Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

The Inteqal Express Gets Green Light in Lisbon

Thomas Ruttig 11 min

This Friday’s NATO summit in Lisbon will nod through the Obama administration’s decision that there will be a phased handover of security tasks to the Afghan forces, maybe province-by-province, ‘inteqal’ in short. This is part of Petraeus’ copy-cat ‘Iraqi solution’ and the US allies’ exit strategy: declare combat operations over, withdraw a part of the troops, re-label the rest as trainers, keep some bases for anti-terrorism, including cross-border, let the Afghans do most of the fighting but keep the ‘trainers’ ‘behind the horizon’ in case something goes terribly wrong. Which might be the case, given the low quality the speedy built-up of the ANSF is producing, thinks AAN’s Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig. (With material from Fabrizio Foschini.)

An Italian general thinks that Herat is ready for transition although some of its districts become worse and worse. Germany eyes leaving extremely inaccessible Badakhshan which its PRT never covered. France wants to depart from Sarobi district in Kabul province which has been lethal in the days of Soviet occupation, and still is, and concentrate forces on Kapisa where it is tough enough. A US officer was quoted recently as saying that Afghan security forces he works with in Bamian had already taken the lead there and that those in Parwan would soon be ready to do so. These scattered reports emanated since the international Afghanistan conference held in June in Kabul decided to transfer, as it was originally called, the ‘lead security responsibility’ to the Afghan government based on a set of criteria. As a sign of ‘Afghanisation’, this operation is now called with a much shorter Dari word – inteqal (‘transfer’ or ‘handover’).

Since then, there had been some debate about how that should be done. In August, US Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates stated that he hoped transfer could start in spring 2011. US special AfPak envoy Richard Holbrooke a few days ago talked about July of next year and that the process ‘will not be completed until the end of 2014’ (see the full article here).

Now, NATO’s Civilian representative in Kabul even has opened a discussion about whether the 2014 timeline is feasible which hitherto has been looking as if carved in stone. ‘It’s a goal,’ he told the AP. ‘It’s realistic but not guaranteed’ (read the full article here). As one journalist asked me today: Is this a sign that they hope to seriously rework the long-term plan there, or just a bid to dampen overall expectations? Well, we can only hope that it is the former and that slowly some realism filters into NATO’s planning for Afghanistan. (And then we also need a real strategic shift, towards a political solutions and not just spin about ‘talking Taleban’.)

How it will be done, was explained by General Petraeus(*):

‘“You can reduce your forces. But you thin out. You don’t just hand over. The whole unit doesn’t leave. [… I]n the tough areas, it’ll probably be district-level. [In m]ore autonomous areas, it can be province-level.”’ NATO’s Civilian Representative in Kabul Mark Sedwill later added: ‘or below district, [on] municipality or town level and [it will] work its way up’ (see thisquote in the article here).

Petraeus is the man anyway, as the NATO Secretary General explained (as quoted by the Washington Post here):

‘In an interview Thursday at NATO headquarters in Brussels, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen drew sharp distinctions between an alliance commitment to begin the “transition” to Afghan security control, decisions by Petraeus [emphasis by me] on where initial transitions should occur and decisions by member nations to withdraw their troops.’

And still the Post:

‘The seemingly contradictory messages, in communiques and agreements to be released at NATO’s upcoming summit in Lisbon, are intended to reassure U.S. and European audiences that the process of ending the war has begun.’

The commander of all US and other Western forces in Afghanistan will therefore provide NATO member states in Lisbon with ‘a province-by-province update […] including [on] the training of Afghan soldiers and police that will underpin assessments of whether they are able to confront the Taliban in some provinces […;] how much sense it makes to move troops out of certain areas; whether there is still more to achieve in battle; whether Afghan troops and police are ready to hold terrain cleared by Americans.’ Here we have the criteria.

And while it is officially stated that ‘[t]ransition must be irreversible’ (see anISAF press release here), ‘some US or NATO forces may remain or be positioned “over the horizon” elsewhere in Afghanistan’, as the New York Times put it (read full article here).

