Our perceptions of the future of the Middle East and the ability of western states to influence events therein have shifted radically over the course of these historic months. President Obama proudly proclaimed after the fall of Mubarak that Egyptian citizen’s rights must now be irreversibly recognized and fair elections should be a priority. In the interim NATO has launched a significant intervention on behalf of anti-government rebel forces in Libya. These actions do however lie in stark contrast with existing policy in Afghanistan and raise interesting questions about NATO’s current approaches to state building operations.
While the streets of Kabul have not yet witnessed the kind of mass uprising seen across many states in the middle east, foreign policy analysts across the west will no doubt be harbouring growing concern about what exactly this transnational social movement may mean for their strategy in central Asia.
Specifically, as the horrific reports of violence perpetrated by increasingly desperate police and state security forces leak out from activists, journalists and bloggers in states such as Syria, Bahrain and Yemen it must be difficult for pro-Karzai NATO governments to see their project in the same light as before. Proclamations that ‘Security is the most necessary building block to development and prosperity’ is a typical headline oft seen at conferences on Afghan development, but surely even the most hawkish supporter of COIN must feel that, given current events, this long held truth may count for nought. The corner stone of NATO’s commitment to increasing ‘Afghanistan’s Security and Stability‘, has been, and continues to be, a massive investment in the type of state security apparatus against which the populations of countries across the middle east are currently bloodying their fists.
In 2008, the Department of Defence announced it had budgeted 20 Billion USD to double the size of Afghan security forces by 2012(p.27) to over 300,000, with the police growing from 95,000 to over 120,000 in just 12 months (although current existing forces may be a fraction of this number). At the time of writing, negotiations to increase the number by a further 70,000 are being spearheaded by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Levin, backed by top brass figures Mike Mullen, Robert Gates and David Petraeus. There is a wide appreciation in the security literature that these expansions are extraordinarily rapid and raise serious doubts about the extent to which what these forces will be fit for purpose in anything like the time frame NATO has set out.
Beyond the policy debates of the international security establishment, which is of little concern to the people living under the security system it designs (92% of respondents to a recent ICOS poll were unaware of the events of 9/11), lies a fundamental question of how this apparatus functions as a part of the Karzai state. Those with an interest in Afghanistan will be familiar with the torrents of accusations against the Afghan National Police (ANP) over corruption, abuse and unlawful killings. In the South, where NATO has its most rudimentary concerns with the establishment of a strong and effective security presence, distrust and hatred for the police is well documented.
Helmand and Kandahar in particular are areas that NATO has spent years trying to establish a strong presence for Afghan police and is also the area where that presence is most strongly resented. Current polls by the UN show less than half of Afghans in the South hold a positive view of the police in the region, a figure which has been decreasing for several years. My own experience in focus group analysis for populations in the area leads me to suspect even these figures might be ambitious as far as NATO is concerned.
Much has been made of the positive polling data from urban areas such as Kabul, which show 70-90% of respondents holding positive views of their local police force. This might be put down to progressive initiatives such as Kabul’s Family Response Unit (p.27) which aims to protect women from domestic violence (strange coming from an administration that gave constitutional legalisation to marital rape). Initiatives such as these might risk being described as ‘diplomat friendly’ in that they are nice demonstrations of progress for liberal statesmen and women visiting Kabul, while in rural Afghanistan support for the police plummets as allegations of abuse of power become depressingly systemic.
The Obama administration’s decision of October last to waive legal requirements to cut military assistance to Chad, DRC, Yemen and Sudan for use of child soldiers received some minor flak. But in Afghanistan, such a decision might not be seen as quite so shocking as there has long been quiet acquiescence for the use of child soldiers in the ANP and pro government militias, who use them for sex as well as fighting. The wikileaks revelation that green berets working as police trainers for Dyncorp have incurred similar child sex allegeations might prove problematic for the Obama administration, should an uncontrollable desire to do something about the practice arise.
Further accusations against the police stem from the fairly accurate observation that the basis for security in much of Afghanistan’s rural areas simply involves dressing the militias of various warlords in official uniform. This strategy has a big proponent in David Petraeus who is apparently attempting to bribe local resistance with money and guns, much as he did in Iraq (p.517).
Human Rights Watch has in the past rebuked President Karzai for fielding potential provincial police chiefs who had previously been barred from running for parliament, such was the strength of their links to illegal militias notorious for grave human rights abuses. The nepotism, cronyism and outright gangsterism involved in the politics of the police hierarchy in the south, especially in relation to Hamid Karzai, brother of the president, would be enough to make Vito Corleone blush. The result of this endemic corruption endows Afghans with a police service that is unaccountable, corrupt and capable of great violence towards the people it is supposed to serve.
Common complaints from populations living under the authority of Afghan policing bodies are that its low paid officers typically operate arrest-bribe-release rackets and those arrested commonly suffer inhuman treatment and torture. British high court judges recently upheld a ban on British forces delivering prisoners to Afghanistan’s secret police due to the likeliness that they would be subject to torture or serious mistreatment.
