State of the Afghan army, police: not what you’d hope

And the deadline for bringing Canadian troops home is fast approaching

afghan militaryThe federal government’s seventh quarterly report to Parliament on Canadian military and development work in Afghanistan was tabled late yesterday without fanfare. These reports have become routine, but through the bland, bureaucratic prose, they still provide a glimpse—often an unsettling one—of the situation in Kandahar.

The most pressing question, as the 2011 deadline for bringing Canadian troops home approaches, is what progress is being made toward beefing up the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP). When Canada pulls out entirely next year, and the U.S. begins a planned drawdown of its forces, the Afghans will have to shoulder more of their own security burden. Yesterday’s report doesn’t inspire confidence.

The closest thing to a candid appraisal of the security landscape can be found in its “benchmarks” section, where the generalities of these quarterly updates gives way to more specifics. In the report for the Oct. 1-Dec. 31, 2009 period, the good news is the claim that two ANA kandaks (a unit of about 650 soldiers) are “are fully capable of planning, executing and sustaining near-autonomous operations.” That’s up from just one kandak the previous quarter.

But that apparent progress is hard to reconcile with other information in the benchmarks section. For instance, Canada’s goal is for all kandaks and the ANA’s headquarters to have 70 per cent of their needed troops and officers by next year. None were operating at 70 per cent strength last fall, their ranks diminished by holidays and scheduled leaves. (There will, presumably, still be vacations and leaves after coalition forces exit.)

Another indicator of how thinly Afghan troops are spread: the percentage of military operations the ANA executed with Canadian troops in Kandahar declined in the quarter, as more Afghans were linked to growing U.S. forces for training. In other words, there aren’t enough Afghans in uniform to go around.

The reported state of the Afghan National Police also raises doubts. Although the quarterly report said training was completed for all of more than 2,000 police in the “key districts,” it also noted: “Due to high attrition rates, this percentage rate will fluctuate from quarter to quarter.” High attrition can’t be good. As well, only three of 17 police units were judged “capable of planning, executing and sustaining near-autonomous operations.”

How do the locals feel about the situation? Canada’s aim is for their confidence to be steadily increasing. But this flat sentence stands out in the benchmarks section of the report: “Kandaharis did not perceive security as improving in any of the six key districts.”