Senior White House officials have reportedly leaked that President Barack Obama is now considering shifting the US mission in Afghanistan to a primarily advisory role as early as next year. Such a shift would have broad implications for the war, most notably pushing the Afghan military and police onto center stage at a much faster pace.
The change would take large numbers of US and NATO forces out of combat missions well ahead of the current deadline at the end of 2014. And although the US and NATO have prioritized training for Afghan forces, minting more than 300,000 soldiers and police officers, Afghans and numerous international organizations have expressed continued concerns that the quality of these forces, especially the police, is dangerously low.
Amid growing concerns that the country could slide toward another civil war when foreign forces leave, many Afghans also worry that accelerating the transition of security to Afghan forces could make the situation even worse.
“The Afghan Army, police, and other security forces are not trained to work for the country’s national interests. They are just looking to make money for bread and they’ll take as much as they can get,” says Suliman Khan, a resident of Kabul’s restive Surobi district, the only part of Kabul Province that has yet to transition to Afghan forces. “If something happens like another civil war, these security forces will automatically switch sides and fight for their own regional or ethnic issue.”
Army is doing better. But the police?
While most Afghans and internationals say the Army has made considerable progress, serious concerns persist about the police. A recent report by Oxfam found that 20,000 police have no training, civilian deaths caused by the police are routinely not investigated, and police often abuse civilians with impunity.
Afghan police struggle with skills as fundamental as crowd control, often firing live ammunition to disperse large groups. In the first six months of this year alone, police killed 25 civilians and injured 159 in crowd-control incidents.
Given the lack of professionalism even as NATO forces still actively patrol with their Afghan counterparts, many Afghans worry what will happen as the international presence recedes.
Ethnic and regional ties trump national allegiance
Meanwhile, limited national unity and a number of ethnic faultlines continue to haunt Afghanistan and influence the security forces.
“The current national security force is under the shadow of the ethnic, linguistic, regional, and organizational issues,” says Shahnawaz Tanai, a former Afghan general and military expert. “When the foreigners leave Afghanistan, these issues will turn into a serious and dangerous problem. Every security person or soldier will think about their ethnicity and not care about Afghanistan.”
Though the situation now appears dire in the eyes of many Afghans, a civil war is not inevitable, as happened when the Russians withdrew. It’s unlikely that the US and other international powers will cut support for Afghanistan even after their troops leave, says Mr. Tanai, who fought in the Russian-backed Afghan army.
“If the government doesn’t work hard to solve this problem, it will turn into a much bigger problem,” says Abdul Wahid Taqat, another former Afghan Army general. He adds that civil war can still be avoided: “Afghans will be capable of solving their own problems when the foreigners leave this country.”