Afghanistan 2014-2024: Advising for Sustainability

President Obama’s trip to Afghanistan to sign a long-term strategic partnership extending through the end of 2024 was a significant milestone for America’s longest war.  Given the current environment, troubling events and contested issues – Koran burnings, ‘green-on-blue’ attacks, a rogue soldier committing murder, night raids and detention facilities – this agreement is progress in strained relations and for a war-weary home front.  Most important, this pact assuages Afghan fears of repeat abandonment and signals to the Taliban that their waiting game will continue should they not reconcile.

As 2014 marks the end of NATO’s combat role in Afghanistan, internal political conflict will persist and test the strength of a fledgling state and security apparatus.  President Obama confirmed that for at least another decade, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will need substantial security assistance, financial as well as advisors, trainers and advanced technical, logistical, maintenance and airlift support.  Estimates range from $4-8 billion annually.  Accordingly, U.S. and NATO military forces, government civilians, and civilian contractors will still be needed in Afghanistan well into the foreseeable future.

Based on ongoing research on U.S. and NATO partnering efforts across the Afghan security sector, there are at least two U.S. defense policy challenges in the upcoming transition: (1) how to smartly program and administer available (if not decreasing) security assistance funds to continue developing an Afghan-sustainable security sector capable of preventing another Taliban resurgence or civil war; and (2) how to institutionalize in the Department of Defense (DoD) community and the broader coalition of ISAF nations, an enduring and integrated capability to deliver effective security assistance and security force assistance (SA/SFA) across a range of partnering environments from highly politicized foreign ministries, to training facilities and academies, to operations including civil policing and foreign internal defense.

As if these are not difficult enough challenges, multiple factors – international and domestic – weigh on the wisdom of subsidizing Afghan security into perpetuity: fiscal pressures demanding austerity; national and military fatigue with statebuilding; and the belief that the U.S. achieved its security objectives in Afghanistan by eliminating Osama bin Laden. 

These factors also place pressure on military strategy and program priorities within the Pentagon and our Alliance partners.  Like the American public, the military is signaling a shift away from counterinsurgency (COIN) and stability operations back to its comfort zone in planning and training for conventional wars.  Undoubtedly, rebalancing the force and recalibrating our strategic posture is necessary given the complexity of the current security environment.  Nevertheless, there are deep concerns among many that “COIN is dead” and that U.S. and NATO forces will soon discard the hard-won lessons of the last decade in favor of protecting budgets and institutional relevance.

Given this climate, how can the international community ensure future security assistance programming in Afghanistan is implemented wisely and properly institutionalize these efforts for the future?  The following recommendations are based on ongoing research, which include several dozen in-depth conversations with a cross-section of senior U.S. military and civilian DoD officials, field- and company-grade officers, special operations forces, and civilian contractors that have served in an advisory capacity to the ANSF.

  1. Re-prioritize Afghan Ministerial Development over Force Generation.  

The ANSF have demonstrated some gains in tactical effectiveness in recent months, but they have not yet fully developed broader organizational and institutional systems needed to sustain their forces from within.  Lieutenant General William Caldwell, former NATO Training Mission - Afghanistan (NTM-A) commander, has noted that even the best trained and professional force will wither without the institutional systems to recruit, pay, supply and equip, train and employ, and sustain them.  Until now, the priority has been to quickly ‘train and equip’ to generate and push Afghan forces into the lead as counterinsurgents. 

Building ministerial capacity simply takes longer.  By the end of 2014 NTM-A will evolve, though its mission will not likely change much as training and advising efforts across the Afghan security sector will be necessary for years to come.  As this transition occurs, it is imperative to retain, if not grow, where appropriate, the number of advisors who can provide subject matter expertise and assistance in developing ministerial competencies to govern the security sector on such matters as budgeting, human resources, acquisitions and facilities. 

Setting aside the larger challenge of growing the Afghan economy and right-sizing the overall force to an affordable size, the ANSF will never truly be sustainable until their ministries of defense and interior can perform these critical enterprise-level functions independently.  But this does not mean we ought to continue pushing expensive and unsustainable systems that the ANSF will simply disregard once U.S. advisors leave or the slush fund dries up.  It is paramount that we foster systems that are either emulated and adapted to local realities by Afghans themselves, or those that are Afghan-developed, realistic, and ultimately work with minimal foreign assistance.

