Testimony to the Dutch Parliament on the Deployment of a Police Training Mission to Afghanistan
Testimony to the Dutch Parliament on the Deployment of a Police Training Mission to Afghanistan
The Taliban’s Neighbourhood and Regional Diplomacy with Afghanistan (Online Event, 5 March 2024)
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Speech / Asia 8 minutes

Testimony to the Dutch Parliament on the Deployment of a Police Training Mission to Afghanistan

Opening statement to the public hearing of the Committees on Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Security and Justice of the House of Representatives of Netherlands’ Parliament on an integrated police training mission in Afghanistan [as prepared for delivery]. By Nick Grono, Deputy President of Crisis Group, 24 January 2011.

Thank you for your invitation. I last had the honour of addressing the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committees some five years ago, when you were considering the deployment of Dutch troops to Uruzgan.

The organisation I work for, the International Crisis Group, has been operating in Afghanistan since 2002. We have closely covered political and security developments there over the last nine years, and have reported extensively on police reform.

In my opening remarks I will highlight three key lessons for policing from our research. I’ll then comment on the particular challenges for policing in Kunduz, where the Dutch training mission will be deployed if it goes ahead.

1. Good policing is critical to counter insurgency

The fight against an insurgency is a contest to establish legitimacy. If the Afghan government can’t establish its legitimacy, and provide security to the general population, then it is going to find it very difficult to defeat the insurgency. And police are central to this effort. In much of Afghanistan, the police are the public face of the government.

Policing is also one of the most effective – and ill-used – tools available to tackle extremism. Police should be the eyes and ears in uncovering violent networks, spotting bombs, guarding public facilities and reporting suspicious activities. 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.

As a Kabul district police chief told Crisis Group, “when the people trust the police, that is the time there will be real security”.

A well-trained police force is also vital to restoring the court and prison systems – 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. And the sad fact is that while there are some proud and professional individual officers, Afghanistan’s citizens generally view the police more as a source of fear than of security. More often than not police prey on the local population

Not surprisingly, this drives the local population in the arms of the insurgents.

2. The international community failed to prioritise policing until far too late, and still hasn’t got it right

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 needed resources – political, military or financial. It instead opted for short term fixes, such as empowering discredited warlords. What money and attention there was went to rebuilding the army, with the police an afterthought.

This finally changed three years ago, and resources have since been poured into policing reform. But in the rush to ramp up police numbers – the objective is a force far bigger than the state’s ability to financially sustain – there is an undue focus on force size over quality, and insufficient focus on building a force dedicated to providing public order and security

The result is that the Afghan National Police force (ANP) is, as noted, largely corrupt, brutal and predatory. The poorly and hastily trained rank and file are mostly illiterate, many are drug addicts, while officers, many appointed and promoted on political rather than professional grounds, are known more for their abuse of power, particularly at the local level.

Despite pay increases, attrition rates remain high as the poorly armed and poorly trained police is used more as an  auxiliary security force than an enforcer of law. Resorting  to bribery, illegal tax collection, drug dealing and even murder, the ANP is feared and mistrusted by Afghan citizens, not only undermining the legitimacy of the state but also that of the international community, particularly the U.S., responsible for bankrolling and training it.   

Yet, instead of focusing all its efforts on reforming this dysfunctional force, the international community, led by the U.S., has once again resorted to a quick fix, setting up a 10,000-strong Afghan local police force (ALP), supposedly hired from local communities and trained and paid by the government. This experiment is destined to fail, in the same way that similar exercises have in the past, and undermine the ANP in the process.

A similar plan (the Afghan National Auxiliary Police force) was tried, and failed back in 2006. Thousands of former militia were hired in the most violent areas and given guns and uniforms after ten days training. When that scheme was announced, Crisis Group expressed the strong view that this was abandoning all pretence of a professional institution in favour of handing out guns and uniforms to men with ten days training and doubtful command and control. That program soon failed, with many of the men (and their uniforms and guns) never seen again.

