Money alone won’t bring Afghanistan security

From Herat to Kabul, U.S. officials are announcing that billions of dollars will be pumped into training the Afghan military. The Pentagon is betting that with enough resources Afghanistan will be able to handle security and stability on its own by 2014, though International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander Gen. David Petraeus said in an ...

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

From Herat to Kabul, U.S. officials are announcing that billions of dollars will be pumped into training the Afghan military. The Pentagon is betting that with enough resources Afghanistan will be able to handle security and stability on its own by 2014, though International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander Gen. David Petraeus said in an interview this weekend that that deadline may not be met. These funds are important, but money alone won't prove the effectiveness of the Afghan National Security Forces to its toughest audience: the Afghan people.

The Afghan National Army in particular still gets high approval rates in Afghan opinion polls; but in order to maintain credibility with the local population, Afghan forces will need to prove first and foremost that they know how to avoid killing the people they've pledged to protect. Working with them to get there is the job of U.S. and allied trainers, who would be well-served to remember their own lessons learned over the last nine years.

Tens of thousands of Afghans have been killed, injured, or made homeless by the current conflict. International forces found out the hard way that civilian casualties (CIVCAS, in military parlance) cripple mission success -- creating anger and likely more insurgents too. Tactical directives from former ISAF commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal limited airstrikes to those deemed absolutely necessary, made lethal checkpoints less dangerous, and, for a time, reigned in the night raids that insulted the dignity of ordinary Afghans. Gen. Petraeus kept that momentum by instituting new trainings for U.S. forces on civilian protection and compensation for lost life and property damage.

From Herat to Kabul, U.S. officials are announcing that billions of dollars will be pumped into training the Afghan military. The Pentagon is betting that with enough resources Afghanistan will be able to handle security and stability on its own by 2014, though International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander Gen. David Petraeus said in an interview this weekend that that deadline may not be met. These funds are important, but money alone won’t prove the effectiveness of the Afghan National Security Forces to its toughest audience: the Afghan people.

The Afghan National Army in particular still gets high approval rates in Afghan opinion polls; but in order to maintain credibility with the local population, Afghan forces will need to prove first and foremost that they know how to avoid killing the people they’ve pledged to protect. Working with them to get there is the job of U.S. and allied trainers, who would be well-served to remember their own lessons learned over the last nine years.

Tens of thousands of Afghans have been killed, injured, or made homeless by the current conflict. International forces found out the hard way that civilian casualties (CIVCAS, in military parlance) cripple mission success — creating anger and likely more insurgents too. Tactical directives from former ISAF commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal limited airstrikes to those deemed absolutely necessary, made lethal checkpoints less dangerous, and, for a time, reigned in the night raids that insulted the dignity of ordinary Afghans. Gen. Petraeus kept that momentum by instituting new trainings for U.S. forces on civilian protection and compensation for lost life and property damage.

By contrast, Afghan forces receive little training on the laws of war (what training they do receive is thanks to the International Committee of the Red Cross). Afghan forces have no casualty tracking system and no way to investigate civilian harm, though the U.S. military learned the critical importance of analyzing "spot" reports — the initial descriptions of a combat event called into headquarters by a patrol — in Iraq to decrease civilian casualties in future incidents. And if something goes wrong during an operation, for example if a home is hit instead of an insurgent hideout, Afghan forces have no compensation to offer the family. As the number of angry victims grows, the significance of battle victories will shrink. If the United States and its allies don’t make civilian protection a top priority during this transfer of operations, they will lose their wager that they can responsibly step away from the conflict.  

How is an Afghan soldier to know who is a civilian and who is an insurgent? What should he do if he attacks the wrong house? These are the questions Afghan troops are asking the author’s organization, Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) and their international mentors, and rightly so. At one point, U.S. and other NATO soldiers were asking the author the same things. It’s one reason why, at the Counterinsurgency Academy in Kabul, international troops are now taught the proper rules of engagement, why civilian protection equals force protection and how to handle CIVCAS when they occur, step-by-step.

The Afghans now need that same kind of smart, strategic training to do their jobs. Three priorities will get them there.

First, Afghan forces need more trainers, and international forces must make sure that all those deployed are well-versed in ways to provide the Afghan population with the safety it understandably craves. There are approximately 30 percent more Afghan recruits this year than last, thanks in part to a much needed pay raise. But good quality trainers for the new recruits are in short supply; a shortage of 450 trainers doubled to 900 in May. Canada and Italy pledged trainers to make up the shortfall, and other nations must do the same.

Second, international forces must create civilian protection and casualty training tactics that are tailored for this conflict, not conflict in general. Especially in the earlier years of the war, international forces neglected the needs and views of the Afghan people, particularly the anger of civilians suffering combat losses. That mistake could easily be made again if training doesn’t focus on potential problems within the Afghan context. If, for example, only 18 percent of Afghan recruits can read, write, or recognize numbers, it’s worth investing in innovative ways for troops to perform their duties and promote accountability among their own people. Teaching illiterate Afghan soldiers how to file a compensation claim or initiate an investigation process for civilian harm is not only smart, it could be the difference between the long-term success against the Taliban and further instability across the country.

Finally, Afghan forces need the tools to do what they are being asked to do. Since there’s no compensation fund for innocent victims of Afghan and NATO operations, one must be created. Since there’s no civilian casualty tracking system, one must be created. International forces would also do well to practice what they preach. This means remembering that they are setting a precedent — and an example — and making sure that they themselves are protecting civilians and making amends for their mistakes.

None of this is rocket science, but it does take time, effort and political will from Washington and Kabul alike. In the handover of operations to the Afghan National Security Forces, hindsight must be used as foresight. Leaving local forces back at square one on civilian casualties condemns them to repeat the mistakes U.S. and international forces made for years, and worse still, condemns Afghan civilians to mourn more needless dead.

Sarah Holewinski is executive director of Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), a Washington-based group advocating for civilian victims of armed conflict.

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.