Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

An Honest Transfer or ‘The Devil May Care’?

Thomas Ruttig 6 min

‘Transfer of Security Responsibility’ is one of the latest buzzwords in Afghanistan. It is part of the NATO strategy also sometimes described as ‘Afghanisation’. But, maybe, the latter resounds too closely with the term ‘Vietnamisation’. So, it is more probable that we will have to get used to yet another acronym: TSR.

The ‘TSR’ concept goes back to the Afghanistan conference in London this January. Its final communiqué (see here) states that NATO’s North Atlantic Council, in cooperation with the Afghan government, will develop ‘by the Kabul Conference’ planned for this July

a plan for phased transition to Afghan security lead province by province, including the conditions on which transition will be based. Further to this, Conference Participants welcomed the shared commitment to create the conditions to allow for transition as rapidly as possible. This is with a view to a number of provinces transitioning to ANSF lead, providing conditions are met, by late 2010/early 2011, with ISAF moving to a supporting role within those provinces. Conference Participants welcomed the intention to establish a process among the Government of Afghanistan, ISAF and other key international partners to assess progress and monitor in areas other than security that influence transition.

This was taken up yesterday at the ‘Informal Meeting of Defence Ministers’ of the troop-contributing countries of (German-led) ISAF Regional Command North that was held behind the bullet-proof windowpanes of the Berlin Interconti hotel.

Although the meeting’s final communiqué (see here) referred to the transfer, it does not provide us with a better understanding of what exactly is planned. It only states that ‘with the resources now dedicated’ (but not saying to which resources this refers or whether new resources were made available in Berlin) ‘a progressive handover of security responsibilities is attainable’ and that ‘[i]t must be seen as an irreversible process but’ – and this as a hint to the troop-contributing countries themselves – ‘should not be taken as an incentive for immediate troop reductions’.

NATO CivRep Mark Sedwill, in his separate on-the-records briefing, made the contours of the plan a bit more visible. On the timeline, he repeated what was said in London: it will happen in ‘this and a couple of next years’. (Hopefully, NATO and member-governments realise that this cannot be rushed.) The Kabul Conference in July, he continued, is supposed to lead to a joint agreement with the Afghan government on the transfer. (I thought that already had been done in London, but anyway: ‘Double-stitched lasts longer’, as the German proverb goes.) Criteria will be developed and an assessment of the situation in the provinces will be done ‘thereafter’. The NATO summit in Lisbon in November will set ‘standard criteria’ for the transfer (I hope Afghans will be invited) on security, development and ‘balanced political settlements in the provinces’.

The focus on local conflicts is new and it actually is a good idea to be politically inclusive. But, again according to Sedwill, it will be the ‘old’ inclusiveness again: He repeated in Berlin that ‘the warlords are a feature of Afghanistan’ (well, they are but they are also at the root of the problem) and, equally worrying, that President Karzai ‘does come out of a national consensus’ after the 2009 elections ‘as the legitimate President of Afghanistan’. (Well, does he?) Here, the sensible need ‘to work with him’ (see also Hillary Clinton’s statement that the US and Karzai could disagree but still reach their common aims, here) collides with the need to push him to stick to his promises on fighting corruption and improving his government’s performance – and with the fact that despite his dubious legitimacy after the fraud-loaded 2009 vote there are not many signs that he really is up to his word. Furthermore, he tries to assume a position as an honest broker in a conflict of which he is part and party, for example in the upcoming peace jirga.

On how the transfer is supposed to be done Sedwill said more precisely that we talk about the Afghan government taking over ‘the lead in coordinating our activities’ [my emphasis] and that NATO troops would still provide training, equipment and ‘quick response’. And ‘responsibility’ would not only be transferred on security but also for civilian government functions. ‘As the Taleban are running a shadow government, we are running a parallel government’ and ‘that does not build confidence of Afghans in their own government’. (Well, the fact that foreigners still are running large parts of the show, this isn’t really a secret. But it is a nice comparison!)