  1. Improve Systems that Get the Right People on the Team.

Jim Collins’s imperative from Good to Great aptly applies to security force assistance.  There is a common misperception across the international donor community that any soldier, police officer, or other expert, can be an effective advisor with a certain level of cultural and language training.  This is simply false.  In fact, in many cases the wrong person for the job can do more harm than no person at all.  Though no surprise to many who have been there, effective advising requires not only a mix of cultural training, education and life experience, but more importantly, interpersonal skills of patience and influencing through persuasion and interest-based negotiation over methods of coercion or using material incentives.  Effective advising is as much, if not more, about personality, as it is about experience and training, thus leaving advisor selection a critical piece for SFA.

Still, even the most highly trained, culturally and emotionally intelligent advisor is of little use if they are assigned to a senior official without having relevant functional expertise that aligns with the needs of their counterpart.  Though the Afghan ministries are dominated by current and former general officers, depending on the Afghan position (civilian administrator, military officer, or police), a military officer may not be the best choice as an advisor to an Afghan police commander, who, for instance, requires assistance on matters of civil policing, search and seizure, criminal procedure, and investigations.  Instead, this work is better suited for a law enforcement professional.

This challenge amounts to a supply and demand problem for a high-specialized, complex service, drawn from all of the participating ISAF nations.  There is great demand for well-trained and experienced subject matter experts who also have the right skills and personality attributes to serve as advisors.  Unfortunately, the supply of advisors is low, and to further complicate matters, it is scattered across key international contributors’ military and civilian workforces as well as the private sector, making it a significant challenge to select, train and assign the best or most appropriate advisor for key advisory assignments. 

NATO and the U.S. should strengthen and better integrate systems to select, train, and assign advisors to key billets across the uniformed services and civilian workforce.  Additionally, the should strengthen their contract management capacity to work more closely with private contractors and build-in greater flexibility to rapidly adjust contract terms to meet the dynamic needs for training and advising foreign security forces.  Reliance on the private sector to assume a larger role in training and mentoring will only increase as fiscal pressures mount in the coming years.  Accordingly, a closer partnership with the private sector and a mutual commitment to increasing the overall quality and professionalism of the Afghan police, which has been seconded to a ‘train and equip’ approach until now, are also critical.

  1. Institutionalize Security Assistance as a Tool of Smart Power and Conflict Prevention.

The U.S. must better prepare for the present era in which security assistance – training, mentoring and professionalizing foreign militaries and police – will be central to our national security strategy.  Treating our experiences in Afghanistan as if they will never be repeated again is foolhardy and belies the reality of today’s complex security environment.  Over the past decade we have developed pivotal capabilities for conflict and postconflict environments that are equally applicable to conflict prevention.

The new Ministry of Defense Advisors (MoDA) program and the Afghanistan-Pakistan (AFPAK) Hands program are two critical U.S. initiatives aimed at developing greater capacity for partnering within the civilian defense workforce and general purpose forces – though their focus has been primarily on Afghanistan.  The Joint Center for International Security Force Assistance (JCISFA) and the U.S. Army Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute (PKSOI) are key resources for collecting lessons learned and conducting critical analysis our partnering efforts. 

Given U.S. taxpayers’ sunk investment in developing these capabilities, it would be a waste to let these programs die or wither on the vine, particularly when they hold the key to conserving resources if combined with conflict prevention.  We must continue to support the MoDA and AFPAK Hands programs and our professional military education centers of excellence.  But we must also go a step further to better integrate and globalize these efforts under a broader and united effort, similar to NATO’s ‘Partnership for Peace’ program.  Embracing and institutionalizing security assistance as a critical national security goal and a foreign policy tool in which the military plays a vital role will enhance our collective ability to persuade, attract and shape our future in a multi-polar world at a time when the options for using coercive powers are increasingly limited.

