Even with the situation in Afghanistan deteriorating rapidly, causing a swelling in the ranks of the war’s opponents in NATO member states and beyond, there remains little doubt over what is at the core of the international community’s exit strategy. The development of the Afghan security sector, a process known as security sector reform (SSR), is widely viewed as the lynchpin of the counter-insurgency and stabilisation strategies in Afghanistan.

While NATO’s counter-insurgency approach is often summarised with the words ‘clear, shape, hold and build’, a more accurate description would end with the word transfer, signifying the transfer of security responsibility to the Afghan security establishment. That transfer of authority is the ultimate end state that will allow NATO soldiers to declare victory and leave Afghanistan.

The development of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) — the army, police and intelligence service — is the most celebrated element of the SSR agenda, but it also encompasses reforms of the justice and prison systems as well as the creation of governance structures to ensure that the sector is managed effectively and in line with democratic values and standards.

The significance of the SSR process is not lost on President Karzai, who has referred to it as the ‘basic pre-requisite to recreating the nation that today’s parents hope to leave to future generations’. In President Barack Obama’s December 2009 West Point Address in which he laid out his plan to stabilise Afghanistan through a troop and civilian surge, he explained that one of the primary missions of the US in Afghanistan was to ‘help create the conditions…to transfer responsibility to the Afghans’.

Despite the wide recognition of the importance of SSR for the future of Afghanistan — reflected also in the tremendous scale of the resource investment by the international community, some $30bn by 2010 — it has sputtered, experiencing more setbacks than clear-cut successes.

Understanding the Problem

A quick survey of the security sector illustrates the extent of the problem. The Afghan National Police is a basket case and the most dysfunctional institution in the country, viewed more as a threat by the population than a protector. The judiciary is deeply corrupt and incompetent, with many of the country’s judges either in the pockets of local powerbrokers or lacking any legal qualifications whatsoever. The shadowy intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, replete with its secret detention facilities and reputation for abuse, has largely evaded much-needed reforms. And the governance mechanisms and structures intended to provide some level of policy direction, accountability and transparency for the increasingly bloated security architecture remain immature, overmatched and under resourced.

Perhaps the one bright spot for the process, the Afghan National Army, has made significant strides and could potentially evolve into a competent fighting force, but still lacks the leadership and logistics to operate independently without NATO support.

It is not hard to trace the origins of this crisis when examining the development of the SSR process over the past nine years. The first two years of the process can be described as lost years, with very little meaningful investment and action, a result of an almost naïve assumption that the security situation would stabilise on its own and a general aversion to the type of grand state-building intervention that was needed, as epitomized by the much maligned ‘light footprint’ approach that was adopted.

Much of the massive influx of resources and attention that the process has received arrived after 2005 and represented a hurried US attempt to make up for lost time and reverse the damage done by early neglect.

This rush to get the SSR process on track, primarily by throwing money at it, has actually had the effect of distorting it. With the Taliban-led insurgency gaining momentum and US and NATO leaders eager and determined to get as many Afghans into the fight as possible, almost all of the resources for the process (over 95 per cent) have been channelled to the military and police, leaving programmes to reform the country’s courts and prisons, not to mention efforts to enhance the state’s capacity to oversee the security sector, grossly under resourced.

What this new approach left was something more akin to a Cold War-era train-and- equip programme, geared single mindedly to producing men with guns with little consideration to defining their role in the evolving democratic polity.

SSR or Train and Equip?

SSR has a very specific meaning: it is a holistic process recognizing the innate interdependencies between the various elements of the justice and security architecture. The main innovation of SSR as compared to previous models of security assistance is its emphasis on promoting good governance, effective oversight, and democratic civilian control.

What has emerged in Afghanistan under the aegis of SSR clearly isn’t SSR at all. But why is this relevant? Does it really matter that train-and-equip processes in Afghanistan are being advanced under the name of SSR? It matters because even the most tactically effective police and military institutions will be hard-pressed to establish state sovereignty, maintain the rule of law and provide an enabling environment for development without good courts, prisons and governance.

Moreover, history has shown that overweight, unaccountable security sectors in countries lacking political stability and democratic traditions can foster state abuses of the citizenry, the interference of security actors in politics and general instability. Creating security sectors more concerned with regime security than human security risks creating police states and blocking genuine human development.

Where does this leave Afghanistan, especially with NATO announcing that it will begin to transfer security responsibility for parts of the country to the Afghan state by the end of 2010?

Fortunately, the threat of Afghanistan evolving into a police state is minimal due, paradoxically, to the ineffectiveness of the programmes to develop the security forces.

Unfortunately, the more likely scenario is that the army and police, deeply fragmented along ethnic and factional lines, will disintegrate in the face of a major crisis or challenge to state authority, such as the withdrawal of NATO forces, with most soldiers returning to their home communities and militias weapons in hand, much the same as what happened when the army of the communist Najibullah regime disintegrated in the early 1990s.

This will only heighten the prospects of another round of civil conflict, with no side — neither the Taliban nor the various Northern Alliance groupings — possessing the capability to swiftly assert control of the country.

Averting Failure

Failure in Afghanistan appears increasingly likely with each passing day. The counter-insurgency strategy and Obama’s surge have been met with an escalation of Taliban insurgency activity rather than a decline, with casualty figures reaching record highs in 2010.

The divide between the Karzai administration and Washington appears to be widening, with the Afghan president appearing increasingly aloof and impotent to combat corruption and cronyism. This has occurred amidst a backdrop of growing frustration among the Afghan population over the lack of change and fraying donor political will to stay the course.

