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Introducing expert comments on security, counter-terrorism and the Afghan state

Three experts in the field give their views on the security assistance provided to Afghanistan since 2001 and what lessons this provides for the future.

Published: 31 March 2021

Authors: Nigel Roberts, Ed Laws

The nature and extent of future international security support to Afghanistan is very uncertain, both because of a lack of substantive negotiations on the topic between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and because the new US administration has not yet announced its policy position on troop withdrawals and support levels. Lessons for Peace feels it is timely to reflect on the security assistance provided to Afghanistan since 2001, and to consider what has been learned both in Afghanistan and elsewhere. We have therefore asked three experts in the field to give their views, and we may follow these with further contributions.

All three writers agree that the enormous sums spent on the development of Afghanistan’s armed forces and police have not yielded what they were expected to, in large measure because serious governance failures have remained unaddressed. All three writers acknowledge that influencing policy and performance looks even more difficult with donor sponsorship in decline, and with an end to the US/NATO troop presence now in sight. Nonetheless, they also see scope for the international donor community to shape the future of Afghanistan’s police and armed forces. Doing so, however, will require clarity in objectives, and a more forthright insistence that the root causes of disappointing performance – corruption and nepotism – are seriously confronted.

Serious governance failures have remained unaddressed

In the first note in the series, Florian Weigand looks back at 20 years of US counter-terrorism (CT) and security strategy, arguing that the priority given to pursuing the war against the Taliban frequently undermined attempts to help build a legitimate, effective state. He illustrates this by reference to policing, where the focus on creating a paramilitary police force able to counter the Taliban both neglected citizens’ daily policing needs and exposed them to abuse and physical harm. Weigand recommends that future support to the police should focus on the long-term development of an effective, accountable civilian police force, and that military and CT functions should be performed by others. At the same time, donors should hold the police to account for human rights violations, abuse of authority and personal enrichment, and should no longer tolerate such behaviour as a cost of ‘winning the war’.

Donors should hold the police to account for human rights violations, abuse of authority and personal enrichment, and should no longer tolerate such behaviour as a cost of ‘winning the war’

In the second note, Jonathan Schroden concentrates on international support for Afghanistan’s armed forces. He describes the unpredicted evolution and expansion of both US and Afghan forces, in the face of the revived, intensifying Taliban opposition of the past 15 years. Looking back, he argues that considerable capacity gains have been made, but that severe issues of corruption and poor leadership remain and have undermined potential effectiveness – and that current levels of support are clearly unsustainable. He believes that the US for too long prioritised enhancing technical capabilities, often to the detriment of self-sustainability, while avoiding systemic command and administration deficiencies. He therefore recommends that the US concentrate its remaining leverage on developing high-quality national military leadership, as a way to both improve the effectiveness of the Afghan security forces and to enhance their sustainability.

Severe issues of corruption and poor leadership remain and have undermined potential effectiveness

In the third note, Andrew Watkins characterizes the CT experience in Afghanistan as unique, due to how intertwined it has become with major international state-building efforts. He believes that the Afghanistan experience has helped create a US/European consensus that successful CT requires a lighter footprint and greater agility – and that state-building objectives can cloud and complicate CT practice. He then describes an emerging challenge to the current US/Afghan CT partnership: with the US and NATO cutting back troop numbers and considering withdrawal, Afghan forces are likely to experience a strong and dangerous sense of abandonment. Watkins suggests north-eastern Syria may offer a useful perspective. A productive US CT partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has emerged after a period of muddled US policy and consequent feelings of betrayal by the SDF. He attributes the revival of the relationship to a prior history of trust between the SDF and US ground forces, and because the SDF had few other realistic options but to resume cooperation. He concludes that a full troop withdrawal could in fact open space for constructive dialogue on reform with the Afghan security forces, despite the potentially damaging impact that such withdrawal could cause, provided that adequate material support continues.

The Afghanistan experience has helped create a US/European consensus that successful CT requires a lighter footprint and greater agility

The expert insights will be released in chronological order over the next fortnight. Keep an eye out on the L4P Twitter account for release announcements.