Sunday night, the International Security and Assistance Force, the US-led military coalition fighting in Afghanistan, announced the suspension of joint operations with Afghan security forces. It was a surprise move – so much so that UK Defense Secretary Philip Hammond told Parliament he was unaware of the decisionand that joint patrols remained at the heart of ISAF’s war plan. But now that joint patrols are over; is the war then, too?
This is not a simple question to resolve. ISAF’s strategy for the war in Afghanistan is grounded in training, partnering with Afghan forces, and in turn, handing over security responsibility to native forces in a process called “The Transition.” Afghan units do not obtain much training: soldiers, ten weeks, national police, six weeks. The three-week long local police program was discontinued earlier this month, so most teaching happens while shadowing ISAF forces.
Now the routine partnering of Afghan and ISAF forces requires the approval by a two-star general, disrupting the training pattern of Afghan forces. Beginning in 2009, when General Stanley McChrystal ordered ISAF troops partner with the Afghans in joint operations, ISAF has now oriented its entire stature and strategy around joint operations. This policy was reiterated by current ISAF commander Gen. John Allen just last month.
Former Army trainers are puzzled by the move. Matt Zeller, who spent most of 2008 working with the Afghans in the troubled province of Ghazni, said, “[he can] attest that the bulk of their effective operations occur at the company level and below.” He also complains, at length, about a sort of grade inflation within the training mission, where Afghan units are rated at higher levels of readiness than is warranted.
So what has prompted this policy change? In its, ISAF said the temporary suspension is in response to the Innocence of Muslims video- some say the source of worldwide protests at US diplomatic posts and the murder of an American ambassador in Benghazi, Libya.
The joint operations suspension, then, is not in response to the alarming rise of Afghan fratricide attacks this year. Afghan insiders killed six more troops over the weekend, bringing the total deaths to 51, or 15% of all casualties so far in 2012. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has called these attacks the “last gasp” of the insurgency, echoing similar sentiments Vice President Dick Cheney stated publically about the Iraqi insurgency in 2005.
Insider attacks target the Afghans far more than they target Americans and the consequences can be dire. With ISAF suspending most low-level partnering missions, Afghans are essentially left on their own, half-trained and at substantially greater risk from their own people. Additionally, normal combat activities kill Afghan security forces at a far higher rate than ISAF forces, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report. Afghans, therefore, are being put under tremendous pressure by this move and have been for several years – the dysfunctional relationship between Americans and Afghans in the training program, the higher casualties, and the worrying signs that ISAF will just wash its hands and back away when it gets too difficult have all contributed.
The many downsides of the current policy shift can be mitigated principally by making the joint operations suspension temporary. Furthermore, the training-the-trainers program must be revised so that after the 2014 withdrawal mission, remaining ISAF troops do not unintentionally insult and demean the Afghan trainees. More modest goals must be adopted for the Afghans. This means, not total self-sufficiency based on a western model; rather, instituting a less bureaucratic, less computerized, and less manual-based idea of what basic competence means to make goals of the mission more achievable for more Afghans.
Lastly, policymakers need to grapple with a bigger, less concrete but potentially more worrying issue: diverging interests. The Afghan and American governments do not have identical priorities and preferences in Afghanistan. Understanding the difference in those interests can prevent a lot of anger, reproaching, and ultimately many failures along the way.