Afghan forces suffering unsustainable casualties: Top US General

LONDON: Afghanistan’s police and army are losing too many men in battle, and may need up to five more years of western support before they can fight independently, the top US and Nato commander in the country has told the Guardian.

General Joseph Dunford also said in an interview that it was too early to judge whether Nato had been right to end combat operations in Afghanistan this spring. Western forces have officially offered only training and support to the Afghan army and police during the brutal fighting season of the summer months.

Dunford admitted that Nato and Afghan commanders are concerned about Afghan casualty rates, which have regularly topped more than 100 dead a week. “I view it as serious, and so do all the commanders,” Dunford said. “I’m not assuming that those casualties are sustainable.”

The rapidly expanded security forces, now 350,000 strong, did not need help in basic battle skills, Dunford told the Guardian. But they still struggle to support themselves in areas varying from logistics and planning to intelligence-gathering and back-up from planes and helicopters in difficult battles.

Dunford’s comments highlighted an apparent rift between western politicians keen to wrap up a messy war that has cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars, and military commanders on the ground who are seeing a newly formed police force and army struggling against a hardened insurgency.

There is no firm end-date for the assistance however, and Dunford said western troops may need to stay in the country until as late as 2018 to tackle problems from the air force to intelligence.

“I look at Afghan security forces development as really kind of three to five years,” Dunford said. “That doesn’t mean they can’t do things today; I’m just talking about before they get to the standard where they may not need assistance and support any more.”

Dunford also did not rule out a combat role for Nato troops after 2014, particularly in the form of close air support,  the planes and helicopters that aid troops caught in fierce fighting, which is a capacity that Afghanistan is only starting to develop.

“There are three words in the mission: train, advise and assist. In a Nato context ‘assist’ would include things like providing combat support, which is specifically the aviation piece, and a policy decision would have to be made about that,” he said.”

Despite the shortfalls in police and army abilities, heavy security force casualties and a leap of about a quarter in civilian deaths and injuries in the first half of 2013, Dunford said the troops had defied the Taliban, who had started the summer aiming to crush the government’s spirit and will. “The Afghans actually have been resilient,” he said. “They have prevented the Taliban from accomplishing their goals. If you look at where the violence is occurring, 80% of the population is secured from violence.

However, Dunford said Afghan and Nato commanders were determined to make sure next year’s battles were less bloody for government forces by focusing on better leadership, planning, equipment and training. “There is a wide range of causes,  it’s not just enemy activity,” he said of the high death rate. “Some of it reflects a very busy summer, but some of it also reflects a force that is still developing capability.”