Now there seems to be even a list of provinces that could be inteqaled, reportedly drawn by NATO and the Afghan army. It is said to contain 12 provinces, divided into two groups. In group 1, there are Bamian, Badakhshan, Daikundi, Panjshir, Samangan, Sarepul and Kabul where the transfer is to happen within six months; that would be spring next year. Group 2 contains Herat, Faryab, Laghman, Parwan and Takhar, with an inteqal within or after 12 months. And although it might be just a ‘working document’, it nevertheless makes sense to have a look at it.

While group 1 seems to be comparatively easy on the first glance, a closer look reveals that the Afghan army and police will face some hard jobs there, too. Not only in Sarobi and other Kabul districts like Musayi, Chahrasyab (Hekmatyar’s old headquarters) and some increasingly volatile ones in the Shemali, but also in parts of Badakhshan and Daykundi.

Badakhshan was never really covered by the Germans who were hampered by their own limiting caveats, namely that patrols needed to be accompanied by doctors in armoured personnel carriers (of which there were too few) and which made camping out in the field extremely difficult. On top of that they managed to hire a nasty local commander for protecting their camp, became aware of that much too late and had difficulties getting rid of him – not least because it could be expected to turn ‘Taleban’ when losing his contract. (He already hurled some grenades to the camp from time to time to remind his ‘allies’ of his importance for their security.) He and others of his ilk will have to turn fully to other businesses now not to drop in an income hole.
Daykundi, in contrast, never had a PRT. The province was only established in 2004 and remained off the NATO spreadsheet, first because it seemed to be stable and also because it is far away and logistically difficult. But some areas of it were a bit of a black hole, with Taleban areas of control along the (unclear) border with Uruzgan and a couple of nasty Shia commanders who feet excluded from power and are flirting with the Iranians and the Taleban.

Bamian was much quieter even longer. Only of late, there was some insurgency spill over from Baghlan, and the Tajik minority in Saighan (that had supported the Taleban against their old suppressors from Hezb-e Wahdat in the late 1990s) might opt for such an alliance again. The population there also felt let down because the New Zealand PRT of course wasn’t able to match those of bigger nations with more money and because their masters Khalili and Mohaqqeq’s concentration on their jobs in Kabul. It started hurling a few rockets because that was ‘rewarded’ in other areas of the country, as they were surely aware.

Sarepul and Samangan are not really strongholds of the insurgency but also registered increasing insecurity. The number of abduction cases and IEC attacks rose in recent months. There are also a couple of insurgent pockets (probably linked with criminal activity), amongst them in Dara-ye Suf which once was one of the last pockets of anti-Taleban forces. Inteqaling Samangan too early also might be risky because the Mazar-Kabul road runs through, and around half of NATO supplies already come in through Russia and the Central Asian republics.

Panjshir, the never-conquered ‘capital’ of the anti-Taleban Northern Alliance, had the only fully civilian PRT all over Afghanistan because, as it was assumed, the Taleban or HIG would never get a foot on the ground there. But maybe, even this was wrong. A few security incidents even have been registered in Panjshir. But one never knows who is behind this: Taleban infiltrators, some mujahedin-turned-anti-Western or other ‘local interests’. The leading ‘Panjshiris’ in or near the government never wanted to see foreign soldiers near their weapons depots in the area which, according to rumours, are kept up-to-date by a steady trickle from up north. (There once was an incident when UN ‘weapons inspectors’ were fired at when they ventured to deep into the valley.)

