Military commanders have warned the Prime Minister that Afghanistan’s future could be jeopardised with al-Qaeda returning to the country if foreign troops are withdrawn too quickly, senior sources have disclosed.
The Afghan army suffers from desertions, often to the Taliban Photo: REX
By Sean Rayment, Defence Correspondent
9:00PM BST 04 Aug 2012
David Cameron has been told that the current plan to hand control of the country’s security to the Afghan forces next year may need to be “diluted”.
British commanders believe that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the Army and police, are not yet fully capable of taking over from international forces.
Under current plans the ANSF are supposed to take over responsibility for security by the middle of 2013 and all International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) troops will be withdrawn from combat operations by the end of 2014.
The timing has been agreed by David Cameron and Barack Obama. It would mean that Britain’s current deployment of 9,000 soldiers would be reduced significantly next year, and that after 2014 only a small number of UK forces would remain in Afghanistan, mostly as advisers to the Afghan military.
But late last month Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, said the timetable could be speeded up, if America judged it safe.
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“We haven’t yet decided what the profile of the draw-down is going to be between this autumn and the end of 2014.
"That is something we will look at towards the end of this year when we understand better what our allies in Afghanistan are planning.”
However Mr Cameron has now been advised that there are significant fears over the quality and ability of Afghan troops, who are supposed to gradually take over control from ISAF (International Security and Assistance Force) soldiers next year.
Concerns over the ANA have been growing, and aired in public before.
But the move to inform Mr Cameron of fears over the ANA’s performance shows just how seriously they are being taken at the highest level by the military - and also that any move to speed up withdrawal would be resisted by senior officers.
The Sunday Telegraph can disclose that the fears relayed by senior officers include:
* the level of desertions. Out of a supposed Afghan Security Force of force around 350,000 troops, 15,000 are currently absent without leave, and as many as 25,000 have in effect been written off as permanent absentees or deserters;
* the growing number of attacks on Western forces. So far this year 30 ISAF troops have been killed by Afghan soldiers and police in 21 separate so-called green on blue attacks, compared to four deaths in 2007/8.
* political loyalty. Earlier this month an entire group of Afghan police deserted and joined the Taliban in the north-west of the country.
* corruption within the Afghan police. The scale on which police are involved in the opium industry and their ability to be bribed is leading to concerns that they cannot be trusted to maintain law and order.
Senior commanders fear that the combination could undermine the exit strategy.
One source said: “The Afghan Army is not going to be ready to take the lead in operations next year, that is certain.
There are very few kandaks [ANA battalions], probably fewer than 10, which can plan, mount and execute operations without NATO’s help.
“We have been on operations with the Afghans, where you have to kick the door down and push them inside the building to clear it. That goes down as an Afghan led operation.
“The plan is for British and US troops to take a back seat role next year but that is not going to happen in reality. The ANA has been able to build capacity but it lacks quality and that’s the worry.”
A Kandak is made up of about 600 men, meaning the Afghans have an effective fighting force which is only a fraction of what is needed.
By the end of 2014, the Afghan Army must reach a level of 240,000 troops, more than twice the size of the British Army, which will give the combined Afghan National Security Forces a total strength of around 352,000.
Crucially, those troops and other members of the security force must also be able to operate entirely independently before ISAF troops leave.
Sources said that the current rate of desertions and concerns over the quality of the soldiers who remain meant that there are grave doubts over that timetable.
One particular concern is that there are desertions not just because soldiers are going home, but because they are changing sides to the Taliban, taking with them arms and expertise gained in training.
In the case of the cadre of 40 police who changed sides in Bagdis, in the north-west of Afghanistan, the whole unit had been created by a United States initiative in 2010 during the peak of the war to help ISAF coalition and Afghan troops prevent the influence and spread of the insurgency.
The British are not alone in their concerns.
General John Allen, the US commander of ISAF, is said to privately believe that the ANA will require military help and assistance beyond the 2014 deadline.
Mr Cameron has been told that the Taliban could regain power in Afghanistan if foreign troops are withdrawn too quickly from the country.
He has also been warned not to accelerate the exit - something which there is pressure to do on a number of fronts.
The Ministry of Defence has calculated that ending combat operations by late 2013, a year earlier than planned, would save £3 billion.
And France has already announced plans to withdraw its troops 12 months earlier than the rest of ISAF, leading to fears that other country’s may follow suit in what would become a rush to the exit.
Defence chiefs, however, have strongly argued against any acceleration and have insisted that British troops must maintain a strong presence in the country until the end of 2014.
The concern is reflected in Washington. America had been planning to withdraw 23,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of September, effectively ending the “surge” which was ordered by President Obama in 2010. It would reduce the American presence from 90,000 to 67,000. In total there are 130,000 ISAF troops.
However Mr Obama is now facing pressure to delay the “surge” troops’ withdrawal until October, because of the deteriorating security situation.
NATO has already agreed that the SAS and US Special Forces will not be included within the current deadlines and will continue to take part in military operations for many more years.
British commanders refuse to say how many men the Taliban has under arms but some estimates suggest that the number could be as high as 35,000 with many more ready to move into Afghanistan from Pakistan after 2014.
The discussions with Mr Cameron this summer came after Gen Sir Peter Wall, the head of the Army, was publicly rebuked by the Prime Minister last year when he suggested that Britain’s withdrawal should be linked to conditions on the ground rather than a political timeline.
An MOD spokesman said: “Transition to an Afghan security lead is now well under way and Afghan forces will soon be responsible for areas covering 75% of the country’s population.
"It is the Afghans who are increasingly taking the lead on operations, deploying in formed units, carrying out their own operations and taking greater responsibility for security both across Afghanistan and in Helmand where UK Forces operate alongside side them.
“UK forces will drawdown by 500 to 9,000 this year and will cease combat operations by the end of 2014 when the Afghans will take the overall lead.
"The Prime Minister has been clear that this drawdown will be a steady and measured process, and not a “cliff edge” reduction. Planning continues to consider the details of how this will be achieved.”
Tags: Afghanistan, Taliban, NATO, US, occupation, Civil, War, Pakistan, terrorist, Punjabi, ISI, =, Al, Qaeda
Location: Afghanistan (load item map)
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