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Biggest hurdle

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezDecember 3, 2014

Just weeks before most foreign combat troops leave Afghanistan, a wave of violence has hit the country, adding to concerns over the ability of local forces to provide security. DW discusses the issue with Jason Campbell.

Afghanistan Polizei Ausbildung
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo

As NATO foreign ministers formally prepare to launch a new training and support mission in Afghanistan, violence is sweeping across the South Asian nation. Taliban militants have stepped up their attacks on the Afghan capital, with about a dozen assaults over the past two weeks. Moreover, in less than a week, four foreigners have been killed including a British Embassy employee.

After 13 years, the ISAF mission in Afghanistan will come to an end by December 31, 2014, and a residual force (likely to be 12,000 strong) is set to remain in the country after this year. Reports suggest that besides training the Afghan security forces and conducting counterterrorism raids, US troops will also be allowed to engage Taliban fighters under new guidelines approved by US President Barack Obama.

NATO's new Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently said that while there would still be violent attacks next year, he had confidence in Afghanistan's "strong, capable, well-trained" security forces. However, given the recent increase in violence and the tactical and operational challenges facing the Afghan security forces, many analysts have doubts. But it's not only the analysts. In a recently published survey by The Asia Foundation, more than half of Afghans (56 percent) said they think that local forces need foreign support to do their job properly.

In a DW interview, Jason Campbell, an international security expert at the US-based RAND Corporation, talks about the main challenges facing the Afghan security forces, how much support they can expect from the residual foreign troops and why the country is still a long way off from finding a political solution to the Taliban issue.

Jason H. Campbell
Campbell: 'The ANSF continues to suffer from chronic leadership deficiencies'Image: RAND Corporation

DW: 2014 appears to be one of the bloodiest year since the US led invasion 13 years ago. Do you believe Afghan forces are ready to take over security without support of foreign troops?

Jason Campbell: The short answer is: only time will tell. NATO forces are in the process of transitioning from roughly 57,000 troops in January 2014 down to just over 12,000 by January 1, 2015. This is no minor change and there will inevitably be a period of adjustment as all sides in the conflict strive to reach a new equilibrium that tilts in their favor. What we do know is that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will be tested.

Any group that views the Afghan government as an impediment to its interests is going to see an opportunity to fill a void, real or perceived, left by the departure of coalition forces. This goes not just for ideologically motivated insurgent organizations such as the Taliban and its offshoots, but also includes criminal elements and anyone else at odds with the Afghan state.

The concern is that if a handful of anti-government entities adopt a "land grab" mentality, momentum could build toward wider unrest as other groups will fear they are missing out on an opportunity. This would place particular stress on the ANSF, which is vulnerable to being spread too thin in the event of pervasive unrest. Ultimately, making any judgments prior to the 2015 fighting season, which will commence next spring, would be premature.

Afghanistan Sicherheit Verantwortung Übernahme NATO Soldaten 18.06.2013
Campbell: 'The Afghan National Security Forces will be tested after the NATO drawdown'Image: Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

What are the major challenges facing Afghan security forces?

From an overarching, fundamental perspective, I would highlight three weaknesses. First, the various entities within the ANSF tend not to work well together. At the tactical level, Afghan National Police (ANP) officials complain that Afghan National Army (ANA) units are slow to respond to attacks on police checkpoints and prefer to remain in their bases. ANA officials, on the other hand, often view the ANP as corrupt and ineffective.

The National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan intelligence agency, operates largely independently and does not often keep the ANA or ANP apprised of its operations. This is not the case everywhere but apparent in enough areas that it remains a concern.

In the past few years, the establishment of Operational Coordination Centers (OCCs) at the regional and provincial levels were designed to address some of these issues as they incorporate members of all relevant security forces. However, while the OCCs have proven capable in coordinating security efforts for one-time events, such as this year's national elections, they have not adequately addressed some of the broader trust issues that permeate the ANSF.

Second, the ANSF remain largely a reactive force and have yet to fully grasp the benefits of long-term planning. Generally speaking, they prefer manning checkpoints to patrolling and while they will coordinate roles and responsibilities for specific missions, there is little discussion about creating a security plan at the national or even provincial level. Getting the most out of your security forces requires having a shared vision and understanding of what the threats and priorities are and this must be addressed.

Finally, and related to the first two issues, the ANSF continues to suffer from chronic leadership deficiencies. While there are a handful of very capable senior leaders who stand out, there remain too many instances of commanding officers who are unqualified or unmotivated and this can have a detrimental effect on the overall health of the force. As one senior Afghan official remarked on a recent trip to Kabul, "We probably have the best soldiers, but not the best leaders."

On a positive note, Afghanistan's newly elected president, Ashraf Ghani, has made security reform a top priority and has called for both the establishment of national level doctrine and a reassessment of all senior ANSF leadership. The degree to which this is ultimately successful will depend on overall government formation, but it's a step in the right direction.

What sort of military, logistical and training support can the Afghan forces expect from the international community?

