The security challenges in Afghanistan were underscored this weekend when three people were killed by Taliban insurgents during an assassination attempt on Afghan President Hamid Karzai at a military parade in Kabul.
As Deputy Commanding General of the Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan (CSTC-A), almost no one understands the security challenges better than Brigadier General Andrew Twomey. CSTC-A has been tasked with reforming the Afghan National Army and Afghan police to deter terrorism and strengthen rule of law in the country.
Just two days prior to the attempt on Karzai’s life, General Twomey spoke with Mark Hemingway at National Review Online to get a sense of what progress is being made toward stability in Afghanistan. Twomey was upbeat and optimistic, though he acknowledged that challenges remain, as evidenced by the events of this weekend.
NRO: As it relates to your particular training mission, of building up the army and police, what progress is being made?
GEN. TWOMEY: From our perspective and my particular command, being responsible for the development and growth of the army and police forces, I am very positive about the direction of both of those organizations, although nothing in Afghanistan is without challenges and bumps. The [Afghan] army’s at just under 60,000 on a path to grow to 80,000. We’ll hit 70,000 in October of this year, which is a couple of months earlier than when the original projection and program was built.
The units are beginning to mature. A year ago, we probably had somewhere around 30-odd battalions in the field. They were probably manned at about 70- or 80-percent strength and equipped at about the same level. I think as we get to the summer this year, we’ll have double that number but more importantly, we’ve reached the maturity in the organization where they’ll be 100 percent manned and they’ll have 100 percent of their equipment. So for this summer I am really looking for the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force — the NATO-led security and development mission in Afghanistan] to be encouraging them to plan on using the Afghans, putting the Afghans in the lead, and letting the Afghans get into the fight. I am convinced that they are ready, willing and able to be there. So I’m pretty positive about that program.
NRO: A lot has been made of the success of Military Transition Teams (a team of 10 to 15 soldiers that live and train with Iraqi Security forces of Afghan National Army forces). How’s that program going?
TWOMEY: There have been training teams from both the U.S. teams — and NATO puts out an analog to those teams — the NATO acronym is Operational Mentor Liaison Team or OMLT. Right now those teams serve both as trainers for the Afghans but, equally important, they are the connection to the NATO operational structure so that’s the way the Afghans get fire support, it’s the way they get close air, it’s the way they get Medivac, it’s the way they get intelligence.
So I think the teams are doing well. I don’t know how we would do it without them. We’ve also focused them over the last year on the training of Afghan battalions to perform combat tasks. We’re moving to a phase now over the course of the summer in which we’ve certified our first battalion or validated our first battalion as reaching what we call “capability milestone one.” That means it’s passed a series of checks that says that battalion is manned but, more importantly, it has performed a certain number of tasks in combat and performed them successfully. We have about 11 more battalions in line to go through that same process so the teams are making a difference.
NRO: Speaking of NATO — how helpful have NATO forces been in Afghanistan?
TWOMEY: Well, it’s easy when you’re out fighting, you’re deployed, to find things going wrong. That’s sort of the nature of conflict. We [the U.S.] have about half the forces on the ground and NATO has the other half. So I think the British and Canadians and other key contributors are certainly making a difference. We are certainly seeking additional support and contributions. But the soldiers who are there in their particular neck of the woods are making a difference.
NRO: And speaking of key contributors, French Prime Minister Sarkozy recently deployed extra 700 troops to Afghanistan and made it clear he would not be willing to negotiate with the Taliban…
TWOMEY: I think they can help. We have some experience with French training teams and we’ve been working with them pretty closely for the last few months. I certainly think the French have capability. I don’t personally know where the numbers finally settled in terms of how many troops the French were contributing but there is plenty of work to go around. Assuming they’re contributing some standard size combat force, they’ll be of assistance.
NRO: How will the U.S. presidential transition in November effect the mission in Afghanistan?
TWOMEY: That calls for wild speculation on my part. Obviously I don’t know. My inclination is that Afghanistan is going to remain an issue. I think that the United States has expressed a strategic commitment. I think that unless you are willing to make what I would consider to be an overly optimistic forecast about the nature of the region, the frontier region in Pakistan, there is going to continue to be a threat not only to Afghanistan but potentially to the United States from that region. I think it’s in our core interest to …. assist the Afghans in stabilizing their own country and I think we’re on a path to do that. I assume that that will continue to be a direction of U.S. policy.
NRO: What’s been going on in Afghanistan that media has not been reporting on, or are underplaying?
TWOMEY: The Afghan police are typically reported as corrupt. About six months from now, folks are going to wake up and realize things are changing. We’ve been able to pull together a number of different programs, particularly a program we call Focus District Development. We’ve gone into some 20-odd districts and completely reformed the police force. It’s taking time, but by the end of this year, we’re probably going to work our way through about 50 districts. I’m optimistic that’s going to make a tremendous impact both in terms of security but more broadly in terms of Afghanistan viewing itself as a nation.
Aside from progress with the police, the maturing of the army and the confidence that the people of Afghanistan have in the Army as a national institution is really something. The perception of Afghanistan is that it is engaged in tribal conflicts of the sort that we saw either in Bosnia, with Serbs hating Croats, or that which we see in Iraq in the sense of Sunnis versus Shia. The leadership and people in Afghanistan have walked away from some of that, even though there are certainly still suspicions among the Hazari, Tajik, Pashtun peoples.
But the Afghan army is an ethnically balanced force and the leadership has been committed to that. As a result, in the public opinion — we do longitudinal public-opinion polling — the Afghan people rate the Afghan army as the most respected institution in the country. They look to the army as a source of pride in Afghanistan and a source of stability. All of that is the core of what you need to start really building a nation, of having people identify as Afghans versus identifying as tribes. It won’t have happened over night — it’s going to have happened because a number of years have been spent building institutions, but folks are going to wake up one day and say, “Holy Cow. All of a sudden, this thing turned into a nation.”