GAO Report Demonstrates Profound Failure in Afghan War, Plants Seed for Petraeus to Avoid Accountability

Figure 1 from GAO report: ANA training and ISAF surge have not affected steady, upward trend in violence. (Click on image for a larger view.)

On Thursday, the Government Accountability Office released a report (pdf) to Congress summarizing its latest analysis of the training of the Afghan National Army (ANA). The title conveys much of the sense of the report: “AFGHANISTAN SECURITY: Afghan Army Growing, but Additional Trainers Needed; Long-term Costs Not Determined”. The report documents that training of the ANA actually met an interim goal three months ahead of schedule last fall, but then indicated that the overall end goal for ANA size likely will need to be increased. Importantly, the report plants what I predict will be the seed producing a total lack of accountability for David Petraeus when the ANA eventually proves to be not up to the task of taking over full control of Afghan security (while “training” goals are currently being met, ANA units still remain far from functional on their own) by stating that the effort is suffering because of lack of staffing by those who carry out the training of ANA forces.

Both the GAO report and the only media report I have seen on it, from CNN, fail to to cite the importance of the data presented in Figure 1 of the report, where we see that despite the increased numbers of ANA forces being trained and the “surge” of ISAF forces, violence levels in Afghanistan continue in a steady upward trend. Even when factoring in the seasonal variation in violence, it can be seen in Figure 1 that the total number of monthly attacks in winter 2010-2011 is roughly twice the rate of summer 2008 attacks. When comparing identical seasons, summer 2010 attack rates are roughly three times summer 2008 attack rates and seven times summer 2005 attack rates.

When considering this information, it is very important to place it in context with David Petraeus’ history of gaming the data on training and violence. I have been concentrating for some time on claims emanating from Petraeus on his “accomplishments” in training ANA forces (see, for example, here and here). Recall that Petraeus jumped into the political game with his Washington Post Op-Ed in September 2004, helping George W. Bush to re-election by inflating claims on the training of Iraqi troops. Then, amid the clamor of the General Betrayus controversy, Petraeus was never questioned in the fall of 2007 about why Iraqi training was starting again from scratch with the 2004 claims completely forgotten. Instead, Petraeus’ slick charts demonstrating reductions in violence levels in Iraq were used to trumpet his awesome success far and wide. Why isn’t the abject failure to reduce violence levels in Afghanistan today receiving the same attention as that “success” in Iraq?

For those with the stomach for more details, here are some excerpts from the report.

On page 19 of the report (page 24 of the pdf file), we have a discussion of “attrition” among ANA forces who have been trained. After first discussing the low-sounding target of “only” 1.2% attrition per month, we see the real-world impact of this monthly rate compounded over the course of a year:

According to NTM-A/CSTC-A officials, a high attrition rate is the primary challenge the ANA faces in meeting its present goal of growing the force to 171,600 personnel by October 2011. For instance, in the 12-month period from November 2009 to October 2010, the ANA lost over 30,000 soldiers due to attrition. This means that, in addition to the recruits needed to grow the force, the ANA also had to recruit 30,000 soldiers to fill these vacant slots. NTM-A/CSTC-A plans have accounted for the need to achieve this additional recruiting, noting that in order to grow from the July 2010 force size of just over 134,000 to the 171,600 goal—an increase of about 37,000— the ANA will need to recruit and train over 86,000 personnel.

Additionally, absenteeism remains a challenge to fielding an ANA force as planned. Specifically, IJC data indicate that the number of ANA present for duty continues to fall below the number of ANA assigned to units. In September 2010, for example, IJC reported that, across the ANA, only 69 percent of soldiers were present for duty. In some units, such as the 215th Corps in southwestern Afghanistan, the ratio of present for duty was even lower. An analysis of data provided by IJC indicates that, from January to September 2010, on average, over a quarter of the ANA was absent during any given month.

There clearly is more gaming of the numbers here by Petraeus and his cronies. They do allow for losses due to “attrition”, which they define as absences longer than 45 days for enlisted soldiers. And yet, despite the low-sounding 1.2% per month loss due to attrition, the real absentee rate is nearly 25 times that level, with over a quarter of ANA forces missing at any one time.

