Ollie Makepeace reports from Kabul: President Hamid Karzai has announced that his forces are about to take responsibility for close to 90 per cent of the nation’s security.
Do we actually believe him? The short answer is: best lay off any bets on things working out well in Afghanistan. As the shaggy eyebrowed General Pete Carter used to say about this place: ‘You can sure bet the ranch that yesterday was a good day but only because we’re still here.’ In other words, we made it through the past 24 hours but the jury’s out on the next 24. So careful how you bet on this place for 2013, never mind 2014.
President Karzai is claiming that the Afghan security forces will, by the middle of 2013, be taking the lead for providing security for 87 per cent of the Afghan population and 23 of the 34 Afghan provinces. This is effectively the transition of the fourth group of provinces and districts that include significant towns and cities into an Afghan-run security programme.
An official here from NATO headquarters in Brussels says their Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is telling anyone who will listen (and they do because more than 40 states have at one time or another deployed troops in Afghanistan) that Afghanistan can do it as advertised. He says, and here I more or less quote: ‘This is a significant step towards our shared goal of seeing Afghans fully in charge of their own security by the end of 2014. It is the result of the progress we have made together, and thanks to the courage and resolve of the Afghan people, the Afghan forces and our ISAF troops and trainers.’
And my newest best non-drinking buddy says what Rasmussen means is that the Afghan army (the ANA) and police are steadily growing in capacity and confidence. They already lead the vast majority of operations, are responsible for most of the training and are highly trusted by the Afghan people.
It’s OK to set this out as a success, not because it is a success, but because it is not a failure. If that sounds uncharitable a judgment and even perverse then maybe it is right.
Neither Mr Karzai nor Mr Rasmussen go into the distinction between the Afghan Army takeover and the police. The ANA is clearly working on its game. The police remain suspect and in too many cases downright corrupt and untrustworthy. There’s the rub. Future security throughout the 34 Afghan provinces, especially in the towns and cities, cannot be delivered without the police who are essentially local forces in home territories unlike the army which can adopt the arguably easier patrolling and rapid reaction role.
So, like any other form of constabulary, the Afghan police are local and identifiable and are therefore, vulnerable to local pressures including threats and bribes from militants.
The British former Royal Marine commander, Major General Julian Thompson, long ago pointed out that the police are vulnerable to persuasion and corruption because many of them go home at night. Therefore living in the community is a weakness rather than the advantage it should be.
Furthermore, there is no indication whatsoever that the present talks with the Taliban will do anything to enhance security. Absolute control by the Taliban does not mean the form of security that NATO and ISAF and indeed Karzai had envisaged.
There is an added problem that Rasmussen and Karzai cannot possibly judge, nor speak about to the Taliban and militants in Pakistan who are threatening, maiming and killing at will. The importance of this is that the security of Afghanistan depends entirely on the stability of Pakistan. Understanding that simple reality allows the regional complexity to focus on the conditions that will bring about the stability that Karzai suggests is possible soon, with the ambition of Rasmussen that all will go to plan by the time in 2014 when the coalition withdraws from combat operations in Afghanistan – although for now the US plan is that drone attacks will continue.
Afghanistan’s future is a regional subject. Pakistan, India, and to a great extent Iran as well as the Central Asian Republics all have a part to play in stability. All this is why the NATO Secretary General’s remarks are nothing more than yesterday was a good day stuff. As for Karzai? Just remember the golden rule of any big insurance gamble: always lay off bets. Then for all of us, yesterday was good.