I’ve never been a big proponent of attempts to “sell” the success of the Afghan National Security Forces, especially the National Police. That is because, while we can all point to individual examples of certain units succeeding, by and large we have no sense of how well the police are doing—and, worryingly, we have lots of stories about how badly they’re doing in terms of operational readiness and retention (pdf).
This came up in February when General Caldwell, who runs the training mission in Kabul, wrote a long op-ed about how well his training mission is going. He did so by pointing, exclusively, to recruitment numbers. My sense, at the time, was that recruitment numbers don’t really tell you much about your training effectiveness, operational capacity, and overall effect on the war or on certain operations. Recruitment numbers are part of it, but by no means all.
It is an important concept to keep in mind: as the commander of the effort, Caldwell has every incentive to portray his efforts as successful, just as he is under no obligation to highlight his failures for public consumption. This is true at all levels of command, and it is why I get so frustrated at the obviously lopsided portrayals of the war by senior officers.
Anyway, now SIGAR has audited the ANP. And the story they tell is not very pretty:
U.S. auditors have found that the Afghan government cannot determine how many people work for its national police force, whose payroll is primarily funded by the United States and other international donors, making it difficult to determine whether the money is being properly spent.
The audit found a 10 percent difference in records and databases maintained by the Ministry of Interior, which runs the police. The various record-keeping systems showed that as of Sept. 30, 2010, the size of the force ranged from 111,774 to 125,218 personnel.
“The Ministry of Interior cannot accurately determine the actual number of personnel that work for ANP because it has been unable to reconcile its personnel records with ANP personnel available for work,” the report said.
This is, to put it bluntly, basic record keeping that shouldn’t be a challenge in the year 2011. Not even in Afghanistan, which has computers and people who know how to use them (and is supported, very generously, by international donors including the U.S.). In an appendix to the report (pdf), one of Caldwell’s subordinates urges SIGAR to stop holding the Afghan Ministry of the Interior to western accounting standards. This is an understandable concern, however it’s not really relevant: we have had ten years for training, record-keeping, and so on. That the Afghan Police still don’t operate in a minimally effective way is a stinging indictment not of them, but of the people training them—which is, by sheer weight of cash, the United States and the UNDP. The focus on computers and automation strikes me as deeply misguided: the Afghans trying to administer the program need to start with the basics of record-keeping and administration, not complicated electronic systems that might not even be relevant to the effort.
As we ponder General Petraeus’ strategy of building Afghan security forces as an exit strategy, concerns about the Afghan security forces will mount. However, this audit—and these concerns about administrative failures—still doesn’t speak to the ANP’s effectiveness. And it is here that the house of cards starts to teeter a bit. Despite, or perhaps because of, our inability to track who is serving and who is drawing a paycheck, we cannot guarantee that the ANP will perform effectively when required to. That remains the real scandal at the heart of the training mission—and the heart of why our chosen path toward success is more fraught than we seem willing to admit.