Small Wars Journal

An Afghanistan Without Institutions

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Let’s not kid ourselves; Afghanistan will still be at war post-2014.  Given that the coalition intends to end combat operations in 2014 while security problems linger on, the Afghans will certainly be left to manage the  daily activities of a counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign well into the “Transformation Decade” (2015-2024), discussed in-depth at the recent Bonn Conference.  If the world doesn’t want to see Afghanistan plunge into chaos once again, there must be a serious focus on strengthening the institutions that will protect and run the country as a whole.

In December, the Center for New American Security (CNAS) released a report on why it is time for a change of mission in Afghanistan; that is, one which shifts away from American-led COIN operations toward a mission managed by Afghan forces in which coalition forces offer advice and assistance.  This “security force assistance” strategy is a realistic and sensible policy option, considering the international community’s growing reluctance to devote more time and resources to continued COIN operations.  This lack of a long-term commitment requires the Afghans to take the lead; they might be better equipped to do so, as they understand the culture, terrain and enemy better than any foreign force.  They are the real counterinsurgents. Recent remarks from U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Gen. John R. Allen, senior American commander in Afghanistan, that American forces will step back from a combat role and begin deploying more military trainers to Afghan units are encouraging.

Even if policymakers change the mission, there is still a serious problem: Afghan national institutions are severely factional and lack a cohesive national security culture.  In other words, Afghan institutions are not sufficiently focused on defending their own nation. Influential Afghan figures continue to promote patronage networks further institutionalizing favoritism and corruption.   These institutions include, but are not limited to, the Ministry of Defense, General Staff and Ministry of Interior.  All three will be responsible for maintaining an enduring and sustainable ANSF after the U.S. and coalition partners’ transition in 2014. Therefore, the international focus cannot be limited to providing “security force assistance” but needs to couple it with institutional augmentation – advising, supporting and strengthening Afghan institutions’ capacity to manage national security threats.  These institutions and their leaders must encourage a shift from a factional patronage to a shared national identity.  If Afghan institutions are not capable of providing national security and adapting to emerging national threats beyond 2014, COIN will fail, the government will splinter and civil war will erupt. 

Unfortunately, while institutional advisor programs do exist, they often receive insufficient attention, frequently taking a backseat to combat operations.  Absent substantial foreign assistance, the Afghan government is incapable of sustaining an entire security force, let alone a COIN strategy. The next three years marks a critical period, as building durable institutions will require significant investment, particularly in personnel responsible for overseeing national security policy and running the ANSF.   

 Institutional augmentation will also necessitate a more robust civilian focus. Here, there are unique challenges given NATO’s narrow Afghan focus on boosting numbers and increasing the quality of the Army and Police. Improving human capital in Afghan institutions requires a comprehensive and coordinated effort by the U.S. Department of State, Department of Defense and their allies in order to expand their current advisory missions.  In addition, the international community needs to partner with reliable Afghans to help blur the lines between factions in the Afghan government that prevent a national security culture from taking root.  Holding leaders accountable when they promote divisiveness through patronage will inspire positive change. 

It is in the national security interests of the U.S. and the international community to have a post-2014 Afghanistan with independent capabilities to effectively deal with internal threats with limited outside assistance. 

Capable Afghan national security institutions can promote international interests by:

  • Ensuring the country is free of terrorist sanctuaries.

  • Ensuring the country will not descend into civil war and destabilize regional neighbors;

  • Ensuring Afghan territory is not used as a battleground for regional proxy wars; and

  • Sustaining stability to allow the country to become economically embedded in the region and permit trading networks to connect the East to West, and the North to South.

    If the international community changes the mission in 2012 to “security force assistance” and institutional augmentation, the Afghan government will be able to manage their own national security interests during the “Transformation Decade.”  It is critical to refine the future mission while there are still coalition resources in Afghanistan.  If the mission does not change now, the world will once again have a militant infested failed state in a nuclear armed neighborhood.

    Categories: institutions - Afghanistan

    About the Author(s)

    Kip Whittington is a Research Associate at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. He holds an MA in International Affairs, with concentrations in Middle East Regional Studies and Defense Policy & Military Affairs, from Texas A&M University’s George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service. Please note that the views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.