It has been a rough week for US-led international forces, with threats, tensions and setbacks multiplying. The Taleban’s spectacular attack on Camp Bastion on 15 September, which left two soldiers – including a lieutenant colonel – dead, six fighter planes destroyed and two others damaged and ISAF’s narrative of a weakening insurgency looking fragile, was followed, on 16 September, by an air strike in Kunar which killed eight women out collecting wood. The ‘enemy within’ also struck again – four American and two British soldiers were killed by Afghan colleagues over the weekend and this seems finally to have forced a radical response from ISAF – the suspension of routine joint operations with all Afghan units below the battalion level. Meanwhile, the dispute over who controls the Bagram detention centre has been escalating behind closed doors, leading the Afghan government to question the very intentions of it allies. All of this is happening, says Kate Clark, as thoughts turn to the security agreement between the US and Afghanistan which needs to be negotiated.
‘They haven’t given us all the keys,’ was the report back to the presidential palace after the ceremony handing over authority for Bagram from US to Afghan hands on 10 September. The handover turns out to have been partial – with most of the 3000 odd detainees arrested before the signing of the Bagram Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in March now in Afghan hands, but none of the fresh, post-MoU detainees. Transfers remain suspended and there has been high level scuffling since the 10th over who should now be in control of the detention centre.
The Afghan government, which insists it is now illegal for foreign forces to arrest or detain Afghans, has called the delay in transferring the remaining more than 600 detainees a ‘serious breach’ of the MoU. Bolstering his position, President Karzai convened a ‘justice and judiciary meeting’ of senior officials, including the head of the supreme court, the speakers of both chambers of the parliament and the minister of justice(1), who told him what he wanted to hear – that administrative detention (ie detention without trial, also known as internment) was illegal under the Afghan constitution.
One can ask why the president has waited until now to argue over the legal basis of an MoU signed in March, why he apparently signed a presidential decree and six of his ministers or their equivalents a secret intra-ministerial procedure legitimising detention without trial and indeed why the new Afghan authorities at Bagram charged with reviewing the cases of the transferred detainees have decided to keep several dozen in custody without trial (for details, see our earlier blog here).(2) However, matters can take a while to come to a head in Afghanistan, where institutional procedures are still underdeveloped or often ignored, and they seem certainly to have done so now.
Yet, presidential anger has made no difference on the ground. The US military has not resumed transfers and a spokesman confirmed to AAN that US forces are continuing to arrest Afghans. He said they did this in accordance with the MoU on Bagram and international law (the law of armed conflict). (For a look at the inherent ambiguity in the MoU and how what looked like a fudge in the document’s language has had the effect of stored up trouble for later, see here).
Behind the scenes, the row over Bagram has prompted a questioning on the Afghan side as to the very nature of the international military engagement: are the foreign armies at war with the Taleban – seen by the government as an internal threat which foreigners need not be involved in – or with ‘terrorists’ (presumably foreign fighters) – where cooperation is welcomed? The government views the dispute over Bagram as a breach of sovereignty and a threat to the strategic partnership agreement.
The row could not be happening at a worse time as both governments start to think about how to hammer out a new bilateral agreement which would allow some US forces and bases to remain in Afghanistan after 2014 when the ISAF mandate ends. Starting such negotiations amid suspicions that the other side is ill-intentioned, inconsistent or just downright duplicitous may not be easy.
Detentions are a key aspect of US strategy in Afghanistan, particularly the ability to implement its kill-or-capture strategy which targets the insurgent various levels of leadership. Another plank in that strategy – the recruitment, training and mentoring of Afghan security forces – has also been under pressure this week. A serious policy shift on mentoring has been forced by a spike in insider attacks – although ISAF insists the new measures are only temporary. The latest killings bring the year’s total of green-on-blue deaths to 53 and injuries to 54 with almost half of the attacks by ANA soldiers.
The international military and their Afghan counterparts had already taken various steps in recent weeks. They suspended recruitment and re-vetting Afghan Local Police on 2 September, issued new advice for foreign personnel to stay clear of Afghan colleagues when they are at their most vulnerable, eg when sleeping, bathing and exercising, handed out a brochure explaining foreign cultural practices to Afghan soldiers so they would know when offences were unintended and purged hundreds of suspected Afghan police and soldiers from Afghan ranks. ISAF’s tone has changed from playing down the attacks to recognising publically that they are, in the words of the highest ranking US officer General Martin Dempsey on 16 September, ‘a very serious threat to the campaign’.
