GAO On Afghanistan

By John Liang / January 27, 2011 at 6:00 PM

A new Government Accountability Office report released this morning notes that Afghanistan's National Army has reached the "interim" goal of 134,000 troops three months ahead of schedule.

"Officials cited increased recruitment of new soldiers and higher training capacity as factors that enabled the growth," GAO's report states. "The ANA has also generally achieved its goal of drawing proportionally from Afghanistan's major ethnic groups, with some key exceptions."

That said, Afghanistan's army still faces challenges, including "high rates of attrition -- the loss of soldiers from the force before they complete their contracts -- and absenteeism," according to the report. "In particular, high attrition could impact the ANA's ability to meet its end size goal of 171,600 by October 2011."

The international community and Afghanistan's government "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," GAO states. The report further notes:

As of September 2010, no ANA unit was assessed as capable of conducting its mission independent of coalition assistance. About two-thirds were assessed as effective with limited coalition support. Efforts to develop ANA capability have been challenged by difficulties in staffing leadership positions and a shortage of coalition trainers, including a shortfall of approximately 18 percent (275 of 1,495) of the personnel needed to provide instruction at ANA training facilities. Neither DOD nor NATO has completed an analysis of ANA sustainment costs. Such analysis is important given that, as of January 2010, the International Monetary Fund projected that it will take until at least 2023 for the Afghan government to raise sufficient revenues to cover its operating expenses, including those related to the army -- highlighting Afghanistan's continued dependence on external sources of funding. In addition, DOD and NATO studies indicate that growth of the ANA beyond the current end goal of 171,600 may be needed -- potentially up to a force size of 240,000 personnel. Any such growth will necessitate additional donor assistance.

Consequently, GAO:

. . . recommends that the Secretary of Defense, in conjunction with international partners, take steps to eliminate the shortage of trainers; clarify what ANA growth beyond the current end goal, if any, is needed; and develop estimates of the future funding needed to further grow and sustain the ANA. DOD concurred with GAO's recommendation regarding trainers.

In comments on an earlier GAO draft of the report, DOD "partially concurred with the need to develop growth and cost estimates for the ANA." Specifically, the department states in a letter included in the report that:

The department is currently evaluating potential growth of the ANA in 2012. To help inform that evaluation and future growth decisions, the department has prepared cost estimates to grow and sustain various ANA force levels. The necessary resources to support an eventual growth decision will be included in the department's upcoming budget submission and are regularly shared with our international partners to encourage them to contribute the necessary resources. Beyond 2012, it is difficult to speculate as to the exact overall ANA end-strength requirement and associated costs due to the large number of variables (e.g., size and composition of international forces, future security threat, and future capability of the ANA). Additionally, we note that the final end-strength of the ANA is not controlled by the DOD, but ultimately decided by the Government of Afghanistan and the international community through the Joint Coordination Monitoring Board process.

Earlier this week, Army Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, released a letter to his troops that included an assessment of the situation in that country in 2010:

Despite the achievements of 2010, there is much hard work to be done in 2011. And, as always in Afghanistan, the way ahead will be difficult. As President [Hamid] Karzai has made clear, the Kabul security bubble needs to be extended into neighboring provinces. The gains in the south and southwest have to be solidified, joined, and expanded. Areas of improved security in the east and west need to be connected and extended. And insurgent advances in recent years in the north and mountainous northeast must be halted and reversed.

To capitalize on the security gains we achieved in 2010, we will also have to maintain our support for Afghan-led efforts to establish governance that can earn the support of the people. We will have to sustain our work to enable Afghan institutions to improve basic services and to show the Afghan people that a brighter future lies in supporting the new Afghanistan rather than returning to the repressive, brutal days of the Taliban. Additionally, we will have to expand our efforts to help Afghan officials implement President Karzai's direction to combat corruption and the criminal patronage networks that undermine the development of Afghan institutions. In support of the latter effort, we will need to pursue initiatives to ensure that our contracting and procurement activities are part of the solution rather than a continuing part of the problem.