KABUL, Afghanistan — There is a whole new crowd of "security actors" on the Afghan scene.
Known, variously, as "militias," "arbakai," "defenders" and even the chillingly euphemistic “guardians,” these groups are springing up with U.S. funding and assistance in some of Afghanistan’s most unstable areas.
But, according to international experts on policing, the new quasi-military actors are more window dressing than actual additions to the security environment. They are intended to create the perception of improvement more than a real solution to a deteriorating security situation. These entities artificially boost numbers on the ground and allow local leaders to boast that they have matters well in hand.
But, in fact, some of the latest initiatives may actually make things worse, by bringing active insurgents into the government, by giving weapons and authority to barely trained local residents who may have personal scores to settle, and by further degrading the already fragile trust the population has in its government.
According to the Congressional Research Report released in March, more than half of the more than $50 billion in U.S. aid that has gone to Afghanistan has been spent on training and equipping the Afghan armed forces. The Afghan police alone have consumed more than $6 billion since 2002.
But the results have been far from satisfactory, according to numerous sources.
The United Institute of Peace issued a special report in August 2009, called “Afghanistan’s Police: The Weak Link in Security Sector Reform.” According to author Robert M. Perito, “Despite the impressive growth in numbers, the expenditure of $10 billion in international police assistance, and the involvement of the United States, the European Union, and multiple donors, the ANP is riddled with corruption and generally unable to protect Afghan citizens, control crime, or deal with the growing insurgency.”
The total number of officers on the ground is far below target, the quality of these forces is debatable, and retention rates are at rock-bottom.
The Afghan Public Protection Program is a once-promising plan to apply community-watch principles to fighting the Taliban. But after nearly two years of a pilot program that has been restricted to one province, AP3 has stalled badly.
The Local Defense Initiative, sometimes called the Community Defense Initiative, seeks to capitalize on local grievances to mobilize opposition to the Taliban. Under the tutelage of U.S. Special Forces, tribal groups who pledge to fight the insurgency receive training and promises of generous assistance projects.
This program has already resulted in intra-tribal conflict in Nangahar province, and Afghan experts warn that it could well create the preconditions for civil war.
Security experts are worried that the alphabet soup of acronyms for all these different militias simply spells trouble. They believe the forces are part of a growing effort by the United States and its allies to construct an aura of stability, no matter how illusory, that will hold long enough for them to begin to disengage. Handing guns and power to local strongmen and their henchmen may cool things down for a few months or even a year, but in the long run the foreign community may be setting in motion forces that could contribute to renewed violence in the country once the international forces are gone.
The Afghanistan NGO Safety office, an organization that provides information and advice to non-governmental actors in Afghanistan, gave a grim evaluation of this new approach in its first quarterly report for 2010.
“Our best assessment is that the International Military Forces (IMF) are indeed serious about implementing an exit strategy … likely by the end of 2011,” writes safety office Director Nic Lee, who has worked in Afghanistan for more than 10 years. “We note that IMF have made their withdrawal contingent on being able to demonstrate two key metrics, or conditions, being a degraded armed opposition and an improved Government security force. We assess, perhaps cynically, that there is an awareness that neither of these conditions can be genuinely extant by that time and so strategies to create the perception of them are being pursued instead.”
The U.S. troop surge is being employed to accomplish the first of these goals — assuring that the insurgency is no longer a threat to the Afghan government. Well-publicized offensives such as Operation Moshtarak in Helmand in February, and the upcoming offensive in Kandahar are being hyped as tide-turning battles that will break the back of the Taliban.
In order to reach the second “metric” — an improved Afghan security force — the U.S. and its allies seem to be desperately casting around for ways to boost the numbers.
“The simple plan is to outfit Government troops at a ‘minimally combat essential’ level and transfer lead security responsibility as soon as possible,” continues Lee. “We are concerned that the intense devolution of authority occurring during this period could seed new rounds of factional conflict after the withdrawal.”
Part of the problem is the commonly perceived failure of the police-training programs that have cost the United States more than $6 billion since 2002.
Some of the kinder terms that have been used to describe the program are "fiasco," "train wreck" and "joke."
The Defense Department acknowledged the problem in an audit by the Office of the Inspector General, released in January. It documented inadequate training, poor project oversight and deficient financial management as some of the reasons for the lack of success.
Gordon Heddel, the Defense Department's inspector general, was grilled by a Senate subcommittee in April, and openly admitted that the project was far from ideal.
"Everything that could go wrong here, has gone wrong," he told the committee.
The police are still seen by the majority of the population as inept and corrupt; in many provinces it is the predations of the police that often drive local people to support the insurgency.
According to NATO figures, more than 100,000 police officers have been trained. But the number of “boots on the ground” is likely to be much smaller. Retention is quite low, with an estimated two-thirds of recruits dropping out before the end of training, and 24 percent of those who complete the course leaving each year.
Many run away after their first paycheck, only to re-enlist under a different name and in a different village once their money runs out. Still others, say security experts, contribute their new skills and weapons to the Taliban.
The reverse is also true — several tragic incidents have sparked fears that the Taliban are sending their fighters into the Afghan police, to eat away at the structure from within.
Last fall in Helmand Province, in Afghanistan’s insurgency-riddled south, an Afghan policeman took up an automatic weapon and killed five British soldiers before escaping; the incident added to suspicions that the Afghan police was being infiltrated.
Target figures for Afghan police are in the neighborhood of 170,000 by fall of 2011; given the poor performance so far, it seems highly unlikely that the United States and its allies can meet that goal.
So alternatives are being sought. The Afghan Public Protection Program and Local Defense Initiative are seen as a way to bridge the gap — although those who have studied Afghanistan and know it well are not optimistic that the new programs will bear fruit.
As one security expert put it, “They are looking for somebody — anybody — on whom they can pin the sheriff’s badge so they can get the hell out of Dodge.”
War by other means: a series
Part 1: Aid as a weapon
Part 3: Guardians of Wardak
Part 4: The law of unintended consequences