WASHINGTON (AP) — America's war in Afghanistan, now in its 15th year, is long on official U.S. optimism about building a self-reliant Afghan army but short on convincing evidence that the goal will be reached anytime soon.
That is the backdrop to President Barack Obama's decision to extend the U.S. military mission beyond his last day in the White House, giving U.S. forces still more time to train and advise the Afghan army and keep up the hunt for remnants of the al-Qaida network, whose Sept. 11 attacks drew them to Afghanistan in 2001. Just last year Obama had said the outlook was so encouraging that only an embassy-based military oversight office would remain after January 2017.
It looks different now, and not as encouraging.
"The bottom line is, in key areas of the country, the security situation is still very fragile, and in some places there is risk of deterioration," Obama said Thursday in announcing what he called a calculated adjustment to his plan.
Supporters of prolonging the U.S. presence say it is necessary to secure Afghanistan's future and keep al-Qaida and other extremist groups at bay. Others question whether keeping nearly 10,000 U.S. troops there in 2016 and then holding at 5,500 troops beyond that will make a significant difference, given the uneven results from 14 years of efforts to build and professionalize an Afghan army and police force paid for largely by the United States.
This year the Pentagon spent $4.1 billion to train, equip and sustain the Afghan army and police. That is no ordinary package of assistance. It included feeding soldiers, paying their salaries and fueling their vehicles. The Pentagon is asking Congress for another $3.7 billion for the coming year.
No doubt the Afghan army has improved over the years, and its soldiers do not shy away from combat. But the army still suffers basic flaws. Just days ago the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell, told a congressional committee that Afghan forces are unable to fight without U.S. support, that "we have just started" creating an Afghan air force, and that "it will take time" to develop competent Afghan battle commanders.
But how much time? And at what cost? The U.S. already has spent about $65 billion on the training and equipping of Afghan forces, and it remains difficult to judge what that investment has bought. Year after year, in public statements and periodic updates to Congress, Pentagon officials have insisted the Afghan army and police were getting better, suggesting success was just around the corner if Americans would remain patient.
"Every day the Afghan security forces grow in capability and experience," a Pentagon spokesman asserted in October 2005.
"We have achieved great success with the Afghan National Army," a two-star general in charge of training said in October 2007.
"The capabilities of the Afghan National Army are improving steadily," and the police are "making steady progress," the Pentagon said in a June 2008 report to Congress. A year later a Pentagon update said the Afghan force "continued to improve its capability."
And in 2010 the Pentagon told Congress that growth and development of security forces "are among Afghanistan's most promising areas of progress."
One key shortcoming is Afghan military leadership, according to a Pentagon report of June 2015.
"Although some of these leaders are courageous and experienced fighters, they lack formal military education and are unable to lead a large, complex, and technology-enabled modern military force," it said.
The Afghans have progressed to the point where they do their own basic military training. What they still need from the U.S. is more high-end training, advising and mentoring as they attempt to tie together all elements of military operations, including the use of intelligence, against the Taliban.
In the last few years, as U.S. forces have shifted the combat role almost entirely to the Afghans, the Taliban have made new gains. Campbell, while acknowledging those gains, says the militants still cannot overthrow the government in Kabul. But earlier this month they surprised many by briefly capturing the key northern city of Kunduz.
The combat burden has taken a heavy toll on Afghan forces. Last fall a senior U.S. commander said Afghan troops were dying at a rate that was "not sustainable," and the combat losses have only accelerated this year, according to the Pentagon's latest report to Congress.
The high casualty rate, in turn, has left Afghan forces short-handed. Although the army is authorized to have 195,000 soldiers, it currently has only 173,000.
Overall losses to the force — known in military parlance as attrition and including those who do not re-enlist, are killed in battle or are dropped from the rolls after being AWOL for 30 days — is down slightly this year after averaging 2.1 percent per month last year. Even with the recent decline in attrition to 1.8 percent a month, the loss rates are so high they "pose challenges to creating a professional force," the Pentagon says.
Stephen Biddle, a George Washington University professor of political science who periodically advises American commanders, says the problem with the U.S. approach is that it has focused too narrowly on filling the Afghan forces' obvious gaps in soldiers, weapons, equipment and training. And he says this applies not just to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan but also in Iraq, Syria and other countries where U.S. forces have tried to build local forces.
"There has been a long series of these actually," Biddle said in an interview.