Afghanistan's security forces are crippled by corruption, poor training and high attrition rates, senior British and US officials have revealed, casting doubt on the West's plan to leave the country within five years.
As Nato leaders rubber-stamped a strategy to transfer leadership for the fight against the Taliban to Afghan forces by the end of 2014, Western experts have complained that the vast majority of Afghanistan's police are untrained and do not even know the law.
A review of the past year by the head of the Nato Training Mission in Afghanistan (NTM-A), seen by The IoS, warned that the "transition" would not happen with the current shortfall of hundreds of experts needed to train the local police and army.
One of Britain's top representatives to Afghanistan has warned that, amid enduring suspicions over the reliability of local forces, Afghans are turning to the Taliban for justice.
Karen Pierce, the Foreign Office's special representative for Afghanistan, said the Taliban is providing a "very effective form of dispute resolution".
The grim assessment of the coalition's chances of an early exit emerged last night as the Nato summit in Lisbon was marked by conflict over the timing of the coalition withdrawal from Afghanistan. At the heart of the division was David Cameron's insistence that British troops will finish their mission by 2015 whatever happens, while other major countries declared that conditions on the ground would dictate their forces' actions.
President Hamid Karzai and Nato's Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, signed an agreement aimed at a transition to Afghan control of security by the end of 2014.
Mr Rasmussen said that the deal – witnessed by the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon – would see the Afghan people "once again become masters in their own house". At the same time, however, he maintained that the final handover depended on improvements in the capability of Afghan forces, stressing that Nato would not leave behind a "security vacuum" that could allow al-Qa'ida once again to use the country as a terrorist base.
However, a review commissioned by Lieutenant General William Caldwell, NTM-A commander, produced for the start of the conference last week, said that by last year the vast majority of Afghan National Police (ANP) still "did not know the law they were responsible to enforce".
His review, a damning admission of the failure of years of work and billions spent on training Afghan forces, added: "Not unexpectedly, most Afghans had come to view the ANP as lawless armed men, rather than trusted law enforcement officials."
Most of the 120,504-strong Afghan police force are the legacy of a past focus on "quantity over quality". The report stated: "Training standards were non-existent or so low that all trainees simply present on graduation day typically graduated." A combination of "unsustainable" levels of attrition and a shortage of instructors is putting plans for transition in jeopardy, according to the review.
It also reveals how illiteracy remains rife among rank-and-file Afghan army recruits, with barely one in 10 able to read and write, and that only 132 of 819 "critical" trainers are actually present for duty.
Lt Gen Caldwell's review baldly states: "Insufficient trainers and lack of specialised trainers delays transition... No trainers, no transition."
With the war in its 10th year, soaring levels of violence are adding to the political pressure for a face-saving exit strategy. Civilian and military casualties are at record levels despite the presence of about 150,000 foreign troops. And 100 British troops have died this year alone. Thousands of protesters took to the streets of London yesterday in a major demonstration calling for an end to the war.
The dire state of the Afghan police was laid bare by Kent Police's chief superintendent, Nigel Thomas, the former interim head of the EU's Afghan police mission. He told a House of Lords inquiry into the police mission how the Afghan force is riddled with corruption, and suffering attrition rates of 75 per cent. He said officers are given only six weeks' training – 95 per cent of which is "how to stay alive". Problems remain with local prosecutors being "bought off" and Taliban infiltration of the police. He added: "You have to accept there will be infiltration because of the easy access into an organisation desperate for numbers."
Chief Superintendent Thomas, who suggested Afghan officials used brutal interrogation techniques, also warned that it could take another decade just to get "rudimentary elements" of policing in Kabul – far beyond the 2014 date that politicians have set for a troop withdrawal.
In a warning about the endurance of the Taliban, Ms Pierce told the same inquiry: "There is a lot of evidence in the south that local communities who don't particularly look to the future would much rather have a clear answer from the Taliban than wait for a government official to look at the case and weigh both sides up in what we might think of as a fairer system."
Barack Obama said yesterday that America remained committed to the process of transition and Afghan forces taking the lead. But, he added, his job was to protect the American people. "It is hard to anticipate exactly what will be necessary to keep the American people safe as of 2014. I'll make that determination when I get there," he said. The US president pledged: "When the Afghans stand up and take the lead they will not be standing alone."
Ivo Daalder, the US ambassador to Nato, said the goal of transition by 2014 and the end of Nato's combat mission "are not one and the same".
Mr Cameron insisted that the withdrawal of UK combat troops in 2015 remained a "firm deadline". He added: "The commitment we have entered into today to transfer the lead responsibility for security to the Afghan government by the end of 2014 will pave the way for British combat troops to be out of Afghanistan by 2015." Asked whether he would pull British troops out while US forces went on fighting, he said: "We are working closely with our closest ally and we will go on doing that. But... I couldn't be more clear about what 2015 is and what it means."