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Afghanistan: Winning the War or Building a State?

This blog looks back at 20 years of international intervention in Afghanistan’s security sector, arguing that the priority given to counter-terrorism objectives has frequently undermined attempts to help build a legitimate state that can protect its citizens.

Published: 31 March 2021

Authors: Florian Weigand

While building institutions and a functioning state in Afghanistan have been cited as key goals of the international community, the objective of ‘winning the war’ has frequently undermined the very state that was being built. This is particularly striking in the security sector, where institutions have been created with the narrow purpose of ‘defeating terrorism’, regardless of their impact on people’s security, instead of creating institutions that prioritize the security of the Afghan population.

The bulk of security forces in Afghanistan were established and trained to fight on the battlefield or to conduct more specialised ‘counter-terrorism’ operations. Meanwhile, civilian policing has been neglected. The Afghan National Police has little capacity to investigate crime or even large-scale attacks and is widely considered to be corrupt. To make matters worse, counter-terrorism operations often have detrimental consequences for the security of the civilian population.

Counter-terrorism operations often have detrimental consequences for the security of the civilian population.

In addition, the international community, believing that partnerships with strongmen and powerbrokers were required to ‘win the war’, has failed to call out the use of the security forces to pursue personal political and economic agendas. Ultimately, this approach has undermined the relationship between the Afghan state and its citizens.

Having traced this story from 2001 to the present, the blog concludes with some thoughts on how the international community can support statebuilding in Afghanistan in ways that prioritise the security of the Afghan people over short-term international counter-terrorism concerns.

Early failures in police reform

In 2001, following the international intervention in Afghanistan, most police officers were considered to be illiterate, untrained and ill-equipped. Under the lead-nation approach agreed in Geneva in 2002, Germany took responsibility for training the new Afghan National Police (ANP). Germany attempted to introduce a European-type civilian police training, including a three-year education for higher ranking officers and one-year training for officers in a middle rank scheme. However, with a comparatively small budget of USD 12 million, a team of merely twelve people, and a vision of long-term training, the initiative was unable to train large numbers of officers.

To quickly increase numbers, the US started its own well-funded, but much more militarized, police training. Most trainees were selected without vetting and received only a five-week course by untrained, English-speaking instructors of the private security company DynCorp, with poorly trained translators. The additional Focused District Development (FDD) initiative, launched in 2007, aimed at improving the training of police officers district by district, but instead further entrenched the militarized and enemy-centric approach to policing.

Only one of the eight weeks of the FDD training considered human rights, criminal investigations and the Afghan constitution. The remaining seven weeks focused on military skills. The civilian content was subsequently further reduced, and sessions on domestic violence and women’s rights were replaced with military training. Despite some later adjustments that followed criticism of Germany’s early training record, such as the creation of a European Police Mission in Afghanistan, no comprehensive effort has been made by the donor community to build a civilian police force.

The case of the police illustrates how the priority given to military fighting skewed the trajectory of state-building towards a state that can’t protect its citizens. The predominantly militarized approach to policing contributed to the state being unable to protect its citizens, and laid the foundation for challenges that persist until today. It has shaped citizens expectations of the police: the Afghan population is disappointed in the ANP as it has failed to deliver on the battlefield. Even worse, people are dissatisfied with the police for abusing power and neglecting crime.

The priority given to military fighting skewed the trajectory of state-building towards a state that can’t protect its citizens.

The Afghan National Police today

Lacking sufficient training to do actual police work, such as preventing and investigating crime, while also facing a growing insurgency threat, the ANP turned into an auxiliary army force, attempting to push back Taliban attacks in the countryside. Manning check points at the front lines, the ANP has suffered high casualties.

Meanwhile, crime is spiking in urban areas. In Kabul City, crime has turned into one of the most pressing concerns of the population, adding to the already fearful environment caused by assassinations, IED explosions and suicide attacks. According to a detailed analysis of the criminal networks in Kabul City by the Afghanistan Analysts Network, armed burglary, murders and other forms of violent crime are wide-spread, even in central neighbourhoods that were previously considered safe. The police have not only failed to tackle criminality, it often is part of the problem. The ANP is considered to be corrupt, often being perceived to be extractive rather than helpful by ordinary people.

In contrast to the army, the ANP offers income generation opportunities for police officers on all levels. It is widely assumed that large sums are paid for lucrative command positions within the ANP, which promises income through bribes. In some neighbourhoods, police are assumed to be working for powerbrokers or influential commanders.

Even in the case of large-scale attacks, detailed investigations are often not conducted, and the perpetrators and motives remain unclear – either because of a lack of capability or, perhaps even more concerning, because of political interference and an attempt to control the political narrative on attacks. For example, in June 2020 an attack in Kabul City on the Dashti Barchi maternity hospital killed 24 people. Following the attack, Doctors without Borders (MSF), which supported the hospital, closed it. MSF cited a lack of investigation of the incident by the Afghan government for the decision, yet the rationale for the attack remains unclear.

The inability of the security forces to protect people and to thoroughly investigate attacks, assassinations and violent crimes increasingly undermines support for the Afghan state, even in strongholds such as Kabul City.


Priority given to counterinsurgency objectives has subverted the Afghan state and the relationship with its citizens. An even more striking example is the Afghan Local Police (ALP) programme. The ALP was established in 2010, adding to an already highly fragmented policing landscape that includes the Afghan Uniform Police, the Afghan National Civil Order Force, and the Afghan Public Protection Police, among various other policing entities.

