Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

The Wrong Mission? New AAN discussion paper looks at NATO’s ‘Resolute Support’

AAN Team 3 min

AAN’s first paper of the new year – Resolute Support Light: NATO’s New Mission versus the Political Economy of the Afghan National Security Forces by guest author Philipp Münch – looks at NATO’s chances of achieving its goals in Afghanistan with Resolute Support (RS). The mission replaced ISAF on 1 January 2015.

Wrapping up ISAF. The ceremony for the change from the ISAF mission to the RS mission on 28 December 2014 in Kabul. Photo: ISAF Facebook page

NATO’s motto in Afghanistan has changed, although a green theme remains. The new coat of arms reads “Resolute Support – ta’alimat, kumak, mashwerat” (Resolute Support – training, assistance, advice) and replaces ISAF’s “kumak wa hamkari” (assistance and cooperation). As with the motto, there is both continuity and change. And unfortunately, says Philipp Münch in his second paper for the Afghanistan Analysts Network, much of what stayed the same is problematic. (See Philipp’s first AAN paper, “Local Afghan Power Structures and the International Military Intervention: A review of development in Badakhshan and Kunduz provinces,“ published in November 2013 here.)

The author – who is the Berlin-based German SWP think-tank’s expert on Afghanistan – points to the lack of clear definition and prioritisation of the new mission’s goals. It is paradoxical, he says, that, while its goals are ‘fuzzy’ – they include bringing “stability,” “good governance” and fighting “terrorism” -, the means by which it hopes to achieve those goals are much more clearly defined: “train, advise, and assist[ing]” the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) “to enable them to assume their security functions – usually understood as defeating the insurgency, as well as protecting the population and the country from outside attacks.” There is also, as with ISAF and the old US-Counter-Terrorism mission, ambiguity in the way that once again there is one ‘double-hatted’ American commander for both the RS mission and new US counter-terrorism mission, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.

The “implicit assumption”, argues Münch, behind the RS focus on training, advising and assisting is “that, for the most part, the ANSF already function as proficient organisations as per their formal structure and aims” and “only ‘fine-tuning’ its leadership is required.” Yet this is “highly questionable.”

Rather, he says, “they are still dominated by patronage networks shaped to a large degree by factional interests and rent-seeking by senior personnel (and other members of the Afghan elites).” In other words, the political economy of the ANSF – the way economics drive corruption, lack of accountability and the factionalisation of appointments – actually prevents its components “from working like modern organisations.” ISAF practice, however, often reflected a misreading of deficiencies as ‘technical.’ For example, deficits in ANA logistics, he says, seen by most advisors as the most pressing problem, “are not, in the first place related to a lack of capacity, but rather it is rent-seeking by ANSF officials which, for the most part, prevents materiel from being distributed the way it should.”

RS also has other inherent limitations. It will comprise a maximum of only 13,000 soldiers, most of them deployed to enable “relatively few trainers.” Senior NATO representatives, writes Münch, have given a figure of 1,200 to 1,400 trainers to carry out RS’s main task. … Of the around 2,000 US special operations forces in Afghanistan, 980 will directly support the US-led counterterrorism mission after 2014. It has been reported that they will be accompanied by around 100 British special operations forces.”

Finally, but importantly, Münch points out the discrepancy between the timelines of the new mission’s main contributor, the US, and that of NATO: President Obama has publically named 2016 as the mission’s end date, while NATO left a door open for a possible extension. This was recently brought up by US military leaders, German chancellor Angela Merkel and the new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Münch’s take on this is that the “withdrawal date of late 2016… looks timed to match the end of Obama’s tenure rather than the point when RS is likely to have succeeded.” This is a familiar pattern from earlier timelines and end-dates where domestic policy agendas trumped conditions on the ground in Afghanistan.

Münch concludes that, under these circumstances, “to achieve the wide-ranging goals of RS with the relatively small number of trainers at a time of conflict and with decreasing funding seems already to be highly ambitious and therefore uncertain in outcome.”

AAN discussion paper 1/2015 can also be downloaded here.

(AAN’s short discussion papers have no executive summary.)

A short German version of the paper can be found here.


ISAF NATO Resolute Support