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Not to disregard the important comments made by Bob Jones below I would like to just focus on one paragraph of this article and make one small comment:

QUOTE: The new Ministry of Defense Advisors (MoDA) program and the Afghanistan-Pakistan (AFPAK) Hands program are two critical U.S. initiatives aimed at developing greater capacity for partnering within the civilian defense workforce and general purpose forces – though their focus has been primarily on Afghanistan. The Joint Center for International Security Force Assistance (JCISFA) and the U.S. Army Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute (PKSOI) are key resources for collecting lessons learned and conducting critical analysis our partnering efforts. END QUOTE.

We should recall from Cohen and Gooch in their seminal work _Military Misfortune_ that all military failures are the result of one or a combination of the following three: failure to learn, failure to adapt, and failure to anticipate. We have done a lot of adapting and some learning over the last decade but the real challenge of course is anticipating what comes next. There is a lot of talk (recent article about GEN Odierno refocusing the Army) about Advise and Assist and training host nation force capabilities and the like but I wonder, if we really think the AF-PAK hands concept is successful and valuable are we anticipating where we might need such capabilities in the future and are we investing in the capability (e.g., investing in the people) in anticipation of those needs? Or are we again going to wait until the crisis emerges and then try to resurrect the capability. Or perhaps some do not think that is a concept for the future. I would be interested in hearing about the efficacy of the AF-PAK hands program from actual AF-PAK Hands (those who have operated downrange on multiple tours), those with responsiblity for employing them, those who have benefited from them and those in the personnel system responsible for managing them. Is it a feasible program, have we adapted effectively and learned from our experiences and most importantly what are we anticipating for the future?

The hard won lesson of preeminent importance in regards to COIN should be that there are certain situations in which US COIN strategy over the last decade will not work. There was an across the board failure when it came to understanding the segmented Pakistani power structure, the regional geopolitical objectives of Pakistan and the lack of ability of the central government in Pakistan to extend its writ to the Tribal Belt (even if it chose to do so). The terminus result of these three factors was the establishment of a safe haven for the tripartite current insurgency. This curious lack of vision (curious in that the US was directly responsible for providing the funding - both through direct funding and through matching funds from other sources such as the GID at the urging of the US - for the development of the physical and human infrastructure during the non-extremist anti-Soviet jihad) was coupled with the ill-planned rush to "legitimacy" by enshrining the Karzai government - a government that has proven to be corrupt, ineffective and combative.

The hard conclusion is that the tripartite insurgency has exhausted the US. No one should mistake the calls for a "political solution" as being calls made by the US on its terms while holding the advantage. The harsh reality is that the US is holding the weaker position and that, for the most part, the predicted consequences noted by Abu Bakr Nadji, as per the Management of Savagery, have come to pass. Perhaps the Karzai government will reprise the role of the Najibullah government and surprise the commentator with its resiliency after the US drawdown. Under current circumstances, however, this seems to be the least likely outcome. The more likely outcome will be the slow (or perhaps rapid) and steady retaking of Afghan territory by the QST and its allies, reconstituting the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as it deals effectively with the exact same two issues that it dealt with before - corruption and the provision of security.

This assumes we have defined problem correctly, we have given it the proper priority in our overall scheme of global efforts across the spectrum of American governance to secure our interests, and that simply working harder, longer and smarter at these things will get us to success...

I would ask for a single example in the history of modern governance and intervention where that proved to be true. Just one. Not where some temporary effect that lingered through the application of powerful internal security for 10 or 20 years, but where true change for the better occured.

So, it takes 10 years to teach basic infantry operations and tactics? But it takes even longer to teach one how to be a bureaucrat? Both can be done in mere months. No, it takes 10 years to go from being a smart high school kid to being a noted brain surgeon. It is not the lack of time and effort that prevents this government from being able to produce a secure and stable country, it is the inherent illegitimacy of how it was born, shaped, and sustained.

No, this does not take more time and effort to fix, so much as proper focus, understanding and a willingness to accept that the only stable result will be one that we did not work overly to control or influence; and that draws its legitimacy from across the whole of Afghan society, rather than just the half we approve of, or from some far away legal institution.

“The government is not best which secures mere life and property -- there is a more valuable thing -- manhood.” Mark Twain

Pashtun manhood is not much different from the Western American manhood referred to by Mr. Twain. I would not recommned to any nation to attempt to compromise either one.