Let’s Do 1989 All Over Again

How many times have we heard that the United States cannot abandon Afghanistan to the mercy of armed militias and thugs like we did in 1989?

So, why, pray tell, are we doing it?

After the U.S. helped to fund the Afghan mujahideen that led to the Soviets’ legendary defeat and withdrawal of its forces from that country nearly 23 years ago, the U.S. effectively washed its hands of Afghanistan, returning its full attention only after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

While Washington’s back was turned in the 1990s, it’s old proxies on the ground turned their firepower on the struggling central government in Kabul and began fighting each other. The Taliban was eventually born out of the more “pious” insurgent elements under warlord Mullah Omar and took over the government. With Kabul practically in ruins in 2001, the Americans came back to fight the Taliban they helped to create, and they vowed to stay until a central government could operate effectively on its own.

As we stand at the edge of 2012, it’s obvious to all that “staying” is no longer an option. It is also apparent that the military must be suffering from amnesia, because the head of U.S. Joint Special Forces Command (JSOC) recently endorsed an increase in the number of Afghan Local Police (ALP) from nearly 10,000 to 30,000, even though these ad hoc security forces have been accused of rape, murder, beatings, extortion, and savagery toward the civilian population. In other words, they’re no different from many of the warlords and fighters left behind by the U.S. and the Soviet Union to bloody each other in 1989.

“I’m impressed. … [The ALP is] a good program that I think is well received by the Afghans and certainly by the locals,” boasted JSOC Commander Adm. William McRaven on Dec. 10. “My instinct is we’ll probably increase it, but that remains to be seen.”

“Well received by the Afghans” is distorting things quite a bit. “Barely tolerated” seems more like it. This fall, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published an extensive report on the abuses of armed groups, including the U.S.-backed ALP and local militias called arbakai, many of whom reportedly enjoy special relationships with U.S. forces and American-funded contractors. I wrote about this and other reports by Oxfam, The Washington Post, Stars and Stripes, and others here. Refugees International has also done quite a bit of research in this area.

HRW was obviously dismayed when McRaven said he not only supported the expansion of the ALP by 2013, but also endorsed its extension beyond its current end date of 2015.

“Now is the time for some long-term thinking,” exclaimed Brad Adams, director of HRW’s Asia program. “What will happen when donors are unwilling to continue to pay the salaries of the Afghan Local Police and other security forces? What will be the consequences of tens of thousands of unemployed well-armed men in uniforms? What’s the plan?”

It seems that Washington’s plan is to keep security together as much as it can until the inevitable withdrawal of International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) from the country, which is scheduled for 2014. After that, what happens is anyone’s guess. But it doesn’t take a military scholar to see what’s clearly coming down the infamous “Ring Road,” otherwise known as Highway 1, in Afghanistan: when we leave, the various factions will be fighting for supremacy once again. Those with the most guns win. In that case, it certainly helps to have been in the good graces of American forces all along. But again, it seems the United States has armed a lot of people it would rather not see in the driver’s seat on any road, much less the path to Afghanistan’s future.

“The real problem with this is, it will be self-defeating,” insisted Registan.net’s Joshua Foust in a recent email exchange. “An unproven program with serious problems is being elevated as a solution to a problem it cannot solve. That’s a really bad idea.”

Sadly, four days after McRaven’s public endorsement, ISAF released its own unclassified summary [.pdf] of an investigation into the program, admitting that it was indeed hampered by many of the problems raised by HRW in September.

The investigation itself tackled some 32 reported incidents of abuse by the ALP and other armed groups raised in the HRW report. Six teams set out over a month’s time to investigate a total of 46 allegations and “assertions.” According to the report released last week, the teams found “several” of the charges “credible,” including one in which an ALP commander had kidnapped two boys for ransom and complaints that arbakai in Khanabad were responsible for various abuses, including sexual offenses, extortion, stealing, and murder.

