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Policing in Afghanistan: Still Searching for a Strategy
Policing in Afghanistan: Still Searching for a Strategy
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Afghanistan's Peace Process Will Be Long, Incremental and in Need of a Mediator
Afghanistan's Peace Process Will Be Long, Incremental and in Need of a Mediator
Briefing 85 / Asia

Policing in Afghanistan: Still Searching for a Strategy

Police reform in Afghanistan is receiving more attention and resources than ever before, but such increased efforts are still yet to be matched by significant improvements in police effectiveness and public confidence.

I. Overview

Police reform in Afghanistan is receiving more attention and resources than ever before, but such increased efforts are still yet to be matched by significant improvements in police effectiveness and public confidence. Too much emphasis has continued to be placed on using the police to fight the insurgency rather than crime. Corruption and political appointments are derailing attempts to professionalise the force. The government and the international community need to reinforce the International Policing Coordination Board (IPCB) as the central forum for prioritising efforts and drive forward with much greater unity of effort. Tangible steps such as appointing a career police commissioner and establishing community liaison boards will build professionalism and wider outreach. A national police force able to uphold the rule of law is crucial to state-building and would help tackle the root causes of alienation that drive the insurgency.

After years of neglect, the international community appears to be recognising the importance of police reform in Afghanistan. Greater focus on the sector has seen the first large-scale district-level training and equipping program, $3.8 billion in U.S. commitments in 2007 and 2008 and a reinforced European Union (EU) policing mission. Nevertheless, there is still need for enhanced coordination in the efforts of different countries involved in reform, with a greater emphasis on developing Afghan institutions rather than parallel programs. The EU, despite having nominal lead for police reform, has failed to match rhetoric with a comprehensive strategy and adequate resourcing and personnel. Instead, a deteriorating security situation and political pressure for quick results has continued to obscure longer-term strategic planning and the importance of civilian oversight.

The U.S. military, the dominant actor, still mainly sees the police as an auxiliary security force rather than an enforcer of the law. The Afghan National Police (ANP) is ill-equipped for this role, with 1,200 insurgency-related police deaths in 2007 – and on track for similar numbers in 2008. Such an approach also ignores that organised crime and the lack of rule of law lie at the heart of much popular disillusionment and instability. Lessons that could have been learned from other counter-insurgency situations often appear lost amid a profusion of international efforts. Better law enforcement, including a functioning judicial system, would help counter any appeal the insurgents may hold in Afghanistan.

On-the-ground police training and restructuring has not been matched by political will in Kabul or foreign capitals to tackle the powerbrokers impeding reform. A senior international official described, “trying to do police reform while simultaneously co-existing with forces who want to reach in and corrupt it”. Police appointments and operations are subject to interference at every level.

Despite these shortcomings, there is renewed hope. Changes of personnel at the top provide a chance for fresh impetus in setting goals and driving implementation. These include a new interior minister; a new attorney general; and a new commander of the European policing mission. U.S. military training efforts have been realigned under the dual-hatted commander of U.S forces and the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). While there are calls for more resources, there first needs to be much greater coherence of approach and streamlining of programs, with political, strategic and operational decision-making clearly delineated and roles defined.

There is, above all, a pressing need for an improved strategic focus across the security and rule-of-law sectors, ensuring police reform takes place within larger state-building efforts, including:

  • clearly defining the roles and responsibilities of the different security organs – the police, the military and the intelligence agencies;
     
  • parallel reform and links with prosecutors’ offices and the justice sector;
     
  • public outreach and consultation with civil society, including women’s organisations, about the shape of policing and the creation of civilian accountability mechanisms; and 
     
  • moving past security-oriented, militaristic notions of policing to include community-policing efforts that build community trust and credibility.

In August 2007 Crisis Group stressed: “Rule of law, upheld by accountable, depoliticised national institutions is key to state building … the police must be viewed as part of a wider process of democratisation, rather than simply a security task”. This briefing focuses on the Afghan Uniformed Police (AUP) and considers major developments in 2007-2008. These include the Focused District Development (FDD) program, begun in late 2007 to reform police at the district level countrywide, as well as the deployment of the EU Policing Mission to Afghanistan (EUPOL), which assumed the nominal lead for police reform in mid-2007. Information was gathered through research in Kandahar, Mazar-e Sharif and Kabul. While many individuals were helpful, it should be noted that policymaking in the sector has become increasingly opaque and data – always notoriously unreliable in Afghanistan – increasingly difficult to access.

Kabul/Brussels, 18 December 2008

Speech / Asia

Afghanistan's Peace Process Will Be Long, Incremental and in Need of a Mediator

Speech by Laurel Miller, Program Director for Asia, at the United Nations Security Council Arria Formula Meeting on the Peace Process in Afghanistan.

