Assessing the ANDSF: The Intangibles

By Jason Criss Howk

10 February 2019

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Note: primary sources for this assessment of the ANDSF are the Dec 2018 DOD report Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan, recent SIGAR reports, and discussions and surveys with members of the ANDSF. 

Before giving this briefing at the CENTCOM Afghanistan Conflict Analysis Conference, I was able to review the brief with the Afghan Deputy Minister of Defense for Intelligence, the Afghan Defense Attaché to the US, and the Afghan Army SDO at CENTCOM.  Their clarifications and insights have been added to the verbiage of this report.

While I tried my best to explain how the Afghans see themselves, all mistakes in reporting are mine alone. All photos and slides are DOD, ANDSF, or personal. If I inadvertently used your photo please send me your credit details and I will give you full credit.


If you have ever introduced yourself to an Afghan, you quickly realize…things in Afghanistan take a while.  To say Good morning and exchange names is a 2 minute flurry of hello, good morning, how are you, how is your family etc.

We should not be surprised that building a new Afghanistan national defense and security force (the ANDSF) has taken a bit of time. I would remind us to be patient and think long-term about Afghan security as we develop draw-down plans.  There is no need to rush to disaster. Taking a long view during peace processes is highly advisable.

“I told those dedicated workers for peace and reconciliation that they should not be tempted to give up on their crucial work because of the frustrations of seemingly not making any significant progress, that in our experience nothing was wasted, for when the time was right it would all come together and, looking back, people would realise what a critical contribution they had made. They were part of the cosmic movement towards unity, towards reconciliation, that has existed from the beginning of time”

  -Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Northern Ireland, 1998

Today I want you to think about how far the ANDSF has come since 2002.  I watched the first battalions march off the parade field from the basic training center at KMTC (Kabul Military Training Center) and I watched the first infantry company deploy on combat patrol in Eastern Afghanistan.

I have had the opportunity to watch the Afghan Army and other forces grow over the last 16 plus years and I want to share the progress I have seen. This brief is an effort to show you how the Afghans see themselves, to help them tell their story…the good and the bad.


I believe the ANDSF is going to be the cornerstone of the Afghan peace process over the next few decades.

Its professionalism, competency, and will to fight must be sustained.


The ANDSF’s respect for the people and respect from the people differentiates it from the soviet era Afghan Army and the current enemies of the Afghan people.

We should not let it deteriorate into what we found in 2002 when we inspected the remnants of the Security Sector of Afghanistan.


I have looked at the ANDSF with a few different lenses.  First I used my Sergeant’s view of the force.  I put on my old beret as an Infantry Paratrooper and Sergeant. I wanted to look into the soul of the force and assess its will to fight, lethality, compassion, and professionalism.  I also looked at the role of the ANDSF in the upcoming Afghan peace process and used my experiences conducting defense, diplomatic, and intelligence missions in Afghanistan.

Finally I took my experience being involved in watching and creating reintegration, reconciliation, and peace policy in Afghanistan since 2002.  I wanted to assess where we are today and what options are known and what is unknowable.

The earlier images show where we began in 2002, in a bombed out facility littered with unexploded ordnance.  A tiny team was assembled in the US Embassy tasked with helping lead the establishment of a New Afghan Army.

The Office of Military Cooperation was augmented by a strategy and organization design team of coalition officers, US Special Forces “drill sergeants” and instructors, and our NATO and coalition partners serving in various training academies.

Our Afghan partners were a few crucial remaining officers from the previous Afghan Army and Afghan militia commanders-turned Ministry of Defense staff.


Before we look at the ANDSF lets quickly assess the Afghan war strategy since 2001 and admit where we stumbled and where we made wise adjustments.

I think first we might note that we all entered this war thinking it was going to be a quick in-and-out mission.  That we would remove the Taliban regime, hunt down Al Qaeda, and let the Afghans set up a new government…then move on.

