Policing in Conflict States – Lessons from Afghanistan
Policing in Conflict States – Lessons from Afghanistan
The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
Speech / Asia

Policing in Conflict States – Lessons from Afghanistan

Speech by Nick Grono, Deputy President of the International Crisis Group, to International Police Commissioners’ Conference, in The Hague, 16 June 2009.

Afghanistan has a fully fledged insurgency, the latest stage in 30 years of violent conflict. The enduring paradigm over that time has been abusive powerholders preying on the local population – first the Afghan Communists, then the Soviets, then the Mujahadeen, then the Taliban, and now the warlords and a resurgent Taliban.

The tragic thing about Afghanistan is that it didn’t have to be like this. With a more focussed international effort back in 2002 and 2003, Afghanistan would have been a much more stable state than it is now.

But, unfortunately, after the rapid fall of the Taliban in late 2001, almost no effort was put into committing peacekeepers to Afghanistan to establish a non-partisan security presence throughout the country. Nor was sufficient thought given to setting up an effective police force to build community confidence and government legitimacy.

This analysis is not simply the benefit of hindsight. My organisation, and many others, were calling for exactly this from the very beginning. Back in March 2002, some four months after the international intervention, Crisis Group warned:

There is a desperate need to reconstitute a police force to maintain control in the cities, start to spread out over the country, and assure civilians that the law, not simply the most powerful military factions, will be respected.

That didn’t happen, because the international community was unwilling to contribute the troops and police, and funding, needed. Of course that was a false saving, because many billions more are now being committed to ensuring Afghanistan doesn’t once again become a safe haven for extremists

Why is policing central to counter-insurgency efforts?   In simple terms, an insurgency is a struggle to establish legitimacy. If the central government can’t establish its legitimacy, and secure the general population, then it is going to find it very difficult to defeat an insurgency. And police are central to this effort. In much of Afghanistan, the police are the public face of the government.

Policing is one of the most effective – and also the most ill-used – tools available to tackle extremism. In an insurgency police should be the eyes and ears in uncovering violent networks, spotting bombs, guarding public facilities and reporting suspicious activities. More generally – but just as importantly – police keep everyday public order on the streets. Reducing general criminality and providing security to the public provides the most widely shared and distributed public good. It is much more effective in winning hearts and minds than digging wells or building schools – and indeed encourages and protects such development activities.

A well-trained police force is also vital to restoring the court and prison systems – all the moving parts of the rule of law. Improve these, and jihadists are not only taken off the streets, but their public trials undermine their message of glorified extremism. Absent these basic tools of law, political participation, economic growth, and better governance are all out of reach.

But while police are key to establishing legitimacy, they can just as quickly undermine the credibility of the state. As Karl Eikenberry – former head of US forces in Afghansitan, and now US ambassador to Afghanistan – has noted, “Ten good police are better than 100 corrupt police and ten corrupt police can do more damage to our success than one Taliban extremist.”

And the sad fact is that while there are some proud and professional individual officers, the Ministry of Interior is seen as the locus of corruption, and the Afghan National Police it fields are disrespected and feared. More often than not police prey on the local population. Many are rebadged militia, answering to the local warlord or commander. Many are involved in the drugs trade. In fact, police chief posts in key drug producing or transit districts have been auctioned off for tens of thousands of dollars.

This naturally alienates the local population, and encourages support for the insurgents.  It is important to remember that in the 1990s militia checkpoints and tolls on the highways were one of the major reasons that the Taliban at least initially won some popular support. Today the same complaints are heard of police on the roads preying on travellers.

There is another side to this equation, which is that the police also bear the brunt of the counter insurgency. In Afghanistan, inadequately trained police are often being asked to do war fighting against the Taliban as an auxiliary security force. Too often they are on the frontlines of the war, despite not having the training, equipment or backup. So, in 2008, some 1200 Afghan police were killed, about three times the number of Afghan soldiers. The police are often singled out by the Taliban for suicide bombings and other attacks. This contributes to a police attrition rate of some 20 per cent per annum, crushing morale.

The central importance of police in contributing to stability in conflict and post conflict situations is probably obvious to this audience. But, unfortunately, it is not always so to policy makers and the military who usually drive policy making on the ground in Afghanistan. Far too often, the policing side of the equation (international and domestic) is an afterthought. And as a result it is often poorly thought out and poorly resourced.

Initially in Afghanistan, responsibilities for sectors was divided up between key international donors. The Germans were given responsibility for police, and Americans for the army, Italians for the justice system and the British for counter-narcotics. This almost inevitably resulted in a lack of coordination between these key elements of the security sector as well as a large differences in resources, with the vast majority of the money going to the Afghan National Army, the one institution to receive comprehensive, top to bottom reform.

There were big philosophical differences  in approach by the Germans (and now the Europeans) and Americans. German training was primarily focused on a civilian law and order force with little acknowledgement of the security environment. The US squarely focussed on producing an auxiliary security force to supplement their own troops.

