The South Asia Channel

Giving Afghanistan a fighting chance

Will Afghanistan be ready for a 2014 transition? The International Crisis Group’s (ICG) October 2012 report on this question drew a significant amount of attention for its warnings about electoral and political strife that could envelop the country following the withdrawal of NATO combat troops (and large amounts of aid) by the end of 2014. ...

Aref Karimi/AFP/GettyImages
Aref Karimi/AFP/GettyImages

Will Afghanistan be ready for a 2014 transition? The International Crisis Group’s (ICG) October 2012 report on this question drew a significant amount of attention for its warnings about electoral and political strife that could envelop the country following the withdrawal of NATO combat troops (and large amounts of aid) by the end of 2014. Less attention was paid, however, to the ICG’s concerns about the state of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF, which consists of the army and police).

The report notes, "[a]s political competition heats up in the approach to the elections, there is a genuine risk that internecine competition between leaders of factions within the ANSF could lead not only to more green-on-blue incidents, but also to an increase in already high attrition rates and, in the worst case, disintegration of command and control soon after U.S. and NATO forces withdraw."

These warnings are even more concerning in light of the fact that the United States is pursing an inordinately military-heavy strategy in developing Afghanistan’s security forces. The current strategy focuses on capacity building and neglects the reinforcement of democratic principles that are necessary to ensure Afghanistan’s success: accountability, subordination to civilian authority, and respect for human rights, the law of armed conflict (LOAC), Afghan law, and the use of traditional justice. The United States must address these concerns by establishing parallel political and civilian tracks.

The goal of U.S. efforts vis-à-vis ANSF development appears straightforward: the U.S. strives to increase the capability of ANSF to sustain operations that ensure security, safeguard and establish governmental control, and combat terrorism. U.S. forces involved in ANSF development are focused on the skills ANSF need to confront armed opposition groups and crime. This translates into advice on targeting processes, the military decision-making process, law and order procedures, fire and maneuver, small unit tactics, etc. However, it is not apparent that U.S. policy and practice for this effort is taking into account the political, military, and social complexities involved in ANSF development; viewing it through the lens of security sector reform (SSR) helps to clarify this.

Just as is the case for foreign troops in Afghanistan, Afghan security forces can only succeed with the support of the civilian populace. How does U.S. assistance and advising take this need for acceptance into consideration, though? Moreover, how does it take into account the dire need to ensure that citizens can hold ANSF accountable for infractions that jeopardize such acceptance?

These are serious questions concerning U.S. efforts to develop ANSF and establish security. It appears that the United States does not have in place adequate doctrine, policies, or practices to monitor, report, and address ANSF progress with respect to complex matters of SSR and the professionalization of democratically controlled security forces. Such matters include the following:

  • Subordination and accountability of ANSF to civilian authorities;
  • Communication and relations between civil authorities and ANSF concerning political, security, and other matters that affect decision-making;
  • ANSF willingness to explore conflict mediation and mitigation, as well as reintegration of opposition fighters;
  • ANSF adherence to the LOAC, Afghan civil and military law, and human rights standards;
  • Corruption, fraud, waste, and abuse within ANSF;
  • ANSF effectiveness and readiness; and
  • Openness of ANSF to advice and assistance from their U.S. counterparts.

The current U.S. training strategy for the ANSF risks furthering the conflict in Afghanistan by creating capable security forces that civilian authorities and Afghan citizens ultimately are not able to hold accountable. The absence of accountability and democratic control in cases of U.S.-assisted security forces has led to corruption, sectarian strife, and human rights and LOAC violations, for example, as we have seen already in Afghanistan, as well as in Uzbekistan, El Salvador, Vietnam, Iraq, Nicaragua, and South Sudan.

The United Nations 2011 report on protection of civilians in Afghanistan shows that Afghanistan needs to establish a system that allows for the investigation of ANSF infractions, and establishing one that sets methods to hold agents of abuse accountable is an even more daunting effort. The history of U.S. security assistance demonstrates the importance of monitoring, reporting, and advising on accountability and subordination of the ANSF to civilian authority: if accountability and subordination are insufficient, Afghanistan risks returning to an era of civil war.

