A month before US and British military forces began their current withdrawal from Afghanistan’s Helmand province, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan abruptly classified its assessment of the fighting abilities of the Afghan army and police forces, reports the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity. The US alone has spent an estimated $61.5 billion to build up Afghan security forces.
While parts of these assessments have been released to the public over the past nine years, on 3 October ISAF’s Joint Command told independent US federal auditors that the latest ratings are now classified in their entirety.
Sections of the reports that discuss the capabilities of the Afghan army or police force are now classified at the “Restricted” level, while an overall tally of the number of units deemed capable of meeting leadership, combat, training, and other requirements was given the higher classification of “SECRET”.
Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko said the classification “deprives the American people of an essential tool to measure the success or failure of the single most costly feature of the Afghanistan reconstruction effort,” adding that the decision was — to him — “inexplicable.”
A November 2013 Congressional report by the US Defense Department noted that attrition in the Afghan National Army had been 34.4 percent over the preceding twelve months.
British troops and US Marines ended combat operations in Afghanistan on the 26 October, turning over two adjacent bases in Helmand province, Camp Bastion and Camp Leatherneck, to the Afghan National Army. The Washington Post's Dan Lamothe argues that the turnover of Camp Leatherneck "leaves many troops who have been there with mixed feelings. Uneven results recently from the Afghan military still facing the Taliban in Helmand raise questions about what the region will look like without coalition involvement. The region is far from Kabul politically and geographically, and many wonder what their sacrifices ultimately will yield. But there's also recognition that the US had to turn Leatherneck over at some point." The United States is leaving an estimated $230 million in equipment and property behind for Afghan forces.
A BBC poll released on 28 October found that fewer than 50 percent of Americans believe the war in Afghanistan was "worthwhile," with 54 percent of Republicans and 43 percent of Democrats agreeing, and only 28 percent believed the United States was safer
About 34,000 American troops are still in Afghanistan and that number is expected to drop to 9,800 next year as part of a "noncombat train, advise, and assist mission". However, NATO intends to continue to provide air support to Afghan forces after the scheduled end of combat operations in December. Maj. Paul Greenberg, a spokesman for ISAF said in a statement to Stars and Stripes that cooperation with the Afghan police and military after the transition to Afghan control "will include continued aviation support" by the coalition. This support is likely to continue until the Afghan air force is fully operational, which is not anticipated to happen before 2016.
Thus, after 13 years, the conflict is again changing shape, with a much bigger focus on air strikes and fewer numbers of US and NATO ground troops directly involved. Yet the reality is that the war is ongoing, and still far from a resolution. It is also unclear as to whether the proclaimed 'end of combat operations' is another chimera in the minds of defence planners. For a chilling and rather sobering account of the Afghan campaign to date, a 'must read' is Rory Stewart's review of Anand Gopal's book, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes.
As Chairman of the UK Defence Committee in the House of Commons, Stewart is no peacenik. Yet he argues that Gopal's "shocking indictment demonstrates that the failures of the intervention were worse than even the most cynical believed". And it is not over yet.