The Afghan elections marked a momentous step toward a peaceful transfer of power despite reports of fraud and attempts by the Karzai administration to influence the vote's outcome. But another contest, equally crucial to the future of the country, was also determined. In a second referendum decided April 5, in which ballots were cast in the form of bullets and bombs, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) demonstrated a remarkable ability to protect Afghan voters despite promises by the Taliban to "use all force" possible to derail the elections through violence, all in stark contrast to the 2009 Presidential election,. The ability to provide security for this election is a barometer for security in the country as a whole and the progress of the ANSF.
Violence in the days leading up to the 2009 Presidential election steadily increased, with several high profile attacks in the capital including the NATO headquarters and the Presidential Palace. The ANSF's swift and deliberate response mitigated the severity of similar attacks in the run up to this year's elections. According to Minister of Interior Omar Daoudzai, only 140 attacks occurred across the country, a drastic drop from the 500 attacks conducted during the 2009 election.
The improvement in both the quality and quantity of the ANSF is a noteworthy accomplishment among the myriad of changes since 2009. Activated shortly after the previous elections, the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A), led by LTG William Caldwell, signaled a renewed commitment to the professionalization of the ANSF. NTM-A helped to standardize training given to new soldiers, ultimately leading to the current Basic Warrior Training, a 12-week course instructed by Afghans that provides basic soldiering skills. Selected recruits also go on to attend Branch Schools and specialized training for non-commissioned officers. Officers attend the Afghan National Officer Academy, the so-called "Sandhurst in the Sand," modeled off the British Royal Military Academy. Policemen attend the eight-week Basic Patrolman course while non-commissioned officers attend various leadership courses.
During the past five years, while the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) surged forces into Afghanistan and focused on training, partnering, mentoring, as well as the final transition of security over to the Afghans, the ANSF has grown considerably in size and capability, thus enabling them to take the lead in providing security across the country. In July of 2009, 64,500 soldiers from ISAF augmented the 171,030 members of the ANSF. Since then, the ANSF has nearly doubled in size to 344,602 soldiers, and are supported by only 51,178 ISAF troops. As President Karzai announced the last phase of inteqal (transition) on June 18, 2013, the burden of combat operations was transferred to the ANSF. According to the November 2013 Report on Progress toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan, ANSF casualties increased by 79 percent, while ISAF casualties dropped by 59 percent from 2012 to 2013. While Afghan officials claimed that the casualty rates had risen only by 14 percent and 15 percent for the army and the police respectively, both sides agree that the uptick in casualties is the result of the ANSF taking the lead for security operations and continuing aggressive offensive combat operations to root out insurgents.
The ANSF has enjoyed widespread support and earned the trust of Afghans over the past decade. According to public-opinion polling done by the Asia Foundation, confidence in the Afghan National Army (ANA) has consistently remained at over 80 percent since 2006 with 88 percent of respondents expressing confidence in army according to the 2013 Survey of the Afghan People. While confidence in the Afghan National Police has fallen from its peak of 86 percent in 2006, it still remains high at 72 percent according to the 2013 survey, with a notable gap between rural and urban respondents, the latter responding 14 percentage points higher.
More importantly, in what appears to have been a shrewd strategic decision, ISAF troops stayed away from polling centers and refrained from conducting combat operations in order to ensure that the election would be "Afghan-owned," therefore countering Taliban accusations that the elections were "an American conspiracy." While logistics and maintenance are still daunting challenges for the ANSF, no doubt an area requiring sustained mentoring and training from the international community in the years to come, they now possess military equipment necessary to counter Taliban attacks.
What the ANSF did not do in the period leading up to and during the election was perhaps equally as important to the future of representative government in Afghanistan. It is particularly noteworthy that the ANSF steered clear of active involvement in politics, given the propensity for military coups and dominance of political affairs all too common in South Asia. No doubt the successful programs aimed at mentoring senior Afghan security officials, such as the Ministry of Defense Advisors Program and the AFPAK Hands Program, both designed to provide mentorship and advising to Afghan counterparts in similar positions, develop a cadre of military and senior civilian experts in Afghanistan, and forge long term relationships between American and Afghan defense officials, have contributed to the lack of politicization of the ANSF.
The ANSF still faces many obstacles before becoming a professional, modern force capable of providing the security that Afghanistan needs. But the recent elections highlight good reasons for optimism, especially in light of continued investment, mentorship, and training from the international community. As the Obama administration continues to weigh the size of the residual force to be left in Afghanistan pending the signature of the Bilateral Security Agreement, the recent performance of the ANSF in safeguarding the elections has provided credence to advisers advocating for a smaller force than the 10,000 previously considered to one possibly less than 5,000. Regardless of how the political elections are ultimately decided, it is clear that a vote of confidence was cast for the ANSF on April 5th.
Michael McBride is a former Ranger and Army Infantry Officer who deployed three times to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. He is currently finishing his M.A. in Security Studies from Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and works as a consultant for DoD.
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