The same ramifications confront ‘shadow governments’ (i.e. Taliban local governments) that currently exist in Afghanistan when they do not reign in armed opposition groups sufficiently. Popular backlash against Taliban abuses, such as attacks on girls and the extrajudicial killings of mullahs, forces the Taliban to either discipline their fighters or deny responsibility. Just as the inability to control and hold accountable low-level fighters weakens support for the Taliban, the inability to control and hold accountable ANSF will weaken support for the Afghan government. It is essential that U.S. policy recognizes how the lack of transparency, accountability, and democratic control of security forces foments conflict.

The United States, however, cannot ensure Afghanistan will be properly equipped for accountability and control of ANSF if there is not a strong parallel political track between U.S. civilians working on the ANSF development effort and their Afghan counterparts. Things appear not to have changed much from Oxfam America’s 2009 report on U.S. security assistance, which pointed out that "[i]n Iraq and Afghanistan, reliance on the U.S. military and private contractors to plan and implement U.S. SSR efforts has strongly reinforced the focus on operational capacity over accountability to civilian authority and respect for human rights." Oxfam correctly highlights in its report that the "[Department of State] should remain the lead agency in SSR, with the Department of Defense (DoD) facilitating the development of professional and accountable armed forces that are under civilian authority."

Advising and assisting ANSF is not just a military endeavor-it involves a great deal of political involvement and oversight. With a policy that utilizes a parallel political track, the U.S. can direct advisory brigades and teams in providing information to appropriate civilian counterparts so that they can address complex political-military issues. The U.S. must establish a strong political component that is led by the U.S. Department of State and dedicated to monitoring, reporting, and advising on the above SSR concerns in Afghanistan.

Another issue that U.S. policy vis-à-vis ANSF development neglects is civil society’s involvement in the process. And because the conflict in Afghanistan is driven in part by Afghans’ lack of trust in their government, such neglect is egregious. The existing U.S. efforts to encourage confidence in ANSF are superficial, consisting of propaganda campaigns rather than civil activities that would foster organic support for ANSF. Just as there must be democratic structures and processes that allow the Afghan government to control and monitor its security forces, there must be external avenues that allow Afghan citizens to convey concerns that help shape ANSF development and operations. For instance, providing assistance to civil society’s involvement in these matters, such as building the ability of media to provide security sector oversight, encourages citizens to dialogue with their government and hold it responsible for its performance through the ballot box.

Educating Afghan media on their role in civil society as a ‘watch dog’ for security force infractions is a critical positive step toward countering a myriad of issues-intimidation, government framing of incidents, restriction of information, etc.-that can hinder media oversight. The United States needs to establish a parallel civilian track that looks to secure the involvement of Afghan citizens in oversight of the ANSF through media, advocacy organizations, discussions with civil representatives, and elections. Afghans’ use of elections to hold politicians responsible for the performance and control of domestic security forces is a clear demonstration of democratic accountability.

South Sudan-another test region for U.S. security assistance-provides a good example of what happens when security forces use overwhelming force in a nascent democracy, but citizens have no avenue to advocate for reform or hold their government accountable. When the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (the SPLA-South Sudan’s army) began to forcefully disarm militias in its historically restive Jonglei State-an effort that began in March 2012 and continues to date-the intervention resulted in numerous reported deaths, rapes, and extrajudicial killings, as well as a humanitarian crisis that persists to this day.

The SPLA’s efforts in Jonglei State have alienated many from the Government of South Sudan. And while the fallout was predictable, the residents’ inability to seek justice and security from the government is a failure for protection of civilians. Furthermore, it foments future conflict in South Sudan. Similar activity in Afghanistan would prove that Kabul and its forces are out of touch, not carrying out the will of the people, and essentially illegitimate.

As the United States looks toward a successful transition in 2014, it must address the above inadequacies if it hopes to provide Afghanistan with a fighting chance.

Ali A. Riazi is an advisor to NGOs and the U.S. government and military, with a focus on civilian protection, security sector reform, humanitarian affairs, and counter-terrorism. He served previously with the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office and the U.S. Marine Corps. He can be found at and

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