And with all this training aimed at the ANA eventually being responsible for Afghan security on its own, how are we doing on the key issue of independent functioning? From the very next page of the report:

The Afghan government and international community have set an objective of having the Afghan army and police lead and conduct security operations in all Afghan provinces by the end of 2014. As of September 2010, no ANA unit was assessed by IJC as capable of conducting its mission independent of coalition assistance.

Despite the awesomeness of the great Petraeus and his fabled training capability, not a single ANA unit is capable of independent operation. Perhaps that 25% absentee rate has something to do with that…

Since this report is so devastating to Petraeus, there had to be some effort to give him a way to escape accountability for his profound failure. I think that he will hide behind this part of the report, where it is shown that there are not enough trainers present, from page 25 of the report (page 30 of the pdf):

NTM-A/CSTC-A documentation specifies that 1,495 instructors are needed to train the ANA as it grows to 171,600.26 However, as of November 2010, about 18 percent (275 of 1,495) of instructor positions were unfilled and lacked pledges to fill them, as shown in figure 10. Furthermore, out of instructor positions that NTM-A/CSTC-A has identified as critical priorities, about 36 percent (101 of 281) were unfilled and lacked pledges. Officials with NTM-A/CSTC-A and the U.S. Mission to NATO cited several causes for the shortage of instructors, including low levels of political support for the Afghan mission in some NATO countries and the potential difficulty of financially supporting a troop presence abroad during the current global economic downturn.

As if these failures are not enough, DoD has not even come up with an estimate of how much funding will be needed to keep ANA forces functioning after “training” is complete, despite the fact that the IMF has concluded that Afghanistan will not be able to fund its forces on its own prior to 2023 (page 30 of the report, 35 of the pdf):

DOD budget documentation indicates that, beyond the $7.5 billion requested in fiscal year 2011, no additional funding is needed to support the ANA’s growth to 171,600. According to NTM-A/CSTC-A, once the ANA reaches its current end goal, which has an October 2011 target date, the focus of funding efforts will turn to sustainment activities, such as salary payments and equipment replacement. However, as of August 2010, neither DOD nor NATO had completed an analysis of how much future funding will be needed to sustain the ANA.

Finally, toward the end of the report, there is an indirect admission that efforts in Afghanistan are failing. The report indicates that the current goals for ANA training are likely too low (page 33 of report, 38 of pdf):

While NTM-A/CSTC-A and DOD documents state that any ANA growth beyond the current end goal is subject to approval of the international community, several DOD and NATO studies suggest that, even after the ANA reaches a size of 171,600, it may need to expand by nearly another 70,000 personnel in order to quell the insurgency.

Yep, that “in order to quell the insurgency” is the only acknowledgment that despite all of this ANA training and ISAF surging, violence levels are still on the rise.

Here are the conclusions reached in the report, following right after that observation that even more ANA forces will be needed:

The United States has identified July 2011 as the start date for the withdrawal of its combat troops from Afghanistan, following the beginning of the transition of security responsibilities to the Afghan government in early 2011—a transfer that the United States and its NATO allies have partners have made important progress in accelerating ANA growth. However, no ANA units have been assessed as capable of operating independent of coalition assistance, and a variety of challenges put the ANA’s continued growth and development at risk. Of particular concern is the ongoing shortfall in coalition training personnel, which continues to hamper the ANA’s ability to acquire skills it needs to become less dependent on coalition forces and begin assuming lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s security. Until this shortfall is addressed, the ability of the ANA to develop necessary capabilities will remain at risk.

Due to the Afghan government’s limited financial resources, international backing of the ANA will be needed for years to come—at least a decade, by some estimates—if the current course is to be maintained. However, neither DOD nor NATO has completed an analysis of the estimated future funding needed to sustain the ANA. Moreover, there are several indications that the ANA will need to grow beyond its current end goal of 171,600. Given the $20 billion the United States has already invested in ANA development and the additional $7.5 billion planned, it is vital that decision makers have information on future funding requirements. Without clarification of what additional ANA growth is needed, if any, and the associated funding requirements, as well as estimates of future ANA sustainment costs, decision makers will continue to lack key information to guide future investments and weigh potential alternatives.

The current plan is failing and there is a failure to plan for the stated method of exiting. Why is David Petraeus still in charge of this debacle?

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