Overcoming these challenges will be difficult, but not impossible. In the SSR sphere a number of steps can be taken to right the ship and contribute to the prevention of the collapse, once again, of the Afghan state.

First, a largely apolitical approach has been taken to the SSR process to date. SSR is a highly political undertaking that creates clear winners and losers. Going forward, greater attention must be paid first to understanding the political dimensions of SSR, such as the domination of the Afghan National Army senior leadership by Tajiks linked to the Shura-i Nezar faction, and then to shape a more sustainable political consensus or bargain around the process among Afghanistan’s main powerbrokers.

The process has simply not been oriented to comprehensively understand and shape the political circumstances and conditions surrounding SSR, meaning the reformers have effectively been operating in the dark, leaving them vulnerable to manipulation. Engaging the political environment requires the investment of donor political capital which key donors have not always displayed the willingness or savvy to do.

Second, SSR is a long-term process of institutional change that is ill-equipped to serve as a cog in a counter-insurgency machine. However, that is increasingly how it is framed by NATO and Afghan military planners. An assembly-line mentality has seemingly gripped the process, with reformers treating it as a mechanism to get Afghan soldiers and police from the recruiting office to the training ground to the frontlines as quickly as possible.

Not only does this focus deprive other areas of the SSR agenda of vital resources, but any military or police specialist will tell you that sending young soldiers and police directly into action without the necessary mentoring and opportunities to acclimate to their duties, is counterproductive and can undermine skill consolidation and morale.

Reflecting the extent to which the SSR agenda is tethered to the counter-insurgency campaign, as the insurgency has intensified, the training period for Afghan recruits has been correspondingly reduced, reaching a low of six weeks for the police in 2010 (down from nine weeks in previous years and significantly lower than the twelve weeks provided to Iraqi police).  

Lessening police training as the going gets tough may seem counter-intuitive, but quantity over quality has been a guiding logic of ANSF development. The SSR process as a whole has also become progressively more militarised, with the police being viewed more as ‘little soldiers’ rather than community guardians.

To halt this phenomenon, which has further eroded the already meagre level of public trust in the police and state, SSR stakeholders must commit to providing a long-term security umbrella for the process. This means keeping NATO troops in the country for as long as it takes to develop the ANSF, so they can train, mentor and relieve some security pressure on the nascent forces.

Third, the international community must commit to sustaining the Afghan security forces for the foreseeable future. One of the most potent criticisms of the SSR strategy in Afghanistan is that it is financially unsustainable. The Afghan National Development Strategy stated the problem succinctly: ‘…the international community has imported models of security forces that impose costs Afghanistan may not be able to sustain’. No matter how you do the maths, the Afghan state will not be able to sustain the security sector being constructed for at least a decade.

Security expenditures in fiscal year 2009/10 were equivalent to 200 per cent of domestic revenue and this situation is not likely to improve markedly within the next five years. Underwriting an appropriately-sized Afghan security sector over the coming decade is a lot cheaper than keeping large numbers of NATO troops in the country, not to mention the human and political costs.  

Fourth, greater attention must be accorded to the forgotten aspects of the SSR process, namely the justice and prison systems as well as governance structures. This does not mean that massive amounts of resources from the army and police reform efforts should be re-allocated. Developing security forces is naturally a cost-intensive effort which has understandably been prioritised in a time of war; however, a greater infusion of resources is needed to jumpstart other key elements of the SSR agenda to ensure some commensurate progress.

A lack of balance in the sector coupled with a failure to build adequate governance and management systems can have a corrosive effect on all security and justice institutions, reducing their collective effectiveness.

Finally, greater attention needs to be placed on engaging informal and traditional actors, norms and structures in the security field. For instance, it is now widely accepted that upwards of 80% of disputes in the country are adjudicated in the informal justice system, through village shuras (councils) and jirgas (assembles), yet only a fraction of the resources spent on justice reform have been dedicated to understanding and working with these structures. This stems from a donor aversion to working with non-state systems (states, after all, are what we know) and the reticence of some Afghan elites to recognize the authority of sub-state structures that could act as a competitor to their authority.

There is tremendous potential to reconcile formal and informal structures, building a relationship of complementarity between them that exploits their comparative advantages. Unfortunately where donor states have overcome their aversion to working with the non-state it has tended to take the form of instrumentalizing militia groups. The approach of the US and other international stakeholders in this area has been to create or manufacture ostensibly traditional structures under titles such as the Afghan Public Protection Program or the Afghan National Auxiliary Police, rather than work with genuinely organic, locally legitimate bodies. The result has been predictably negative, with raised militias showing tendencies for unpredictability, ineffectiveness, and criminality.

Time is not on the side of the SSR process or the wider stabilisation enterprise. With states like Canada and the Netherlands set to pull out of Afghanistan in 2011 and the US intent on undertaking a broad strategic review to determine their future, the days of large-scale international engagement appear to be numbered.

If international support is drawn down on a substantial basis in 2011, the prospects for success on any level will be greatly reduced. If, on the other hand, the commitment by the US and other NATO member states remains, there is still hope. In either case, the SSR process will play a pivotal role in determining the future of Afghanistan.

The process has experienced setbacks but a partial strategic re-alignment is still feasible and could overcome many of the obstacles that have hindered the process.

Mark Sedra is a Senior Fellow at The Center for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, Canada.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.