Distinguished speakers and participants, thank you for the opportunity to join you for this discussion today. 

As all the preceding speakers have emphasised, a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan would be the best way to advance peace and prosperity in that country and contribute to security beyond its borders. But it goes without explaining that peacemaking is hard, and more often than not it fails. As an independent observer, I can perhaps best contribute to this discussion by highlighting a few key risks and realities that are important for those supporting an Afghan peace process to reflect in their policies and diplomacy, if the process is to have the greatest possible chance of success.

First, if the peace process succeeds – in other words, in the most optimistic scenario – the process will result in a government of which the Taliban are a substantial part, and which is structurally different than what we see today. What exactly the Taliban share and the structural changes will be can only be determined through negotiations, but trade-offs have to be expected. To anticipate otherwise would be to hope for Taliban surrender and there is no sign of that.

If and when the Afghan parties begin substantive negotiations, their starting positions are likely to be very far apart on the most fundamental questions of the political system and what kinds of democratic features it will and won’t have as compared to the existing system. Either there will be compromises on these questions or there will not be a negotiated settlement – in which case, the bloodshed will continue, with or without a foreign troop presence, and Afghanistan’s economic prospects will remain stunted.

One policy implication of this reality is that it is more important to focus support on the peace process than on specific outcomes. This isn’t to suggest that supporting countries abandon their own values. But it is to say that without placing an end to the bloodshed, to the human toll, at the apex of desired outcomes in the nearer term, other desired outcomes – rights, justice for victims, democratic features – are unlikely to be realised over the longer term. If the mantra “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led” means anything, it should mean that members of the international community will support the outcomes of Afghan peace negotiations without imposing their own redlines.

Another policy implication is that, if a negotiated settlement materialises, promoting its implementation will require providing financial support to a government that includes the Taliban. This is a reality that may be difficult to absorb for some parliaments and publics of countries that have been at war with the Taliban for two decades.

A second reality I’ll highlight concerns timing constraints on the peace process. As I’m sure is well-known to this group, peace processes generally are lengthy, often years-long affairs. In Afghanistan’s case, the relatively straightforward U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in February took nearly a year and a half to negotiate, after years of quiet preparatory steps. The more complex topics to be negotiated among Afghans will not easily be amenable to quick resolution. An incremental approach to negotiations, in which compromises are gradually accumulated, building toward the most difficult issues would offer the best chance for the parties to evolve their positions and acclimate their constituencies to compromises. This kind of approach takes time.

The U.S.-Taliban agreement, however, has shortened the time horizon for talks. It’s not hard to imagine some flexibility on the agreement’s May 2021 deadline for a full withdrawal of all foreign forces and other non-diplomatic personnel, particularly considering that none of the other deadlines in the text have held so far. And, it is theoretically possible that the Biden administration will revisit elements of the deal or interpret some of its requirements more stringently; such modifications could extend the withdrawal timeline. Regardless of any Taliban flexibility or stiffened American conditionality – or even U.S. abandonment of the deal, though I don’t expect that – the withdrawal provisions have undoubtedly shaped Taliban expectations. The withdrawal timeline was a big win for them, and they had insisted on that win up front, before commencing talks with other Afghans. It is unlikely Afghan talks can be sustained if that win is not sustained. And, unfortunately, it is also unlikely that talks would continue after a full withdrawal. The timeline may be somewhat elastic, but probably can’t be stretched very far.

I mention the timing issue in part because some have been understandably frustrated with the dramatic urgency of U.S. diplomacy over the last couple of years and may be hoping for that to change. I cannot predict what the Biden administration’s approach will be. But I can say that objective analysis of the options available will have to treat the U.S.-Taliban agreement as a ‘fact on the ground,’ and will have to resolve the tension between the timing expectations that it created and the benefits of an incremental process. 

Finally, I’ll conclude with a practical suggestion for Security Council members’ consideration. A missing feature in the peace process so far is an empowered, impartial mediator. It is difficult to see how the parties will be able to bridge the substantial distance between their starting positions without such help. Several governments have informally played a mediation role in the process so far, but this ad hoc approach is less likely to be effective as the talks get more difficult.

A Security Council imprimatur for a mediator would be helpful. Such an imprimatur would reflect the common interests of council members in a stable Afghanistan that contributes to regional stability and provides no safe harbour for transnational terrorists. It would also signal the clear backing of key countries for the peace process – countries whose support will be needed not only to keep the process on track but also to create conditions for effective implementation of any results.

Over the next two months, while the future direction of U.S. policy cannot be certain, the crucial task will be to keep the Afghan talks, currently stalled, on life support. After that point, a push to put in place a mediator could help re-energise the process.

Thank you.