Furthermore, Sedwill said that there is no short list of provinces to be handed-over yet. However, he said it was logical that this would start in the ‘North and West’. No names were given. But the grapevine here has it that the Berlin government is keen to transfer its Badakhshan PRT.(*) Bamian (where the non-NATO Kiwis are based), Panjshir and Parwan might be other candidates. Maybe, also the Italians would not mind leaving Herat. The respective provincial governors would not be too happy, though, because they have to fear that the Commanders’ Emergency Response Program (CERP) funds – they are supposed to be used by the PRT commanders to fund short-term projects such as clinics – go with the PRTs and they are left without resources. NATO, when TSR-ing, needs to think about how this can be reasonably compensated.

By the way, a transfer of security responsibility is not without precedence in Afghanistan. In August 2008, the Afghan security forces were given the lead for the Afghan capital Kabul. What was supposed to be a public affair was finally conducted without any public fuss. Following are some paras from my contemporary article on the affair (‘Under Afghan Law’ in tageszeitung, 27 August 2008, the full German original is here):

From Thursday (28 August 2008) onwards, the Afghan National Army (ANA) will progressively take over responsibility für the security in the Afghan cpaital Kabul from NATO-led ISAF. The Kabulis will not note much, though – perhaps only that there will be more ANA patrols then before. Even the originally planned handover ceremony will not be held. And one can assume that NATO troops will remain present with a watchful eye in the background.
The reason is that the Afghan security forces have shown a lot of blanks over the past months. They neither were able to prevent the devastating attack at the Indian Embassy in Kabul on 7 July nor an attempt to kill President Hamed Karzai at a military parade in late April when the shots fired by a commando of insurgents missed him only closely. During the following investigation it turned out that high officers of the Ministry of the Interior had supported the snipers. That created substantial doubt in the abilities of the ANA and the police to face the new security responsibility. ‚God alone knows what will happen after that‘, a Kabuli woman working for an international organisation said skeptically.
This transfer was mentioned fort he first time by President Karzai at the NATO spring conference in Bucarest; it was approved at the Afghanistan conference in Paris in June. According to the Kabul Ministry of Defence, only NATO trainers für the ANA and ANP will as well as NATO command centres and logistic bases will remain […].
The handover tot he Afghan forces was supposed to demonstrate abroad that the Karzai government is increasingly able to operate on ist own and that the strategy oft he US and ist Western allies works, i.e. to build up effective Afghan forces. That the handover now is implemented without any public show twists the whole affair in a vote of non-confidence about the Afghan forces abilities and into an admission that the Western plans lag far behind schedule. The statement of Kabul’s former chief of police General Babajan in Kabul Weekly that the transfer showed that ‚the Western style to guarantee security in Kabul war ineffective‘ even reflects a dangerous overestimation of the Afghan forces’ capacities on its own side. […]

The most important part of the transfer to come is the criteria. We will have to watch this discussion very closely. How detailed these criteria will be, how transparently this discussion will be held and, then, how transparently the transfer is implemented will tell us whether we are only in a domestic-policy-driven exit move no matter what, draped in some politically correct terminology (like the worn out ‘Afghan lead’), or in something that could contribute to the central issue of building good institutions in Afghanistan, a guarantee that a withdrawal can indeed be irreversible.

One thing is clear: There need to be local solutions in Afghanistan. But there is no one-fits-all kind of blueprint. The big questions remain: Is there enough time for it? Are there sufficient resources? Are ‘the Afghans’ (in contrast to ‘some Afghans’) brought in locally? Is there political will to look beyond the ‘legitimate’ President’s camp?

Also another weakness of the NATO strategy was highlighted again in Berlin: the still lopsided relation between the much-heralded, but not-yet-really-implemented civilian and the still dominant military engagement. While the participating governments stated that they ‘are’ increasing ‘our civilian and military efforts’ (in this sequence), the communiqué just gives numbers about troop increases, up to 12,000 by the end of the year in RC North.

(*) One interesting reaction to this issue came from a Badakhshani MP interviewed by our Kabul colleagues but whose name we would like to withhold here. First, he claimed that German PRT has ‘done nothing for the province except bringing security problems’ and that the overall deterioration in provincial security is due to government and NATO action, as in most of the country. Later he admitted that, were the Germans to move out, the security situation would further worsen, ‘at least in the short-term’.

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