These different philosophies also played out in the approach taken to training.  Germans focussed on producing a highly professional officer corps – three year training course for officers and one year for non-commissioned officers. This was laudable, but of course meant that only some 870 officers were trained in the first three years, and some 2,600 NCOs. Even more dangerously it meant that in the interim local commanders and militia leaders were able to embed themselves in the Ministry of Interior and in senior local police positions with their own men as the “beat police”. This greatly increasing resistance to meaningful reform in future years.

Frustrated by the slow pace in the police sector, the US entered the game in the lead up to the 2004 elections. Americans realised much greater efforts were needed to train the lower ranks, and ramped up rapid training course, churning out police in 8 weeks if literate, and just 5 weeks if illiterate – and only some 30 per cent or so of recruits were literate.

Meanwhile, while all of this was going on, far too little was happening in terms of real reform at the Ministry of Interior, long regarded as a deeply corrupt institution. The justice sector also continued to lag, with too little in the way of agreed strategic approaches to reform, including how the different institutions would work together. There is of course little point in having a police force if you don’t have functioning judges, courts or prisons and a working relationship between the different bodies. Building Afghan institutions is the ultimate exit strategy and the only way to ensure sustainability.

In 2006 in response to the growing insurgency even these minimal standards were dropped, with the creation of the Afghan National Auxiliary Police. This program was supposed to see 11,000 men hired in the most violent areas and given a gun and a uniform after ten days training. As it rolled out Crisis Group warned that this was a dangerous distraction from building a professional police force. As predicted after millions of dollars and two years of efforts this program was widely admitted to be a failure with a few thousand of these men switched to the regular police, but thousands more disappearing never to be seen again with their weapons and uniforms.  Yet more were simply let go, again with their weapons and uniforms but now unpaid and presumably unhappy about it.

Imagine if this time and effort had been put into training quality professional NCOs, who are essential field leaders in a largely illiterate country. Instead their training too has been slashed from one year to some three months.

How quickly lessons are forgotten amidst the speedy rotations in Afghanistan. Almost identical rhetoric to that about the ANAP in 2006 is now being used by the Americans to promote  the APPF, the Afghan Public Protection Force. Admittedly a far more closely monitored project – although it is only in the trial stages in Wardak province  – it aims to provide local recruits with three weeks of training, and a gun. Given the current doubts about the effectiveness and accountability of the Afghan police force, we are sceptical that having a less trained “police” force, with local allegiances, will contribute to providing greater security and building public confidence.

There are some glimmers of hope. A new Interior Minister, with a far more strategic approach, took the helm at the end of 2008. The International Police Coordination Board (IPCB) has been streamlined and is co-operating, particularly at a working level, far more productively than previously. There was also great pride in Kabul at the quick reaction of the security forces to the February 2009 assault on three ministries in the capital, and that effective response provided an important psychological boost. These small achievements need to be built upon.

So that’s a snap shot of where we are at. What are some of the key lessons that can be drawn from this experience for the international community?

1. Effective donor coordination is key

There must be effective coordination between donors – at both planning and implementation stages. There must be a clear vision of the mission objectives, shared by all the of the major donors in partnership with Afghan institutions. And there must be a chain of command with clear division of work.

This should be self evident, but apparently the lessons of the past have not been internalized. In Afghanistan there has been a failure to coordinate at all levels. The Germans and Americans and Italians did not coordinate over their vision of the security and rule of law sectors. The Americans and Germans did not coordinate their training of officers and police.  Currently, the EU has the nominal lead for police training, even though the US contributes the vast bulk of the resources. And they both have a different philosophy of policing – be it counter-insurgency or community focused.  The new minister of interior is far more effective in knocking heads together amongst the international community but efforts are still too often run outside Afghan institutions, and short term in focus.

Effective coordination also extends to donors’ internal organization to assist with police reform. In the United States there is no single agency responsible for police training abroad. The departments of Defense, State, Justice, and Homeland Security, as well as the Agency for International Development, all have police programs that operate independently and often without communicating effectively. The decision to give a leading role in police programs in Afghanistan to the Department of Defense has further blurred the distinction between the military and police.

2. Focus on institution-building

Institution-building and development is vital for sustainable and effective reform of the police sector.  A huge amount of work, and billions of dollars, is going into training police – but this will be largely wasted if the Ministry of Interior – which appoints senior police officials, including police chiefs at the province and district level and is responsible for policymaking  – is not thoroughly reformed.

Corruption has been endemic in the MoI. One observer has called it a “shop for selling jobs.” Key police posts in Afghanistan are frequently auctioned off to the highest bidder. The successful bidder needs to raise money to pay for the cost of getting the job, and keeping it. It institutionalizes corruption.  So the centre of all coordinated efforts needs to be MoI reform and accountability – an intrinsically difficult job particularly given demands for quick results and measurables such as equipment handed out and officers trained. However all training simply comes to nothing if officers are then put into a systemically corrupt environment where the good can’t advance and the crooked flourish.

3. Tackle corruption and improve accountability

An accountable, trusted police service can only be achieved with a serious commitment to tackle corruption and foster accountability. This is closely related to institution building and MOI reform, but extends to the whole police service. Indeed it is why MOI reform is so vital – it sets the example and place the demands on the police on the streets. Foreign mentors from a different culture and not speaking the language cannot be everywhere and can only do so much – and will not be there forever.