Kabul city, by the way, had already been ‘handed over’ in August 2008. President Karzai had announced this at that year’s NATO spring meeting in Bucarest, and it was officially decided at the Paris conference (remember?). But then, in April 2008, the President only narrowly escaped being shot at the ‘mujahedin day’ military parade at the end of the same month, and on 7 July, a powerful car bomb hit the Indian embassy. The investigation of the April attack showed that high MoI officers were involved and everybody has been sleeping so that the attackers were able to book a room in a hotel inside the security perimeter around the parade ground a few days before it was closed and just had to wait. After that, the first inteqal became so low key – without any ceremony – that many probably didn’t notice at all if it was done. Not only in the Afghan media a lively debate about the qualities of the Afghan National Security Forces – all three of them, the army, the police and NDS, the intelligence service – followed. (We will come back to this subject a little later.)

Group 2 of the inteqal provinces contains considerably tougher areas. In Herat, some of the districts have become increasingly insurgency-affected. Shindand has long been known as a trouble spot where one never knows whether it is Taleban or robbers or both. A strong governor might be able to contain it, and given all the talk in the US about ‘local powerbrokers’ one wonders whether Ismail Khan might have his comeback at some point, in particular so since he is in trouble after an election-related phone conversation of his had been recorded and published (read about it here). Also, the militia – pardon me, Afghan Local Police or, as Petraeus calls them ‘community watches with AK-47’ – strategy might be applied although we have not heard about it from there yet. Another question is whether inteqal also means withdrawal from bases. If so, it could stop Iran from worrying about Shindand airfield which would be a good ‘regional’ effect.

Faryab is one of the most unstable provinces in the North but rather isolated from at least the region around Kabul. However, already in the 1990s Taleban onslaughts on Mazar were coming through there and Jauzjan. So, its trouble capacity should not be underrated.

Laghman seems to be on the list more because you also need a Pashtun province rather than because if makes sense to transfer it. A recent ANA offensive conducted on its own ended in disaster there in August (read a report about this here). Its mountainous areas (and these are the most ones) are in the hands of the insurgency since a long time. And Laghman is surrounded either by other insurgency-controlled areas like Kapisa and Sarobi of Kabul or provinces that have moved up on the Taleban target list, like Nangrahar. Notice the latest ‘complex attack’ at Jalalabad airfield (the place where the first Soviet aircraft has been shot down with the newly delivered Stinger missiles in the 1980s). Maybe, Qarghayi district would work, but Laghman also features a stretch of the strategic Kabul-Jalalabad road as a strategic target.

Takhar has been less problematic than, for example, Faryab, even though there has been some insurgency spill over from neighbouring provinces and recently the spectacular killing of the governor of Kunduz by a suicide bomber; the south of the province is an established logistic route for insurgents on a Baghlan-Badakhshan axis. Takhar might have ended up in group 2 simply because the Germans cannot give up two provinces at a time. (They had a small sub-PRT there, called a PIT.). US forces bombed insurgent positions in Takhar recently for the first time. The head of the police zone Gen. Daud was quoted in a Kabul newspaper after that that dozens of Taleban joined government there and that Darqad, Khwaja Bahauddin and Yangi Qala districts had been cleared. It needs to be seen how the local insurgents and the population at large react to these operations and whether the former resume activities next spring.

Parwan also has not seen much, although increasing insurgent activities. But most insurgents here seem to be former Jamiatis or Hezbis, not Taleban. The area is more known for its strong criminal networks and contractors who pick up important business at Bagram base, both linked to each other. It can be assumed with some safety that Bagram base will not be inteqaled.

But where is Balkh on this list? This province is generally considered to be relatively safe and run by a ‘good’ governor. But a giant US Special Ops base is just been built there, to be finished in 2015. Maybe, its surroundings really need to be well protected.

How realistic such an inteqal is does, of course, not only depend on how feasible the situation is in those provinces but also on how capable those are who are supposed to take over. And when you read what the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (or SIGAR) says about this, the plan of a relatively swift transfer to be confirmed in Lisbon suddenly looks pretty optimistic. To illustrate this, here a few facts from this report and the US media:

The target figures for the ANSP have been increased by the Kabul Conference from originally 70,000 and then 82,000 to 171,600 (for the ANA) and from 47,000 to 134,000 (including 17,600 Afghan Border Police) for the ANP. (The personnel strength of the NDS is classified, of course.) Training, equipment and salary costs for 2011 alone are given with US$ 30 billion. And according to official sources, the quantitative ‘upsurge’ is well underway: By October 2010, the ANA had reached 134,000 and the ANP 120,000 men. Two or three new Afghan infantry battalions, each with roughly 800 soldiers, are regularly leaving their training centres per month.

