Trevor Keck is CIVIC’s field fellow, based in Kabul, Afghanistan. He is assessing Afghan National Security Force preparedness to protect civilians after NATO and its allies withdraw.
“Transition” is the word on the tip of everyone’s lips in Afghanistan these days—a catchphrase I’ve heard employed more than any other since arriving in Kabul about two weeks ago. Why “Transition?” Because in less than three years time, Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are expected to assume responsibility for securing the country and protecting the population. To prepare for the security transition, US and international military forces have concentrated their efforts on securing southern Afghanistan—the so-called “heartland” of the insurgency—whilst intensifying efforts to train and equip the ANSF.
The message from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)—the U.S. led security force in Afghanistan—is that security is improving as a result of these efforts. Last spring, a Pentagon report concluded that President Obama’s strategy had produced “tangible progress” in Afghanistan. More recently, David Rodriguez, former Commander of ISAF Joint Command, wrote “there are indisputable gains everywhere we have focused our efforts.” Talk of progress and security gains has been pervasive in my early Kabul meetings.
But that message stands in stark contrast to what I’m hearing from international and humanitarian organizations. In its mid-year report released in July 2011, the U.N. political mission in Afghanistan reported that “civilians experienced a downward spiral of protection” during the first half of 2011 with civilian casualties higher than at any other time since 2001. Indeed, nearly 1,500 civilians were killed during the first half of 2011, an increase of 15% from the same period during 2010. More recently, the U.N. confirmed significant civilian casualties last month largely due to the twin suicide attacks in Kabul and Mazar al Sharif.
ISAF’s rosy assessment of the situation in Afghanistan is also at odds with the most recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which noted that “security gains” have been undercut by “corruption, incompetent governance and Taliban fighters operating from neighboring Pakistan.” The NIE also suggests that the Afghan government “may not be able to survive as the U.S. steadily pulls out its troops and reduces military and civilian assistance.”
To be clear, the Taliban and other armed groups are responsible for the majority of civilian casualties in Afghanistan – roughly 80%, according to the U.N. Despite pledges to avoid killing civilians, armed groups have continued to resort to indiscriminate tactics, including improvised explosive devices and suicide attacks, which combined are responsible for nearly 50% of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, according to the U.N. For the past two years, armed groups have also increasingly resorted to assassinations, targeting public officials and others who cooperate with ISAF and the Afghan government.
Meanwhile, as civilian casualties caused by armed groups have spiked over the past few years, the number of civilians killed or injured by international military forces has gradually declined, largely due to the policies ISAF has put in place to mitigate civilian harm. That being said, Afghans want and expect ISAF and the ANSF to improve efforts to protect them from all acts of violence, regardless of which warring party is ultimately responsible.
Afghans I have met since arriving are very worried about the future. One former government official I spoke with voiced his concern that Afghanistan could slide back into civil war after the bulk of international military forces depart at the end of 2014. Like many others in the country, he isn’t confident that the ANSF will be able to provide security on their own, and he’s concerned about the proliferation of weapons and armed groups.
Why such disparate narratives and assessments of the security situation? One reason could be that ISAF is using different metrics than international and nongovernmental organizations. Counterinsurgent forces tend to examine territory held and the quantity of indigenous security forces trained and equipped to measure progress. And as noted, ISAF has taken very concrete steps to mitigate civilian harm, resulting in fewer civilians killed or injured by international military forces. Meanwhile, the U.N. and nongovernmental organizations are analyzing overall levels of violence and civilian casualties – which have increased over the past several years.
Another reason may be that ISAF is setting a tone for its departure. With the U.S. elections less than a year away, the Obama Administration would like to reassure a war weary public that it has turned the Afghan war around. While not ill – intentioned, the U.S. and its allies may simply be focused on highlighting what they have achieved, including reduced levels of civilian casualties caused by international military forces as well as reinvigorated efforts to improve the “quality” of Afghan security forces. But the problem still remains – while ISAF has improved its own civilian casualty statistics, the number of civilians harmed or killed in Afghanistan is increasing. Indeed, if “security gains” are to be measured by fewer civilian casualties, then security is deteriorating in Afghanistan.
As international military forces prepare for withdrawal, they should be clear-eyed about the toll the war is taking on civilians and what needs to be done to better protect ordinary Afghans. Over the next six months, I will be taking this message to ISAF on behalf of CIVIC. More specifically, I will be assessing the efficacy of the mechanisms ISAF has put in place to mitigate civilian harm as well as urging the Afghan government to take concrete steps to better protect civilians. I hope we’ll soon be able to agree that security is improving in Afghanistan.