I think a better mental model for this war might have been Colombia or Northern Ireland.  A long and steady journey that eventually (yet imperfectly) allows the government and security element to establish stability.


So this image might better explain where the Afghan government and US-led coalition has come since 2001 and what still lies ahead.


No war strategy can ever be transferred from one time to another, but clearly we can recognize that generational change will be required in Afghanistan.

Now lets look at some of the decisions made that have effected the outcome of this war. These are not all the mistakes of course but I feel these negatively impacted the war effort in a major way.  I would stress the last note, I am not completely convinced that at any point in time up to now, that any Afghan government or taliban leader could have pulled off durable peace talks.


Many of the early decisions have actually paid large dividends in ANDSF development, as well as some later wise choices.  The Afghan war strategy was drafted by committee over several years by Afghans, Americans, and NATO/UN partners.  Here are some areas where we made smarter choices.


These are the big takeaways I want to discuss, from my look at the ANDSF


I always give a quiz when I teach or brief

Who said this?


The person explaining this to then-MG Eikenberry was the soon to be Chief of Staff of the Afghan National Army Bismillah Mohammadi.  If you recall what he was doing in Kabul around the late summer of 2002, these words might surprise you.  But as I look back on this conversation, I think it points to the vision most of us didn’t know the Afghans possessed as we stumbled into their nation in 2001.  Bismillah (AKA BK) did what he said he would do and the ANDSF is better for it.  Luckily some amazing talents like General Karimi also stepped up to rebuild this most critical institution. For his early efforts building the ANA, and his steadfast staff work employing the new force, LTG Sher Mohammad Karimi would one day also become Chief of Army Staff of the Afghan National Army.

From my position as Aide to the Chief of the Office of Military Cooperation-Afghanistan, MG Karl Eikenberry, I got to watch the struggle between what he was tasked to achieve and the assets we had to work with. This next chart outlines what Secretary Rumsfeld tasked him to achieve.


The most critical task of these early days may have been to get the international community to support the afghan security sector.  For more insights on the security sector reform process see this monograph.

From these limited aims with even more limited resources just over 16 years ago, this is some of what evolved in the Afghan Security Sector.


If you had told me in 2002 that in less than 16 years the Afghan people would partner with the world to create these organizations and mechanisms I may not have believed you.

For those of us that remember the early days of trying to find functioning rifles, a 2nd canteen, and enough matching uniforms to get each unit to look alike…this is simply unimaginable in a 16 year time period.

It has taken a lot of hard work from the coalition and Afghan sides.

The initial decisions made to ensure quality over quantity so the Army would not immediate fail, seem to make more sense when you look at the larger quality force its cadres were able to build.


Above we assess the 4 major pillars of President Ghani’s 2016 roadmap to improve the ANDSF

The items in red show some major shifts in this effort:

The aviation successes continue to mount and as you will see later, this is a game-changing asset for the entire force. To have achieved these aviation milestones in less than 15 years while in constant combat is stunning.

The recent waves of retirement have removed older security leaders and made room for the promotion of the highly trained and educated members that have grown up in the post-2001 security forces.  This is a sign of professionalism of the Ministry and elected leaders.  These were unpopular and difficult retirement decisions and many other nations would have struggled to implement them.

The seriousness that the Afghans have now started to tackle corruption is encouraging and any proper analysis of this topic must try to capture the direction of this trend.

As you look at this set of data (all the numbers we will really cover) lets focus on the progress of accountability.


The new biometric system of enrollment has helped the ANDSF to get rid of the ghost soldier numbers in the ranks, which is a crucial part of counter-corruption.

The difference between the authorized strength total, the numbers believed to be in the ranks, and the numbers now recorded in APPS can be viewed in a few ways.  It is a positive move to discover the actual number of people ready to serve each day.  As LTG Hilal and I discussed last night, the number in APPS is actually about 2,000 below the on-hand number due to a shift of certain forces from MOI to MOD that have not been entered in APPS yet.  Much work to do, but APPS should be a useful tool in stamping out corruption.