Perhaps then it is unsurprising that in rural areas, particularly in the south, people will if necessary turn to the Taliban for protection as they are seen not to tolerate this kind of rampant corruption. “For God’s sake, do not bring back the Afghan police”,was the cry of some locals in a small town in the Sangin district of Helmand after it had been secured by foreign troops. The people of the town expressed fear that if the ANP were allowed back they would continue to rob people and sexually assault young boys. It is indicative of why the UN study mentioned above shows that the police are almost as unpopular as the Taliban in the south.
Indeed, as a 2009 report for the UK’s Department For International Development found, by far the strongest factor driving young men to join either the Taliban or Hizb-i Islami was precisely this abuse of power. Specifically, corruption in government institutions and the failure of both the state and coalition forces to provide security and justice appear the strongest motivators in the areas of high insurgent activity studied.
As investigative journalists like Gareth Porter have extensively demonstrated, NATO’s command hierarchy has a difficult time claiming ignorance of these issues either nationally or locally. Their response to continuing allegations of brutality and corruption usually involves spending more money on further training. Or to put it in White Housespeak;“efforts to expedite reforms aimed at improving and expanding access to the formal justice sector by increasing capacity and reducing corruption in state justice institutions”.
It’s easy to suspect this is due to the extremely lucrative contracts available to those military contractors lobbying for expansion in security force training. The Department of Defence tends to accept bids on such contracts from pre-approved ‘vendors’ such as Xe (Blackwater), Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and ARINC Engineering Services (Carlyse Group subsidiary). Dyncorp has supplied the majority of training to the Afghan police for the last 7 years and has recently managed to secure a further 3 year contract worth up to 1.04 Billion USD, despite ample evidence of its failings.
The impetus behind expansion is a great deal more complicated than just straight corporate mercantilism, although its undoubtedly a beneficial side effect. The real goal in Afghanistan is the development of a vaguely stable region that provides NATO access to the Central Asia and the Middle East. In much the same way as Mubarak’s regime received consistent support with an obligatory hum of disquiet about democracy and human rights, the Karzai state will continue to have its centralised power structure normalised against the backdrop of liberal hand wringing about his legitimacy (until someone less distasteful is found).
The police play an extremely important role in the international legitimization of the Karzai state for two reasons. Firstly, and most practically, foreign forces see the police primarily as tools for counterinsurgency and thus, a means to reduce troop exposure in a deeply unpopular war. For most contributing states, popular support for continued operations in Afghanistan have declined to around 30-40%. The most recent study, by the US Army War College’s Charles Miller reaffirms previous work indicating that the strongest explanatory factor for this decline is troop death. This information is certainly nothing new to military strategists. Using a low paid, domestic security force to conduct operations, in tandem with foreign troops, helps absorb losses and has the potential to increase perceptions of progress and stability, therefore softening the gradient at which public support falls.
Secondly, the police are vital in any “exit strategy” from Afghanistan (exiting in this instance will almost certainly involve a very substantial military presence left behind) as they, along with the army, will provide security for the Afghan government. While the Taliban are not particularly well supported in North, they are increasingly more popular than the government in the South where they enjoy an average of 57% popular support (p.7). There are many hints that even these type of figures may be optimistic for NATO.
If, as an editor from the Atlantic Council put it, Petraeus runs his ‘COIN’ strategy by the book, the timetable for continued counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan could be 15-30 years. Extending Charles Miller’s study along this period leads one to the conclusion that a continued NATO counterinsurgency operation will need to fairly rapidly divest itself from actual troop exposure, relying instead on an independent militarized internal security system that can continue a prolonged ‘low intensity’ conflict. The greatest evidence for this lies in the aforementioned rapid development of internal security forces that can consolidate gains, and the huge increase in targeted killings by unmanned drones (which the UN has declared to be in violation of established legal principle).
In a way discussing the development of security apparatus like the ANP is not a discussion of how the war in Afghanistan is being pursued, as they are not the first line of attack against anti-state forces as far as NATO is concerned. But it does demonstrate what NATO planners see as being the end game for the Afghan war.
It seems accepted by NATO that any draw downs in deployed forces it may hope to make in the next few years depends entirely on the ability of Afghanistan’s security forces to protect the beleaguered governance structure NATO leaves behind from a Taliban resurgence. Even if, as many analysts expect, the US and UK finally agree to formal peace talks with the Taliban, they will still essentially be relying on the security forces they have set up to act as the enforcers for the pro-NATO elements of an Afghan coalition governing arrangement (although it is unlikely to be accepted by much of the population in the Taliban strongholds of the south).
The very least the US and UK governments expect from 10 years of military occupation in Afghanistan is a moderately stable and compliant partner which will be willing to provide NATO a base of operations for the South East Asian ‘theatre’. One can discern that the reason for such a great focus on the security apparatus of the state is a recognition of their best realistic scenario – they will be leaving Afghans to deal with the kind of permanent low level insurgency which is still tearing streets and communities apart in Iraq.
Ciaran Gillespie is a PhD student in the Department of Politics.