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Mark Schneider Headshot

Wobbly Pillars Underpin Afghanistan Transition

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Last week in Chicago, NATO leaders pledged their support for a solid security transition strategy to take Afghanistan through 2014 and beyond. Unfortunately, three key pillars of their strategy are still more "paper mache" than concrete.

A successful security transition relies largely on the Afghan National Security Forces, army and police. The numbers are cited time and again, and most recently General John Allen said, "They'll reach their full surge strength (352,000) ahead of the scheduled deadline in October" when U.S. troops fall to pre-surge levels, around 68,000. The ANSF problem is not only reaching full strength -- despite attrition -- but how many of them threaten "green on blue" attacks where insurgents infiltrating Afghan troops or just angry troops attack allied soldiers. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR) has reported that those attacks are on the rise. The question also is how many troops will keep their allegiance to Kabul rather than their factional leaders as 2014 nears, and how many can actually do their job?

Backed by the remaining NATO forces, those forces should be able to deny the Taliban a military take-over of Kabul, provided the factionalized ANSF actually remains intact. The real test will be whether reconciliation talks truly reflect the concerns of all Afghan political actors and civil society, including representatives of the ethnic factions of the ANSF. The answer also depends on the quality of troops and the competence of their officers.

The April 30 Defense Department report to Congress is discouraging. Very few Afghan soldiers can read or write. None of the 47 offices of the Ministry of Defense are capable of autonomous operations. Five, including Ground Forces Command, the Afghan Air Force, Accountability and Transparency, and Intelligence Policy, received the worst possible rating of "cannot accomplish its mission" which underscores the flaws in over a decade of training with constantly altered metrics, contracting corruption, and $35 billion spent.

The DOD reports that none of the Army's field and HQ units can operate independently, and only 7 percent are capable of operating independently even with advisors. Of 38 high risk field operations launched by ISAF and ANSF forces over the last six months -- only one was ANSF-led. Even "medium risk" operations showed ANSF forces in the lead only a third of the time.

The police particularly are in dire shape. Fourteen of the Ministry of Interior's 30 units have earned the unenviable rating of not able to complete their mission without significant coalition assistance; a few unable even to function even with that aid. Many ANP units around the country are considered "under-equipped", with significant overall gaps in logistics sufficiency. They also continue to have the least partnering and mentoring coverage; 80 units don't have any international advisors whatsoever, and those numbers are likely to drop for both the police and the army as the U.S. and NATO sharply reduce forces over the next two years.

Of equal concern is the effort to compensate on the cheap with the "Afghan Local Police", (ALP) who are recruited and operate locally, but don't have any police training. Militias by another name, they have already been criticized by the U.N. and cited by the SIGAR for "reports of human rights abuses against civilians". A brutally honest assessment by DoD stated that "the program is heavily dependent on U.S. government funding and 'special forces' training, mentorship, and oversight." Crisis Group has gone further to warn that the ALP, when Special Forces are removed, becomes a big part of the security problem, not the solution.

The second pillar of the security strategy is more political. It requires an Afghan government that shows growing credibility, competence and inclusiveness. Unfortunately, even the strongest supporters of "staying the course" with Afghanistan as the transition approaches have a dismal view of the government's willingness to combat corruption. This view plays straight into the hands of the Taliban.

For example, the SIGAR report said the Afghan Attorney General's Office (AGO) has failed at prosecuting significant corruption cases, and the Major Crimes Task Force has made little progress in persuading the AGO to do so. It deemed the office designed to oversee anti-corruption 'ineffective'. It also charged that the country's laws were not living up to standards set in the U.N. Convention Against Corruption, anti-corruption tribunals have done little to counter corruption, and attempts to strengthen the Control and Audit office fell short in the National Assembly.

A successful transition requires the population feel a sense of progress. It is hard to make this case with the Karzai administration.

The final pillar is the one no one publicly mentioned in Chicago: the necessity for Pakistan to support the transition strategy by making it hard for the Taliban to recruit, equip and plan Afghan insurgent attacks across the border. The Pakistan military and ISI intelligence services provide sanctuary and support to the Haqqani insurgents, a fact that is stated over and over privately by U.S. military and diplomatic leaders, and every once in a while in frustration in public.

That network is the most militarily competent Afghan terrorist force -- with close ties to the remaining al Qaeda structure in Pakistan -- and repeatedly carries out vicious attacks in the center of Kabul -- killing Americans, Europeans, Afghan government and Afghan civilians. This quarter "UNAMA noted that civilian casualties had risen for the fifth year in a row... in 2011. The number of civilians killed during suicide attacks rose 80 percent."

The fact that the Taliban leadership of Mullah Omar also seems stunningly safe in Pakistan may be less consequential in military terms. However it underscores the spoiler nature of the Pakistan security apparatus if it feels its interests are not being protected.

It is a step forward that NATO leaders adopted a resolution committing to support the transition in the near term, and to help build security and development in Afghanistan over the long-term. However, the firm pillars necessary for the successful implementation of that strategy are clearly not yet in place.