As I looked at the attrition numbers I recall everyone believing the early attrition rate of 20% would destroy the Afghan Army right after it was built.

SO now that attrition rates are below 3% for the last couple years and we are still hearing folks scream that the sky is falling, I am not sure what to think.

(These attrition numbers are from a SIGAR report form Spring 2018 citing USFOR-A data.)

Clearly the Afghans didn’t get the memo about impending doom, as morale and recruiting continues to meet their needs.  As a side note I think we should remember that recruiting and retention is not just an Afghan Army concern, as the US Army in a nation of over 325 million failed to meet its recruiting goal last year.

While there is debate over the actual attrition numbers, especially given recent disclosures of Afghan losses by President Ghani, I think one takeaway from the losses, no matter what they are…the Afghan government forces are somehow sustaining morale despite losses and they have still not resorted to conscription to fill their ranks.  This is the opposite situation of the Soviet Era army.


I saw this image the other day from an Afghan soldier I follow on twitter.  You might have noticed how much this image looks like Afghanistan.  The representation of different genders, ethnic groups, military specialties, etc. are signs of professionalism.

More importantly we can see the generational shift that has taken place among Afghan women when you read the reply of the officer to my tweet. As her English is similar to my Dari I will summarize.


“we will push forward positively for one reason…to make the impossible possible for the next generation.”

These are the types of beliefs you hope your soldiers hold in their hearts.  You cant teach that hope, it must be developed from within.


Today the Afghan Aviation capability is in a place I did not envision in 2002.  To have this many available air frames and that many trained air crews means they can steadily take on combat aviation tasks from the coalition.

Things have progressed much since I was flown by elder civilian pilots, in the soviet era VIP model helo above.

A critical task of a modern and professional military is to ensure the families of the fallen are cared for.  This is an important step in Afghan progress.


I will share a moment in 2002 when my boss MG Eikenberry and I visited one of the first ANA casualties as he lay dying in a Kabul hospital.  We found a grieving father at his bedside who told us how proud he was to have his son serve his country.  He said he will be honored to say his son died for Afghanistan.

MG Eikenberry made a quick decision, knowing that no life insurance policy existed to compensate this father.  He took all the cash from his wallet (around $300) and told our interpreter to give it to the father, and to tell him it was the life insurance policy payment amount that we had allotted.  He did ensure that life insurance became a part of the new Army system, but he never asked for reimbursement for the cash he gave the father. I later watched Afghan generals tour hospitals in Southern Afghanistan and comfort the wounded in 2009.  Love for your soldiers is not a task you teach, it must be something a leader knows is the right thing to do, because he/she feels it.

A often missed assessment of the Security Sector in Afghanistan is the oversight role of the Afghan government.


After we started to build the Army in 2002, the OMC also worked to unify the former Afghan civil war participants around the idea of supporting and then overseeing the ANA.

This group of former-combatants has grown into their role as civilian over-watch of the Afghan uniformed forces.  This was not a foregone conclusion at the beginning and is an area we must watch.  Any long-term loss of interest in Security Sector oversight should be reported. Right now there is a robust and constant debate in the executive and legislative branch over the security sector.

These areas of improvement and “needs work” are a quick summary from multiple sources of where the ANDSF is today:


The next few slides are based on a targeted survey of mid-career ANDSF leaders who were selected for their maturity and honesty.


This is part of my effort to help those outside of the ANDSF to understand how they see themselves.


These focus on the intangible things that Armies develop, that are hard to teach and that must grow on their own.

As you have seen from these quotes and will see repeatedly on the next few slides the Afghan forces are confident, but do not have the aviation capability they need yet to go it alone.

Something that stood out to me is the feeling that they are better than their enemies and are more than willing to fight them in defense of the Afghan people.

