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Afghan Military Still Lacks Key Capabilities

David Sedney, a former deputy assistant secretary at the Defense Department, has invested years into helping create Afghanistan's modern army. He says that, while the current Afghan army is better than those in the past, it still lacks the components such as intelligence, artillery, an air force and leadership development that are critical for defending the mountainous country.

RFE/RL: Where do the Afghan security forces stand now in terms of numbers and capacity?

David Sedney: They are at … [the] numbers that the Afghan government and the international community agreed at the NATO summit in [Chicago] in 2012. That is around 350,000. But they lack a number of key capabilities, particularly in areas of intelligence, air support and mobility, artillery, as well as logistics and leadership development.

RFE/RL: Do you think that, as an institution, the Afghan security forces ― and the Afghan army in particular ― are moving in the right direction?

Sedney: They are moving in the right direction. They have a lot of capable officers at the lower and mid-levels, people who have come into the military in the past 13 years and are moving up. But what they don't have are people above that level. There is a big gap. They have a lot of senior officers who have experience in the civil war and the war against the Soviets on either side ― some people from the mujahedin and some people from the communist army ― but there is a big gap in the middle. They really don't have the mid-level officers who are the key to survivability.

RFE/RL: So the Afghan army has too many generals at the top, and that is a major problem?

Sedney: That is one problem, but the bigger problem is that they don't have the middle level of people, and you only have those people by having them mature. So they still need, in my view, another 10 to 15 years of continuing partnering and mentoring with the international forces before they build up that middle level.

David Sedney
David Sedney

RFE/RL: Looking back at Afghanistan's recent history, do you see the Afghan National Army today at the level when the Afghan communist regime collapsed in 1992?

Sedney: The current Afghan army is infinitely superior to the army that was in place in 1992 or in 1989 [when the Soviet Red Army withdrew from Afghanistan]. At that period of time, there were major problems with unit loyalty. So you have situations where not just individuals but complete platoons [and] battalions even are switching sides en masse or just disappearing altogether.

Now there are some small issues [like] the so-called green-on-blue [when Afghan soldiers kill their Western mentors], but the situation is much better than before. They have a much better fighting spirit and a much better system of tactical control.

What they don't have is the air support, the artillery, the intelligence or the kind of logistics and leadership development that really needs about another 10 years to really put those things into place.

But, on a tactical unit basis, the current army is really quite good and has performed better than most people expected. Most analysts expected that as the drawdown went forward over the past two years the Afghan military [would] start falling apart ― giving up districts ― and lose fixed battles. None of that has happened.

RFE/RL: In recent years, there has been a lot of speculation about the ethnic composition of the Afghan army, and some observers were worried about the factional loyalties of senior military leaders. Are these still major concerns?

Sedney: They are issues and a worry, but they are not a major factor. Over the past 13 years, the Afghan military has created a national identity. So, for example, when you have a corps commanded by someone from the north that is fighting in Kandahar [in the south], and they go into a village to carry out an operation, they are welcomed by the [local] Pashtuns because of their good performance. They go in and get their job done.

Now, do some people have these residual loyalties you mentioned? Yes, they do. That is why, as I said before, the key thing is to develop this next generation of leaders, the people who have joined the military during the past 13 years, who have spent 10-plus years fighting for a national army, for a national leadership. So with every year that goes by, that concern you mentioned gets less.

There were a lot of people who theorized that the military will carry out a coup or support one side or the other this summer [during the] tensions over [controversial elections]. That didn't happen, and the military ― and, particularly, the police ― worked very hard to stay out of the political process.

RFE/RL: Afghanistan's current annual national revenue is a few hundred million dollars, but it spends billions of dollars on its security forces every year. We know Western donors will fund the Afghan forces until 2017, but how big a challenge will running such an organization be in the long term?

Sedney: As much as the United States supports the Afghan security forces, it is the broad range of countries of NATO and ISAF [International Security Assistance Force]. At the NATO summit in Chicago in 2012, they pledged to provide $1 billion a year [in addition to the U.S. funds], and they have done so. In the next couple of years, the funding picture is reasonably secure so long as both the Afghan military and the Afghan government continue to perform. I think, the new unity government shows every evidence of that.

Over the longer term, it definitely is a question. The Afghan economy definitely has to grow for all kinds of reasons, and in that period of 2017 to 2022 there are probably tough choices for Afghanistan in terms of how it will spend its resources as the money from other countries continues to decline. The bottom line is that people invest in success, and if the Afghan military is successful, it will continue to get international support.