Now ISAF has decided to drastically scale back joint operations – in the words of its press statement issued at midday on 18 September:
As a result of COMISAF’s directive to review force protection and tactical activities, the commander of the ISAF Joint Command directed a change in the level at which advising and partnering takes place. Most partnering and advising will now be at the Kandak (Battalion) [ie 800 plus] level and above. This does not mean there will be no partnering below that level; the need for that will be evaluated on a case by case basis and approved by RC commanders. In some cases, ANSF are fully capable of increased independent activity and their advisors will simply be stepping back to advise from the next level.(3)
Until now, small joint patrols and operations had been the standard. They will not disappear, but will need high-level permission – from a regional commander. Such mentoring, the US and ISAF has always felt, is essential to get the rapidly expanding ANSF ready to face the Taleban, post-2014. As of yet, most units are not considered ready for independent operations (for a detailed look at this and the troubling statistics around it, see our blog here).
The reaction of media outlets was, quite rightly, to consider the new measures a major policy shift (see for example here, here and here). Hours later, ISAF issued a clarification, saying the media had misrepresented the new measures and they were normal, prudent and temporary and ISAF remained ‘absolutely committed to partnering with, training, advising and assisting our ANSF counterparts.’
Whether the confusion lay in ISAF getting its initial press release wrong or it felt it had to try to row back hard on the perceived seriousness of the move is open to opinion. However, evidence that the move was rushed through came in the apparent lack of consultation with the Afghan ministries of defence and interior and with major ISAF contributing militaries, like the UK and Australia.
The dispute over Bagram and the ongoing threat of green-on-blue attacks are very different types of problem for Afghanistan’s international allies. Bagram is a clash with the government. Insider attacks are about the ability of Taleban or disgruntled Afghan soldiers and policemen to get at the heart of the Afghan-international military alliance. But both concern trust and assessing the intention of the ally.
As the international military scrambles to get out of Afghanistan, it wants procedures and forces in place, including Afghans who can face the Taleban with the minimum of foreign help. The need for ISAF to actually operate according to its much-beloved slogan – ‘shoulder to shoulder’ (or in ISAF-latinised Dari, shohna ba shohna) – with its Afghan allies has become increasingly vital to its successful withdrawal. Yet, insider attacks, and especially the row over Bagram, do not bode well for the trust that will be required to negotiate a post-2014 US/Afghan status of forces agreement. And, as Mulla Omar’s Eid message calling for more insider attacks showed, the Taleban will be trying to exploit whatever cleavages open up between the allies.
(1) Also present were a member of the supreme court, the deputy minister of justice, the president’s legal advisor, the president of the constitutional oversight commission and the attorney general, all under the chairmanship of President Karzai. It appears to have been an ad hoc meeting.
(2) There is a strong preference when cases of transferred detainees are reviewed by the Afghan authorities in Bagram to send them into the Afghan criminal justice system. The Open Society Foundation’s breakdown, given at a press conference on 6 September was: 50 detainees retained in Afghan internment, the case files of 1621 sent to the national security criminal court in Bagram (known as the Justice Centre in Parwan) and approximately 490 recommended for release – their files then get reviewed by another committee.
(3) ISAF posted its second ‘clarification’ statement (see link above), but not the first. It was emailed to journalists, one of whom passed it on to AAN. This was the text:
ISAF continually conducts threat assessments and adapts to the current
operating environment. Recent events outside of and inside Afghanistan
related to the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video plus the conduct of recent
insider attacks have given cause for ISAF troops to exercise increased
vigilance and carefully review all activities and interactions with the
General Allen has directed all operational commanders to review force
protection and tactical activities in the light of the current
circumstances. This guidance was given at the recommendation of, and in
conjunction with, key Afghan leaders.
This will likely lead to adjustments in exactly how, when and where ISAF
troops operate, especially during the current period of heightened
tension. These changes will often be short notice and reactive to the
latest information. ISAF remains focused on the continued conduct of
effective combined operations with our Afghan partners to achieve the
mission. Those operations will always be conducted in a manner that
mitigates risks to our troops but ensures mission success.
As a result of COMISAF’s directive to review force protection and
tactical activities, the commander of the ISAF Joint Command directed a
change in the level at which advising and partnering takes place. Most
partnering and advising will now be at the Kandak (Battalion) level and
above. This does not mean there will be no partnering below that level;
the need for that will be evaluated on a case by case basis and approved
by RC commanders. In some cases, ANSF are fully capable of increased
independent activity and their advisors will simply be stepping back to
advise from the next level.
18 September 2012
Media Operations Officer
Headquarters Public Affairs
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020