Both Afghan Defence Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak [NYT] and NATO commander Gen. John Allen, earlier this month, concur that the Afghan National Security Forces can be reduced in size from 352,000 this year to 230,000 by 2017.
There is some wiggle room. Both generals acknowledge that the size of the force would be contingent upon the challenge faced from the strength of the rebellion. But this statement sounds like splitting hairs: it is difficult to sustain the claim that the Taliban is likely to be much weaker in 2014 than it will be late this year, a rather large gamble on the success of the surge.
I wonder where those 122,000 guys are going to go. Off on their own: that would be fun. Home, disarmed? Maybe; but disarmament, demobilization and reintegration hasn’t exactly been a stunning success in Afghanistan or elsewhere.
Where could President Karzai turn if US patronage doesn’t give him the force he thinks he needs to remain in power? His big lack would be cash. Conveniently, there are rather a lot of individuals in Afghanistan with access to a fair amount of that, and, also conveniently, they already pay a certain number of guys with guns. Karzai already gets along pretty well with them. Since Karzai is likely to depend on warlords all the more after 2014, where does this leave the 122,000 demobilized soldiers? Basically a glut on the labour market for force: a fairly straightforward recruitment base.
I suspect, then, that we may be seeing the outlines of a scenario similar to post-1989 Afghanistan under Najibullah, after the Soviet withdrawal: the army gradually declines and gets folded into militias. At the same time, the decline in the size of ANSF means that the central government will be less able to keep those militias in line through force. Najibullah had to grant all sorts of concessions to local militia leaders to keep them in his coalition, and in the end he still suffered major defection problems over the course of the next three years. Barnett Rubin’s The Fragmentation of Afghanistan and Abdulkader Sinno's Organizations at War give a really good rundown of that period, while Seth Jones has a recent reportindicating that the effectiveness of local militias in Afghanistan has depended on the strength of the central force. Of course, despite what Glenn Beck might tell you, the United States in 2014 is unlikely to be the Soviet Union in 1989. It should be able to sustain a much larger financial commitment much longer.
External support might represent moral hazard, inducing Karzai not to make institutional changes that might help over the long term. But the thing is, the logic of moral hazard here actually rests on the prospect that external support is effective in the short run. Karzai would prefer reliable security forces. Moral hazard just suggests that he’s interested in methods of getting those forces that are low-cost (to him, anyway).
To be clear, I’m just attempting to identify likely consequences, rather than deliver a definitive judgment about what NATO powers ought to do. That’s a decision that will have to account for considerably more than what will happen to the ANSF, such as the terms of negotiation with insurgents, perceptions among Afghans of NATO’s involvement, and the organization’s broader priorities.