Building an Army While Losing an Army in Afghanistan

Imagine if a Brigade Combat Team’s worth of soldiers—about 3,000 to 4,000 grunts—were killed, dismissed, or simply walked away from the U.S. Army each month for 24 straight months.

Imagine this happening to a force that only recently reached an end strength of 182,000 soldiers, while leadership was tasked with increasing the size of the force at the same time as fighting a civil war.

That’s the situation faced by the Afghan National Army (ANA), according to a new semi-annual report released today by the Department of Defense. Known as the “1230” report, the document measures progress in the war and the larger nation building effort in Afghanistan in year-long chunks—with the latest report covering September 2011 to September 2012.

The attrition rate actually seems to have stabilized over the past two years, averaging anywhere from 2,400 to 5,500 soldiers a month every month from Sept. 2010 to Sept 2012, with most months hovering somewhere in the 3,000 to 4,000 soldier range.

The Afghan Army stood at about 140,000 soldiers in Sept. 2010—up from about 95,000 in Sept. 2009—while in September 2012 ANA force levels reached 182,000 soldiers, with an ultimate goal of 187,000 by the end of this month.

The attrition rate has long been a drag on the ANA, which has only been able to continue growing by recruiting a few thousand soldiers more then it loses each month.

The report says that the main causes of attrition and low retention “are poor leadership and accountability, separation from family, denial of leave or poor leave management, high operational tempo, and ineffective deterrence against soldiers going absent without leave (AWOL).”

All pretty hard things to fix.

If the attrition rate doesn’t begin to drop at some point soon, U.S. officials write that there’s a very real risk that “training costs will compromise the Afghan government’s ability to maintain the 195,000 force. [8,000 personnel in the Air Force are added to the Army’s rolls.] Consistently high attrition may also negatively affect ANSF capabilities, as a high number of soldiers will have to be recruited and trained each year, resulting in a force composed of many inexperienced soldiers.”

In other words, after 11 years of war, U.S., NATO, and Afghan leadership is still struggling to train and field an experienced local fighting force. With combat control being handed over the Afghan forces in mid-2013 and huge drawdowns in Western forces by December 2014—though no one seems to want a complete withdrawal—time is running short for the Afghan Army to get its feet firmly planted on the ground.

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Paul McLeary

McLeary covers national security policies at the White House, Pentagon, the Hill, and State Department.
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