufficient trainers, equipment or resources to increase the ANA by 40,000 soldiers in the next two years. ANA manpower levels are challenged not only by a high desertion rate - indicative of poor training as well as morale - but also by a chronic shortage in ANA trainers. The ANA may technically reach its 2011 manpower goals, but is likely to suffer from a lack of competent, well-trained troops.

Even as the ANA seeks to expand, it has fallen behind in combat readiness. The original projection was that the ANA would be an independent force as early as 2009 or 2010. Revised estimates of its capabilities are more conservative although still too optimistic. In 2008, Nato asserted that the ANA had led 50 per cent of all military operations, while the US defence department claimed that seven of 42 (17 per cent) ANA infantry battalions had achieved "full operational capability" and autonomy. However, these assessments have been dismissed as misleading and even disingenuous by independent analysts. Recent assessments by the US Government Accountability Office have concluded that only 40 per cent of Afghan National Army units were capable of conducting operations with coalition support. Clearly there is a lot to be done vis-à-vis the ANA, and quickly.
The Obama administration has reportedly broached the idea with New Delhi. But the Indian government is understandably reluctant to respond to a suggestion from the Americans. A request from Kabul might evoke a different response. In any case, the Indian government's unease is not ill-founded. A prolonged military effort, however narrowly conceived, is unlikely to be palatable to Indian opinion. The influence of the abortive intervention in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s continues to be strong. An alternative that New Delhi should consider is to train the Afghan forces in India. Officer cadets from Afghanistan have been training in Indian military academies for several years now. This programme can easily be reconfigured and the intake scaled up. The Indian Army already has a variety of officer training programmes of different lengths, which can be adapted for this purpose.
Training in the Indian model might also be more appropriate to the demands of commanding troops from diverse ethnic backgrounds. After all, the Indian Army is a classic example of multi-ethnic national force.

Similarly, India can take on training of non-commissioned officers and recruits. The infrastructure for the latter in particular is quite strong. Each of the Indian Army's 29 infantry regiments has its own centre for training recruits. Simultaneous training at a few of these regimental centres can substantially enhance the size and quality of ANA forces. Finally, the Indian Army has several counter-insurgency schools, which can be used for more specialised training.

In short, our capacity to train the ANA is not in doubt. But the clock has already started ticking. Getting our act together after the American pull-back or an appreciable worsening in the security situation in Afghanistan may be too late. India's experience of supporting the anti-Taliban forces in the 1990s should serve as a stark reminder of this fact. The stance that India adopts in the coming months may well prove decisive in the long run.

Srinath Raghavan is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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