But the report also discounted 10 other charges as “not credible,” like the allegations of widespread beatings and intimidation by ALP in Bakhtabad village and Uruzgan province, and that Abdur Rehman, sub-commander of the Pul-e-Khumri area ALP in Baghlan province and former member of the notorious Hezb-i-Islami group, had raped a boy and was involved in a host of mafia-style criminal activities.

Furthermore, according to the military, there were 14 charges for which credibility could not be determined because of conflicting accounts, a lack of corroboration, or an inability to determine the identity of witnesses. Another 15 cases were found to be “credible in part,” but the report, unfortunately, does not detail those particular charges.

The allegation that corrupt and dangerous ALP were in some cases chosen for their jobs and later protected by U.S. forces and personnel was also dismissed. “There were no confirmed cases of CFSOCC-A’s [Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan] complicity in alleged misconduct,” and “CFSOCC-A’s relationship between its Village Stability Platform personnel and neighboring partner ALP organizations is one of influence, not command and control.” The report also insists the military “demonstrated strong oversight” of the local law enforcement programs.

That may be so, in part, but the report overall suggests a mixed bag in which all parties are learning as they go along. Though it insists the ALP program is “working,” the military acknowledges a serious need for more hand-holding and training when it comes to recruitment, maintenance, and monitoring of the ALP. Theft and “abuse of power” are pervasive themes, and there seems to be a lack of understanding on the part of the ALP and their overseers as to what constitutes a human rights violation, not to mention their enforcement and detention powers, their jurisdictional boundaries, and how they can be disciplined or fired if they commit crimes against the population.

This statement regarding recommendations to make the program more effective, I believe, says it all:

    [The military should] increase emphasis on the understanding of local power dynamics when considering where to locate VSP [Village Security Platform] and ALP operations, how to staff them, and how to evaluate them over time. Consider adding cross-checks in the site nomination process to focus on hostile groups or negative actors in the local, district, and provincial environment who might inhibit ALP performance. In areas where the ALP location lies on a seam between rivals, employ additional assets to monitor and mentor the ALP.

In other words, learn a little about whom you’re giving the guns to before handing over those nice new AK-47s and a license to tyrannize the locals. But we know from another (former) commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, that the military was never any good at understanding the terrain. That McRaven could announce such a dramatic acceleration to this program with none of the knowledge or suggested improvements and modifications suggested in the military’s own report yet in place indicates that the U.S. doesn’t really care if the program works so long as it can point to a couple of places where the ALP appears to be working and get out.

“An investigation ordered by a senior U.S. commander in the field has found numerous weaknesses in the Afghan Local Police program,” Adams said in a HRW statement issued last week. “The priority should be to create mechanisms to ensure proper training, supervision, and accountability so that the Afghan Local Police does not become just another abusive militia.”

With the new emphasis on reducing the ISAF military presence in Afghanistan, increasing the number of Afghan security forces is obviously the primary mission. Washington had initially budgeted the resources for 30,000 ALP, but rushing this could obviously have very grave consequences on the stability of the affected areas — some of the most volatile in the history of the war — when the Americans finally pull up stakes. Just like a quarter of a century ago.

From Janosch Jerman at the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies:

The creation of the ALP and its predecessors imply that the goal of the police is to support those in power to fight the insurgency and to impose preconceived notions of stability. Such calculations are not based on the development of a sustainable security sector but only and exclusively focus on the withdrawal date in 2014. However, Afghanistan does not “end” in 2014. Instead, current trends will continue to affect Afghanistan, the region, and the world at large disproportionately, should peacekeeping efforts fail. The creation of a militia-like ALP and particularly the decision to entrench the power of strongmen is an ominous signal for Afghanistan’s future.

Bluntly put: we never learn. Some 25 years from now, when my own children might be settling down for Christmas dinner with families of their own, it’ll be no surprise when the White House insists we must intervene in Afghanistan to save it from itself, again.

The question is, when will we endeavor to save us, from ourselves?

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.