But these figures need to be put in perspective. According to the SIGAR report, 12 per cent of the ANA personnel and 17 per cent of ANP was as of March 2010 ‘absent without leave’ (AWOL; 10% in mid-2009). The attrition rate – people AWOL and killed – 3 per cent each month. For the army this means that in order to grow by 36,000 soldiers, 83,000 must be recruited and trained. Only 4 out of 10 recruits stay; in the ANP it is even less than 3 out of 10.

According to the same report, only 23 per cent of Afghan soldiers and 12 per cent of police can work unsupervised, and that is wholly up to the squadron level (120 men) only. Look at the much touted Marja operation which was called ‘Operation Mushtarak’ (‘jointly’): It was effectively led and planned by US troops, the ANA was in the second line. The ANA-only operation in summer Laghman was botched.

Amongst possible reasons for this situation are that only 14 per cent of the ANA and ANP personnel can read and write (on the 3rd grade level); the same is true for half of the ANA officer corps in the South. No new loyalties are formed, in particular in the police where old militia structures have been integrated 1 to 1. Also, the heavy Western footprint plays a role. Drug use in the police was found to be 9 per cent.

On the police side, six to ten men are killed every day because the ANP, not the ANA, is in the first line of fire. Low (and unreliable) payment and bad quality training add to this. The base pay for an Afghan soldier or police officer is now US$ 165 a month, and in a high-combat area like Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan a soldier can make a starting salary of $240 a month. Policemen have often been rented out by their commanders to private security companies PSC, often owned by people close to the Afghan government. No wonder that the following headline appears: ‘Afghan Police Unit Defects to Taliban, Leaving Burning Station Behind’.

Apart from the quantity and quality problems, there are following ones:

The sustainability problem: Who will pay for all these men after 2014? An Afghan soldier costs US$ 12,000 per year. With the current target rates, these bill will be higher than US$ 170 million. Afghanistan’s tax collection today is 300 million, the total revenue 600 million. And this is just the cost for salaries.

The loyalty problem: How would the system be kept in place and prevented from disintegrating, after the ‘transfer’ when the money streams also will become shallower? Will the same happen like after Russia stopped paying Najibullah’s forces in 1992. To whom will these soldiers and policemen be loyal then? The ‘local strongmen’ who have accumulated a lot over the past nine years – not least because they invented ‘ghost soldiers and policemen’ for which the international community had paid over years – will be ready.

The ethnic problem: This might exacerbate the two afore-mentioned. Pashtuns account for 43 per cent of the Afghan army, but the officer corps is still 70 percent non-Pashtun. As a result, the ANA will not be seen as a national institution or ‘our boys’ in many areas.

The bad governance problem: Army, police and probably the NDS are, like all other institutions in Afghanistan, integrated in a system of clientelism and nepotism. Positions are bought and sold. Officers regularly have ripped off the payments of their soldiers.

And finally, there is the short-cut problem: This is ‘our’ problem and has to do with ‘our’ quick fix, quick exit strategy. To accelerate recruitment, internal rating systems have been scrapped. Vetting was weak all the time. And another generation of militias is just being invented, instead of putting those resources into the legitimate (or to-be-legitimate) institutions. There, hurdles for recruitment are even lower.

This approach is no way to fight the insurgency but to create causes for it. The inteqal train might leave the station in Lisbon but it is not going to the Ka’aba but to Turkestan (see what this means here).

(*) Spencer Ackermann, ‘Petraeus: Here’s My Afghan Redeployment Strategy’, Wired, 18 August 2010, full article here.