Is bigger always better?

By Joanna Nathan The size of American forces in Afghanistan is currently the subject of heated debate with increasing calls by all sides for more roles to be turned over to Afghan forces apparently as a quick exit strategy. While it is the right approach, done properly and sustainably it will not be quick. And ...

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579542_091009_89938468a2.jpg

By Joanna Nathan

The size of American forces in Afghanistan is currently the subject of heated debate with increasing calls by all sides for more roles to be turned over to Afghan forces apparently as a quick exit strategy.

By Joanna Nathan

The size of American forces in Afghanistan is currently the subject of heated debate with increasing calls by all sides for more roles to be turned over to Afghan forces apparently as a quick exit strategy.

While it is the right approach, done properly and sustainably it will not be quick. And basic questions need to be properly debated first. How big should the Afghan security apparatus be? How should this be decided? And most importantly of all, what should the roles of the different services be?

In a country with no established population figures (Afghanistan’s Central Statistics Office estimates 25 million people and the CIA 33.5 million), as of May 2009 the Afghan National Army (ANA) was reported to have 87,000 troops with an authorized ceiling of 134,000. There were allegedly about 75,000 police by the end of 2008 with thousands more hired before the recent elections and the ceiling raised to 96,800.

Top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s review argues for 240,000 ANA and baldly states that the ANP is to grow to 160,000. No calculations behind these figures are set out, and this is well up from just two years ago when the aim was 70,000 ANA and 62,000 ANP.

In July this year it was assessed that only 24 of 559 ANP units were “fully capable” — although what makes them capable or not is unstated. Such assessments are conducted by the U.S. military largely through the framework of fighting the insurgency rather than the law enforcement focus that the population is crying out for.

In July an interesting report commissioned for the International Police Coordination Board chaired by the Minister of Interior and intended to coordinate all such issues with the international community recommended 136,000 ANP by March 2013. Even more importantly it emphasized the need for a focus on law enforcement by regular police with a separate gendarmerie but operating under a single chain of command.

The latter report was paid for by the European Commission, with Europe still holding nominal lead over international police reform efforts, even as U.S. programs dwarf theirs. That there are such separate reviews going on speaks volumes about international coordination.

 And as for the Afghan side? Far too little is heard from — and expected of — the ministers and heads of the services in clearly setting forth their goals and priorities to ensure a common understanding. A lack of basic agreed-upon frameworks to make such decisions leads to ministries simply shopping between donor nations for what they — or even that particular rotation — are willing to provide. Ceilings for numbers of security forces are incrementally raised with little demanded in terms of effectiveness measures. Various schemes for militias come and go, distracting resources and attention from the core issue of functional institutions.

The minister of interior Hanif Atmar is one of those pushing for a large increase in the number of police. But this focus on sheer quantity obscures the larger questions on quality — which both the International Crisis Group and the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) have long highlighted as the truly decisive factor. It has never been explained why, when the problem is that the police are ill-trained (eight weeks basic training if they are lucky), poorly vetted and unaccountable, how having even more police who have even less training, less vetting and less oversight will improve things. And where will a new generation of leadership to oversee the vast expansion spring from when officer training — rightly — takes three years?

The minister of defense General Abdurrahim Wardak also keeps demanding the size of his army be increased while apparently insisting it does not have a role in holding the areas “cleared” by international forces. It well may not have a role, but then why are the numbers forever being bumped up?

I see the most crucial position in the next cabinet as being that of National Security Advisor. Forget demands for the creation of new technocratic positions to somehow save Afghanistan. What is already in place needs to be made functional and accountable. The Afghan administration requires a clear, united position on what the threats are and what the different forces’ roles are in responding to them. According to the European-commissioned police report the last available national threat assessment was produced in 2005.

Afghanistan’s National Security Council has had large sums poured into it by the international community (much of that it must be said spent on “foreign advisors”) with little to show. This needs to be THE body where Afghan ministers come together to forge united security assessments and policy and then speak with one voice to the donor community.  To be successful the roles and sizes of the police, army and intelligence services need to be part of a widely agreed strategy looking beyond merely fighting rather than the result of continual closed-door haggling and ad hoc programs.

Joanna Nathan is currently undertaking a mid-career masters at Princeton University. She was the senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Kabul from 2005-2009, working on two policing reports: Reforming Afghanistan’s Police (2007) and Policing in Afghanistan: Still Searching for a Strategy (2008).

MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images

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