But the same flawed idea is repeatedly floated, with little consideration of the past failures. Regardless of assurances that this time it will be different, Crisis Group is highly sceptical that having a less trained “police” force, with local allegiances, will contribute to providing greater security and building public confidence. Not only are these village militias likely to be controlled by warlords, but favouring some among the many competing communities and groups in a heavily armed country will result in more violence.

3. Policing will not make a big difference in the absence of good governance

Despite all the resources and effort now being devoted to police reform, a professional police force will make little difference in the absence of good governance and the rule of law. And given the venality and corruption of the current government in Afghanistan, this does not bode well for police reform efforts, however well intentioned.

Afghanistan has faced sustained conflict for over 30 years now. And the enduring paradigm is that of abusive power-holders preying on the local populations. The power holders change – Afghan communists, Soviet military, mujahedeen, Taliban, and now re-empowered warlords – but the problem remains the same. The problem is that of highly personalised rule, a culture of impunity, and abuse of large segments of the population based on tribal, sectarian or ethnic affiliation.

The result is festering grievances, and an alienated population that turns against those believed responsible for the abuses – be they warlords turned governors, the government in Kabul, or the international forces who support them.

And though the problem has increasingly been recognised by international policy makers, far too little is being done to address it. Instead the international community and the Afghan government continue to favour the quick and dirty solutions, such as arming local militias, empowering discredited warlords, making deals with and giving impunity to abusive power-holders. This all goes to fuel the grievances of the local population, who understand the hypocrisy of such policies, and understand that they will continue to be the victims of these power-holders. The ALP initiative is a prime example of a quick fix favouring segments of the population and most likely to alienate others.

Without building more trust among the local population, and credible institutions, we are going to find it very difficult to persuade Afghans to support the central government over the insurgency.  Police reform and training is a key, but not sufficient, part of that equation.

The situation in Kunduz

Security conditions in Kunduz have been in rapid decline since 2007. Located in the northeast corridor of Afghanistan along the Tajikistan border, the province is a pivotal strategic byway for both anti-government insurgents, particularly Hekmatyar Gulbuddin’s renegade Hizb-e Islami, and coalition forces, who have come increasingly to rely on northern supply lines located in the province for fuel and other crucial materiel.

Competent policing is not only crucial to stability and security in the province but to the region as a whole. With Tajikistan just over the border, loss of control over Kunduz could have a profoundly negative impact on the stability of this part of Central Asia. Though it is unclear how many foreign fighters from groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are in the region, the evidence suggests that cross-border movements from Afghanistan into Tajikistan and back have picked up in recent years.

Police training mission priorities  

Given the past performance of NATO police trainers, there are, of course, reasons to be cautious about the overall impact the Dutch mission will have on security in Kunduz if it goes ahead. The mission’s effectiveness will depend both on the scope of training as well as the length of mission rotations. Short rotations of six to nine months will inevitably mean that trainers will have to pick a few key areas of capacity building to have an impact. The mission will also be far less effective if it is subject to restrictive caveats that bar trainers from going out in the field with Afghan police.

Police across the country lack the basics in almost every category. But in a place like Kunduz where policing and government in general has been under-resourced logistics training will be just as crucial as weapons handling and patrol planning. Teaching police to manage supplies and account for personnel is crucial to their effectiveness. Also paramount is repeated training on communications equipment.

Another important part of the mission will be empowering local police to extend their outreach and assistance to residents. This is not only important for tasks such as gathering intelligence on IED’s but for establishing a strong government counterbalance to the heavy Taliban presence in the area.

In order for any of this to work, however, trainers with the Dutch mission will have to be especially alert to corruption within police ranks. Abuses of low level police officers by their superiors are common and have been widely documented. Allowing problems such withholding of pay or leave to fester could put both Afghan police and their trainers at great risk and end in tragedy, as we saw in December when an Afghan trainee turned his gun on his ISAF mentors. Trainers will have to push police supervisors to implement and maintain systems of accountability across the board. Corruption must be dealt with swiftly and it will be key for Dutch officers working at NTM-A HQ in Kabul to liaise regularly with the field on these issues so that the appropriate pressure can be applied within the Ministry of Interior.

Thank you.

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