While being called ‘police’, the ALP was not actually designed and trained to do police work nor was it given such authority. Instead, the idea for the ALP evolved out of US-counterinsurgency doctrine during the surge, with the objective of fighting the Taliban in areas without a sufficient Afghan National Army presence. The US Department of Defense described the objective of the ALP as training ‘local Afghans in rural areas to defend their communities against threats from insurgents and other illegally-armed groups’.

While the ALP certainly was successful as a frontline-force against the Taliban in some cases, it was often co-opted by influential strongmen or commanders. As a consequence, in several instances the ALP turned predatory and abusive. Human Rights Watch documented such behaviour by various ALP units. For example, in Baghlan Province, a group of local Hezb-I Islami fighters were among the first ALP recruits and used their new authority and link to foreign forces to conduct various crimes, including the killing of a nine-year-old child.

The ALP programme was phased out in late 2020 without a concrete plan for how to demobilise the forces. Following the end of the programme, there is the additional risk of former ALP forces, armed but without an income, turning criminal or joining even less regulated forces. Meanwhile, the mobilization continues of even less regulated ‘Uprising Forces’ - local counterinsurgency forces supported through Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS).

In addition, informal militias that work for power brokers and strongmen for little pay, sometimes hired under false pretences, are re-emerging. The government’s new Security Charter Plan may even allow provincial authorities to make agreements with militias and to register them, creating a pathway for legally arming them in the future.

The ALP’s reputation for abusive behaviour in many communities has not only undermined support for the Afghan state but has also generated support for the Taliban.

Counterinsurgency without international military presence

Even though the ALP has ended and the international military presence in Afghanistan is winding down, US counterinsurgency objectives continue to shape the Afghan security sector. At Afghanistan’s intelligence agency NDS, the 0-units and the Khost Protection Force (KPF) are used for night raids and other operations against suspected insurgents. Even though these units are linked to the NDS, they are backed by the CIA, which recruits, equips and oversees them.

In the context of withdrawing international forces, the Afghan government has been increasingly relying on its own special forces to fight the Taliban. In 2017, the US authorised Afghan special forces to call in airstrikes. In this context, the influence of the CIA-backed NDS forces like the KPF grew. This is a trend that may continue as US troop numbers in Afghanistan are further reduced. While many will consider the CIA forces to be an important tool in the fight against the Taliban, their activities continue to have detrimental effects on the security of the Afghan population and therefore undermine trust in the Afghan state as a security provider.

Human Rights Watch has documented wide-spread abusive behaviour in the Afghan armed forces. In particular, the KPF was found to fatally shoot civilians during search operations. According to UNAMA’s Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict in 2019, ‘Search operations caused 360 civilian casualties (278 killed and 82 injured) with approximately three-quarters of the cases caused by NDS Special Forces, Shaheen Forces and the Khost Protection Force, all of whom are supported by international actors.’ In late March 2021, the KPF reportedly killed 20 civilians during an operation in Sabari District of Khost Province.

The scale and impunity of this behaviour not only undermines the trust in the Afghan state, it also directly pushes people into the arms of the Taliban.

The role of donors in shifting long-term thinking and support

Without a doubt, the Taliban currently are responsible for most civilian casualties in Afghanistan. However, we should also not ignore the failure of the international community and the Afghan government to build a state that can provide security for the Afghan population. The alternative is, at least in theory, simple: a long-term commitment of the international donor community to support building a state in Afghanistan that prioritises the security of its own citizens over short-term international counter-terrorism concerns.

However, the context is difficult after many years of enemy-centric thinking and trying to win a war at any cost. The donor community needs to review the fragmented policing landscape, especially the paramilitary and militia units, as well as the political economy that connects elements of the security sector to powerbrokers and strongmen. Furthermore, donors need to acknowledge that the forces they fund largely lack the ability to provide security for the Afghan public. The donor community needs to tackle human rights violations committed by the security forces, holding them accountable and considering demobilising units that have a history of particularly abusive behaviour. In addition, it needs to incentivise a clear division of responsibilities within the security sector, enabling the police to focus on civilian policing despite the ongoing armed conflict.

More substantially, the international donor community needs to move from an ad hoc approach to policing to a long-term development of civilian policing structures. This requires a long-term funding commitment by the donor community, coupled to mechanisms which ensure the police are used for civilian purposes only and are not drawn onto the battlefield or become the first line of defence.

Even in the context of declining international funding, the international community can contribute to improved security provision in Afghanistan by speaking out against human rights violations, abuse of authority and personal enrichment. Donors should hold accountable the people and institutions it is funding, instead of tolerating such behaviour as an unavoidable cost of ‘winning the war’.

The international donor community needs to move from an ad hoc approach to policing to a long-term development of civilian policing structures.

The donor community has been supporting a policing model that often causes civilian harm. In addition, because of the model’s counterinsurgency focus and political entanglements with strongmen and powerbrokers, the Taliban will likely try to dismantle it as and when they are able to influence policy.

What is needed is an approach to civilian policing that improves the safety of Afghanistan’s population by addressing violence, crime and community disputes, with less partisanship. This is not only more desirable in terms of the safety of the Afghan people, it is also more adaptable to changing political environments.

The configuration of the Afghan government and state may ultimately change, either through negotiations, through fighting on the battlefield, or through a combination of both, and incorporate the Taliban and at least some of their ideas. However, regardless of such changes, conflict and crime in Afghanistan are unlikely to end anytime soon. Hence, it remains crucial to support and build institutions that ensure safety and security for the Afghan public.

This is part 2 of our expert insight series.