Nearly every major U.S. plan for Afghanistan under serious consideration by the Obama administration as it deliberates its options involves some form of an expanded train-and-equip program for the Afghan security forces. General Stanley McChrystal’s leaked assessment calls for expanding the Afghan National Army to 240,000 and the Afghan National Police to 160,000. Influential lawmakers like Senator John Kerry (D-MA) and Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) — respectively the chairs of the Senate’s Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees — are skeptical of sending additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, but agree with McChrystal that the United States must rapidly build Afghanistan’s security forces.
With an apparent consensus on the need to train more Afghan security personnel more rapidly, it’s instructive to take a look at the United States’ smaller scale efforts to build security forces elsewhere in the Middle East. On Tuesday, I attended an event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Yezid Sayigh’s report on security sector reform in Palestine, Lebanon and Yemen. Sayigh’s presentation made several interesting points that should have a direct impact on U.S. decision makers and the implementers, most likely in the military, as they prepare for a larger train-and-equip effort in Afghanistan.
First, Sayigh noted that U.S. and EU efforts tend to have competing priorities — in the cases of Palestine, Lebanon, and Yemen, embedding security forces in a democratic rule of law framework versus building an effective counterterrorism force. In the cases he studied, Sayigh found that U.S. and EU efforts tend to focus on creating special counterterrorism units to the detriment of the rest of the security sector, and these new CT units are then prime targets for capture by political factions. Nicole Ball, a panelist at the event, later made the point that even solely CT-focused efforts wind up unsuccessful at achieving CT objective.
Second, success in building and reforming security sectors is possible when there is local ownership of the overall effort. As Sayigh told the attendees, “no amount of external coercion or bribery will work without local ownership.” He cites the relative success in reforming the Palestinian Authority’s security sector under Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad in 2007 and 2008.
These two main points have important implications for an expanded training effort in Afghanistan. The most important in my view is the need to get buy-in for the expanded effort from President Hamid Karzai and his new government, especially the defense ministry. Current Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak has long argued for a bigger Afghan army, and should he remain defense minister it’s likely he and his ministry will be on board with an expanded training mission. U.S. and NATO country diplomats should also work to make sure the opposition to Karzai, such as Abdullah Abdullah’s political faction, also support the new training program.
After buy-in is obtained, the United States will have to avoid Karzai politicizing the security sector. While Karzai has so far avoided overly politicizing Afghanistan’s national security forces, leaders with dubious legitimacy will always face the temptation to create regime protection forces loyal to themselves rather than professional security forces loyal to the state. U.S. and NATO diplomats and military trainers will have to work in tandem to ensure Karzai does not go down the path of security force politicization. Such politicization has occurred in Iraq, where former mayor Najim Abed al-Jabouri has stated entire divisions of the Iraqi army are beholden to the various political parties there. In addition, the United States needs to be careful to not let elite units like the ANA’s commando force become pawns in political jockeying in Kabul.
These largely political issues need to be considered by decision-makers here in Washington and implementers in the military as they embark on an expanded training effort. The key takeaway from our much smaller-scale efforts in Palestine, Lebanon, and Yemen is that these political issues can make or break a training effort, and are therefore integral to success. Fortunately, Afghans regard the ANP and ANA generally positively, and Karzai has shown little inclination toward politicizing them so far. The key for the United States is to keep its eyes open for signs of politicization and make sure Karzai and other Afghan government and political figures stay bought-in to the expanded training program. This task may be difficult, but it’s not insurmountable.