(Green is good on these charts)



The questions about commanders taking care of soldiers gave me a response that shows another good intangible trait—honesty.  It also showed me that junior leaders are watching and assessing senior leaders, another good sign of a professionalizing force.

To quote the response you see represented in blue on the pie chart… “We still haven’t been issued our winter clothing and its cold, so ask my commander if he is taking care of his soldiers.”



While the ANDSF has units in various states of capability and morale, the following slide represents some of the key intangible traits many have developed since 2002.


Sustainment of the intangibles is critical.

No briefing would be complete without a few topics to keep an eye on over the next decade as the ANDSF comes to full functionality and self-sustainability.

The next slide highlights areas to watch and report.


I did not come up with this list of key negative changes on my own.  I went back to an earlier example of Afghan security forces spiraling into disaster.

If you have not read the Craig Karp reports from the 1980s about the Soviet era military and police, you should.


Craig was the political officer in the US Embassy Kabul after it reopened in 2001.  His observations of the Soviet era provide and very simple mirror in which to view the current ANDSF.

You will quickly note like I did that these two security forces are worlds apart and opposite in many valuable ways.  The most crucial way is in their popularity.  Today’s ANDSF holds a respect from the Afghan government and people that the Soviet era forces never gained.


Meanwhile the Taliban insurgent and criminal movement has the opposite reputation from the Afghan people than the Soviet era mujahedeen.

If you watch the Afghan press and Taliban spokesperson reports like I do you are probably not seeing any replication of the Karp report snippets I listed above.

Its not a forgone conclusion that those reverses wont occur, but this time the longer the war goes on the more likely the Afghan government forces will be strengthened and the Taliban more hated.

(I will post additional slides summarizing the Karp assessments at the end of this brief)

These are some of the recent events I believe have had an effect on the Afghan war.


If I had to make a list of the events I think can continue tipping the momentum of the war in the favor of the Afghan people and the coalition supporting the government and its military forces it would be these.


Getting the Afghan forces to see the value of staying on the offensive and to find a way to sustain that technique is a big step and an ongoing challenge.

While the overall responsibility for a successful conclusion to this Afghan war is in the hands of the Afghan people, I think there are some areas that the world can and likely should be helping with.


Finally, if I had to envision what an Afghan government victory might look like, it would include much of the following


Based on recent track-2 reports I would say you can remove the final three events for quite some time.

Pakistan has not likely changed its calculus yet and short of international financial pressure on them, they will likely continue to support their Taliban proxies and other violent organizations that are terrorizing South and Central Asia.

Closing remarks:

When I left MG John R. Vines 82nd Airborne Staff in 2002 he shook my hand and told me I was going to join the main effort in Kabul–building the Afghan Army.  He explained to me, then a 1LT, that America would not be able to stand down until the Afghans stood up.

The ANDSF will be the cornerstone of the upcoming peace talks. The Afghan people will lean hard on its most trusted institution.

We cannot let it falter.

I don’t believe this generation of young Afghans will go back to the dark days.

Stay ever alert for Afghan miracles like we witnessed at Bonn during the upcoming negotiations.

Additional information:

Further reading:



Read the Karp reports to help you understand what to watch in the ANDSF.

Read Ambassador Dobbins book about the Bonn 1 meeting to get an understanding about what might happen in Afghanistan when you get the Afghan government and the Taliban movement in the negotiation room.

Karp Report Summaries








Author Biography: Jason Criss Howk is a retired U.S. Army South Asia Foreign Area Officer that has worked on or in Afghanistan since 2002. He was an Aide to Major General Eikenberry, General McChrystal, and Sir LtGen Graeme Lamb and helped lead General Dunford’s preparation for ISAF command. He continues to write, speak, and teach about Afghanistan as well as assist young Afghan writers to publish their own views of Afghanistan. Follow him on twitter @jason_c_howk

How far the Afghan National Army and its partner forces have progressed is evident to me everyday…


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