One police officer Crisis Group interviewed said that often newly trained police went back to their districts with best of intentions, but were pressured by colleagues to accept bribes, and were driven out if they didn’t.

A corrupt and brutal police undermines public faith in the police and causes them to be viewed as predators rather than protectors. Rooting out corruption and ensuring operational autonomy is critical if the police are to provide a professional, consistent service to citizens rather than acting as a coercive tool of governing elites.

For accountability, there needs to be capacity to redress public grievances. There must be a clear signal that abuses will not be tolerated. Police can be made more accountable using measures such as creating a policing committees consisting of government, civil society and human rights representatives, with functions including appointing an independent police ombudsman to investigate serious cases of police abuse.

4. Orient the police towards law enforcement not war-fighting -and engage the local community

The emphasis for police needs to be on fighting crime, not war fighting against the insurgency. It is counter-productive to treat police as an auxiliary fighting unit in battling the insurgency. And a police force is ill-equipped and ill-trained for this role.  The police can still do counterinsurgency work in a law enforcement role. The reality is that organised crime and the lack of rule of law lie at the heart of much popular disillusionment and instability that fuels insurgency.

By having a police force that focuses on fighting crime, you can thereby help tackle the root causes of alienation that feeds the insurgency. Building connections to the communities they are supposed to serve would boost intelligence capabilities and foster crucial support for an unpopular government.

Given the insurgency, there may indeed be need for a robust police posture but it should be in a defensive mode, with the army playing the offensive role. The police have other equally vital roles to play, including providing a public face for the administration, acquiring and imparting ground knowledge, and helping build public confidence.

A clear legal and strategic framework is required in setting forth police responsibilities. Currently the Police Law is murky both in separating the police from operational interference by their political masters. Meanwhile there is no completed Internal Security Strategy laying out the respective duties of the army, police and secret service – even as the size of each continues to be expanded.

5. Understand the domestic context

Not only do these lessons need to be applied to peacebuilding policing reform, but they need to be accompanied by a solid and comprehensive understanding of the local context, including history, culture, local capacities and needs, the state and government, threats to internal security, the history of law enforcement and state-society relations.

To take just one example. In Afghanistan the officer level of the security forces have been dominated by Tajiks. Although Tajiks represent about one quarter of the national population, in 2007 they comprised a majority of the officers and NCOs coming through the training courses. There are some historical reasons for this overrepresentation, and recent personnel changes at the very top to address this, but fair ethnic representation at a command level is essential. Police must be perceived as a neutral, impartial service and not the tool of one group.

6. Provide the necessary funding, commitment and resources

All of these activities are essential for an effective police force, and need to be funded accordingly, with multi-year financial pledges to back strategic approaches, an expectation that the commitment and deployments will be for a number of years, and disbursement of funds conditioned to measurable progress.  Political will to press on with some of the more intractable challenges such as de-politicizing the police and tackling corruption is indispensable.

Adequate resources also need to be provided in terms of manpower – particularly in committing internationals to the police training effort. People working in peacekeeping missions will be performing a demanding role in an extremely challenging environment, and they will need to have the capacity and skills to do the job and appropriate training. From all nations there is often little obvious correlation between the job at hand and the mentors sent to Afghanistan conduct it. What are needed – particularly at MOI level – are foreign mentors experienced in institutional reform, strategic planning and with cross-cultural experience.

Podcast / Asia

The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s foreign relations and what the killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul says about the threat from transnational militants in Afghanistan a year into Taliban rule.

On 31 July, a U.S. drone strike killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul. Zawahiri appears to have been living in a house maintained by the family of powerful Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani. His death came almost a year after U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan and the Taliban routed the former Afghan security forces and seized power. The Taliban’s uncompromising rule over the past year has seen girls denied their right to education, many other rights and freedoms curtailed and power tightly guarded within the Taliban movement. The Afghan economy has collapsed, owing in large part to the U.S. and other countries’ freezing Afghan Central Bank assets, keeping sanctions against the Taliban in place and denying the country non-humanitarian aid. Levels of violence across the country are mostly down, but Afghans’ plight is desperate, with a grave humanitarian crisis set to worsen over the winter. The Taliban’s apparent harbouring of Zawahiri seems unlikely to smooth relations between the new authorities in Kabul and the outside world. 

This week on Hold your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s broader foreign relations after Zawahiri’s killing. They discuss what his presence and death in Kabul mean for U.S. policy and what they say about the threat posed by transnational militants sheltering in Afghanistan. They look into how countries in the region are seeking to protect their interests in Afghanistan, including by engaging with the de facto Taliban authorities, and how those countries – particularly Pakistan, which has faced an uptick of violence in the past year – view the danger from foreign militants in Afghanistan. They also look in depth at Washington’s goals in Afghanistan a year after the withdrawal and what balance it should strike between engaging the Taliban or seeking to isolate them. Just over a year after the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover, they reflect back on Washington’s decision to pull out troops. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the situation in Afghanistan, check out Crisis Group’s recent report Afghanistan’s Security Challenges under the Taliban.

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