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Security Transition in Afghanistan

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
March 22, 2011

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Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced that local security forces will take over (NYT) control in the provinces of Bamiyan, Panjshir, and much of Kabul, and in the cities of Herat, Lashkar Gah, Mehterlam, and Mazar-e-Sharif from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) beginning in July. The handover is considered a crucial step toward full assumption of control by Afghan forces, scheduled to be completed by the end of 2014. Experts say these areas have been relatively stable (al-Jazeera) compared with the rest of the country. The initial handover will coincide with the start of a drawdown in the one hundred thousand-strong contingent of U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan, though the number of U.S. soldiers leaving (LAT) is expected to be a token amount.

Bolstering Afghanistan's security forces has been the centerpiece of U.S. transition strategy. Since 2002, the United States has provided more than $27 billion (Reuters) for training and equipping those security forces, and the administration is seeking $12.8 billion from Congress for 2012. In recent testimony to Congress, General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, said the Afghan forces had grown both in quality and quantity.

But a November 2010 report from the International Crisis Group (ICG) questions improvement in quality. It argues that Afghan national security forces have been a poor match for the Taliban and both "military and police remain dangerously fragmented and highly politicized." Many Afghans, including members of parliament and Afghan police and armed forces, question the ability of national security forces (DeutscheWelle) to take over from international troops.

There is little consensus among analysts on whether the international community is gaining against the Taliban and if the U.S. counterinsurgency campaign is working to enable transition. RAND corporation's Seth Jones calls the U.S. troop surge since last year in Afghanistan a success (ForeignPolicy), but Thomas Ruttig of the independent Afghanistan Analysts' Network disagrees. Plus, as this Council on Foreign Relations Crisis Guide notes, Pakistan's cooperation in tackling terrorist sanctuaries on its soil--which so far has been questionable--remains crucial to any long-term security in Afghanistan.

Widespread corruption and lack of governance and accountability at the local level--some factors fueling insurgency--also hobble any effective transition. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently admitted that a "vacuum of governance remains in key areas." A durable transition, he said, will require "conditions that foster the reintegration and reconciliation of former insurgents."

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called continuing tension between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches over the status of parliament (AP) a major obstacle to Afghan transition. The Karzai government's failure to reach an agreement with the international community on how to solve the crisis at its biggest bank--the Kabul Bank embattled by mismanagement and cronyism (NewYorker)--threatens to trigger a wider crisis in the financial system (FT) and impact donor aid.

Lack of trust between the United States and the Afghan government further hinders cooperation on important issues. "U.S. President Barack Obama and his administration plainly do not trust the Afghan leader (ForeignPolicy), or even much like him," writes Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid. The latest incident certain to stoke tensions between U.S. forces and the Afghan government and its people are published photographs of U.S. soldiers grinning over the corpses of Afghan civilians (BBC) they allegedly killed.

"Overcoming the trust deficit between the Afghan government, the Afghan people, and the international community will rely on more concerted efforts to increase political representation (PDF), to expand access to justice, and to confront corruption" recommends the ICG report, which argues that without addressing these, the situation in Afghanistan is unlikely to change.

Additional Analysis:

In two Foreign Affairs articles, experts Robert Blackwill and Paul Miller debate whether the United States should pull back faster or stay longer.

Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation writes that despite the enormous level of government corruption and the Taliban's resurgence in parts of the country, Afghan recovery and progress (TIME) is taking place.

Background:

A new report by the UN and Afghanistan's independent human rights commission finds that civilian casualties grew (PDF) in 2010 with 2,777 deaths, a 15 percent increase compared to 2009.

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