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Sarah Holewinski

Sarah Holewinski

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Driving Afghanistan: The Winding Road to an Afghan Takeover

Posted: 05/16/11 02:32 PM ET

I wouldn't drive a car without working brakes. And I need a wheel to steer, and a speedometer to tell me when I'm not following the speed limit.

Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will assume responsibility for the security and stability of their own country by 2014. But as a big moving vehicle ramping up to a high speed, it's missing some of the major controls it needs to protect its own population and not cause even more harm.

New findings from a group of nonprofit organizations active in Afghanistan (including my own) make clear that violations of human rights and humanitarian law threaten to leave Afghan civilians at risk and without recourse after U.S. and allied troops begin to leave. The violations we're talking about include night raids carried out without adequate precautions to protect civilians, the recruitment and sexual abuse of children, mistreatment during detention, and the killing and abuse of civilians by local police -- most of which are carried out without any accountability.

Civilians are also very likely to be unintentionally harmed in the midst of firefights with the Taliban. Even now, Afghan forces are causing about 10 percent of the "collateral damage" Afghans suffer. That's only likely to go up once the ANSF is in charge. On this count, U.S. and international forces have learned some hard lessons. They now know that they need to track casualties and keep data, to investigate when something has gone wrong, to explain what happened to the Afghan public and to make amends in a culturally appropriate way for losses like deaths and injuries and homes destroyed. As one example, many nations now offer compensation along with an explanation for civilian losses. They do all this because Afghans expect recognition and help when they're harmed, not silence or denials.

But Afghan forces have few of these systems. An Afghan has no real way to lodge a complaint against his or her own military forces. Data tracking is just getting started and casualties are underreported, so Afghan troops still don't entirely know what harm they caused or where, or how to make sure it doesn't happen again. There is a nascent investigations team, but little follow up on prosecutions for wrongdoing or lessons learned. There is no fund for Afghan commanders to offer compensation from, for families who get tangled up in the fighting and endure tragic losses.

Serious efforts on the part of allied forces to build the ANSF into a professionalized force began in 2009 and nineteen countries have given over $2 billion to support and train them -- a sure sign of commitment, even if incredibly late in the game. But not even billions can ensure Afghan forces won't unduly harm their own people if the right systems aren't there.

It's time to get Afghan forces in gear.

Here are some suggestions.

A steering wheel. Where are we headed? Training is the best way to ensure the ANSF is going in the right direction, and it's not only about how to fire a weapon or engage with the Taliban. The police need more emphasis on good governance, the rule of law and accountability. The army needs more training on international laws, good rules of engagement and how to appropriately handle civilian casualties when they happen.

The Brakes. How can a wrong be rectified? Afghan personnel who abuse their authority or violate codes of conduct need to be held to account. This can be done first and foremost by providing more substantial political and financial support to government institutions and folks like the AIHRC (Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission) to receive and investigate complaints from ordinary Afghans. And, when recruiting for Afghan forces, they should be consistently vetted for violations of human rights.

A speedometer. How fast are we going? Here's where the right systems come into play, so that every action taken by the Afghan forces and its personnel is monitored and improved. The ANSF needs a proper data-tracking cell so it knows where it has caused harm, to whom, and how, including analysis so it can improve operations. It needs a code of conduct so it knows when personnel are not following the rules. It needs a compensation system, so that it can make amends for civilian losses. And every soldier or policeperson needs to know how to use all of these systems -- they need to know how to read the odometer -- so that operations don't get off track.

The transition to Afghan control is right around the corner, and the U.S. and its allies have a big stake in making sure it's smooth. I would go so far as to say the legitimacy and good sense of the decision to withdraw troops by 2014 is on the line.