Afghanistan: danger that security may be lost in transition

Analysis: Political process, not troop juggling, is key to security

Afghan security officials attend a handover ceremony at a military academy on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Tuesday. Photograph: Rahmat Gul/AP Photo/

Afghan security officials attend a handover ceremony at a military academy on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Tuesday. Photograph: Rahmat Gul/AP Photo/

 

Following an official announcement by President Hamid Karzai, yesterday Nato forces in Afghanistan officially ‘transitioned’ security responsibility for the last tranche of the country’s provinces to its indigenous security forces.

This means the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF – the army and police) are now responsible for fighting the Taliban insurgency in some of the most volatile provinces in Afghanistan, such as Helmand, Kandahar and Paktika. Yet many questions remain over these forces’ ability to maintain long-term security in these contested rural areas in the south and east.

Nato forces have undoubtedly delivered security progress at the operational level, and there has been a large increase in the size of the Afghan National Army (ANA) since the surge of 2009. However, many serious security problems remain, despite Nato asserting that the transition process remains on schedule.

Most worryingly, the Afghan surge has failed to defeat the insurgency. By contrast, the 2007 recommitment in Iraq reduced violence by about 70 per cent within five months. Most impartial analysts agree that the insurgency’s momentum has not been broken and that violence remains at a much higher level (about 39 per cent) than before the surge.

Even with the drawdown of Nato troops ongoing, the latest US Department of Defense statistics show the overall level of violence remains steady, with significant increases in some areas.

In short, Nato’s plan for transition may be on schedule, but it is highly questionable whether it is leaving behind a pacified Afghanistan. In fact, much of the country is far more dangerous than even in 2008, when the war was in its seventh year.

The long-term sustainability of the ANA is also in doubt. The current rate of attrition in the army is officially 2 per cent per month, or over 24 per cent every year. Such a high attrition rate is simply unsustainable, and is likely to get worse as coalition troops withdraw and ANA units take the lead in combat operations.

Moreover, while Nato asserts that the Afghan army is now leading over 80 per cent of all operations, there is little mention that in the last year it lowered the criteria for the classification of ANA units as capable of independent operations, thereby presenting a better picture of ANA capabilities than exists.


Transition to what?
Thus, the key question is ‘transition to what exactly’? Given the wider context of the West’s mission in Afghanistan, transition is not an end in itself. Much, therefore, rests on the prospects for a negotiated peace settlement.

President Karzai’s announcement yesterday that he will boycott any negotiations with the insurgency has stalled the nascent peace process before it has begun.

This move is likely aimed at reasserting his control over the recently announced US-Taliban peace talks in Qatar, and thus should delay rather than derail the process.

Negotiations will be protracted and difficult, not least because both sides remain committed to fighting and the insurgency itself is heavily divided. Yet a political settlement, not transition to Afghan forces, is the only way to achieve any semblance of long-term security.

Patrick Bury served with the British army in Helmand province, Afghanistan, and is the author of Callsign Hades.

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