As of January 1, direct coalition support is going to be extremely limited as the mission formally transitions to "Train, Advise, and Assist". No longer will NATO forces "own" battle space as they have in the past. Rather, they will be confined to large regional bases predicated on a "hub and spoke" footprint that will be centered in Kabul and include Herat, Mazar-e Sharif, Bagram, and Kandahar. While coalition forces will be able to defend themselves in the event of an attack, they will not be taking part in combat operations.

Current guidance from the White House will permit limited use of US airpower in support of Afghan forces, both in providing overhead surveillance and close air support to prevent ANSF units from being overrun. Coalition forces will still provide training and mentorship at the ministerial and corps levels and continue to develop more specialized capabilities such as the Afghan Air Force, but any offensive operations against insurgents will be left to the ANSF.

Will the residual troops from NATO and the US be enough to fend off Taliban attacks?

As with the earlier question, this remains to be seen. The hope is that the limited support provided by the residual NATO troops will be sufficient to keep the Taliban or other insurgents from broadly gaining the upper hand over the ANSF and prevent a catastrophic defeat, such as taking over a city center or overrunning a significant base.

If at the end of the 2015 fighting season the Taliban is still unable to conquer and subsequently hold a significant amount of territory or achieve a landmark victory, that would likely be considered a success.

What do Afghan forces need most in order to provide security?

In most cases, Afghan security officials say that they require more heavy weapons or other advanced technologies they've been able to benefit from through coalition forces. And while such things might help tactically, in my view, the biggest hurdle to overcome is the lack of trust and coordination among the ANA, ANP, and NDS.

While they tend to work well together when under fire, achieving sustainable stability in Afghanistan is going to require these entities investing in longer term synchronization. In a close second to this, sustained partnership from the international community, in terms of both monetary support and mentorship, will be critical to the long-term strength of the ANSF.

Afghanistan Taliban
'The Taliban and other insurgent elements clearly hold sway over certain parts of the country,' says CampbellImage: AP

While it is perfectly understandable that many in Western capitals are growing weary of providing funding and contributing manpower to Afghanistan, the alternative is potentially much worse.

Given the recent wave of violence, are we witnessing a stronger, bolder and resurgent Taliban now that most foreign troops are set to leave?

Bolder? Yes. Stronger and resurgent? This remains to be seen. As coalition forces have drawn down, there have been increased reports of insurgents attacking in larger numbers and, in a handful of cases, attempting to hold territory - though they have thus far been unsuccessful. This is to be expected when you remove tens of thousands of very capable NATO forces from the battlefield in a relatively short time. We must be careful, however, not to overestimate the cohesiveness and capabilities of the Taliban and other lime-minded groups out of hand.

Over the years, we in the West have somewhat lazily come to refer to any group that is anti-government as "Taliban" in a way that suggests it is an organization with a set chain of command and centralized leadership. There is plenty of evidence that suggests, however, that this is not the case and it remains difficult to decipher what it is the Taliban ultimately wants in this post-Karzai, post-NATO environment. Moreover, there are indications that there is some disagreement among the Taliban leadership as to how it should proceed.

Do the Taliban need to hold territory to reach their goal and how much territory does the government in Kabul truly control at the moment?

These are both questions that unfortunately at this point do not lend themselves to firm answers. As we've seen with the recent increase in attacks in Kabul, the Taliban is able to sow a good deal of unrest through terrorist tactics designed to discredit the Afghan government and its security forces. The big question here is whether or not they can sustain it and for how long? Beyond that, the question is toward what ends are these attacks aimed? Right now it is difficult to discern what it is the Taliban wants to achieve.

Wahl Afghanistan 2014 Ashraf Ghani
Campbell: 'Afghanistan's newly elected president, Ashraf Ghani, has made security reform a top priority''Image: W.Kohsar/AFP/GettyImages

As to the question of controlling territory, the Taliban and other insurgent elements clearly hold sway over certain parts of the country, even if they do not control district centers. This has been an issue for years and will continue to be going forward. Right now it appears as though the ANSF are prioritizing the protection of the cities and major transportation arteries. If the Taliban choose to take them on in these areas they are likely to be rebuffed.

If, however, the Taliban turns its focus to the countryside and continues to make inroads, then they are likely to be satisfied with expanding their de facto control in lieu of formal annexation. Again, this will largely come down to what the Taliban hopes to achieve and the degree to which insurgent elements are coordinating and in agreement.

Do you believe the Taliban issue in Afghanistan can ultimately be resolved militarily or will it all come down to a political solution?

Any solution to the Taliban issue will require a political resolution. The new leadership in place in Kabul understands this and during my recent trip, a senior Afghan official stated that the government is in the process of reviving a peace process that had stagnated under the Karzai regime. This will require concessions from all sides and will ultimately need to incorporate the Taliban in some government role.

We are a long way off from this, however, and in the interim all sides are likely going to push for an advantage. Generally speaking, peace talks are difficult to begin unless one side believes that it is losing. Add to this the fact that neither side has come to an internal agreement regarding red lines and priorities, and the complexities involved become daunting.

Jason H. Campbell is an associate policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he focuses on issues of international security, counterinsurgency, intelligence, and measuring progress in post-conflict reconstruction. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonHCampbell.