Four Lessons for Security Sector Reform in Afghanistan

With Afghan peace negotiations ongoing, efforts to build a post-settlement Afghan security sector should begin now.

As Afghan peace talks in Doha move forward, a vital component to the success of any peace deal will be how Afghanistan’s security sector can reform to sustain peace after more than 40 years of violence, and how the international community can best assist. This effort would benefit from recalling the lessons of another time when there was need for a comprehensive reconsideration of Afghanistan’s security sector: the two years immediately following the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban regime. Despite the many important changes, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) have undergone and a dramatically different context, key lessons from 2002-03 remain relevant to guide thinking ahead of and after a peace agreement.

An overarching lesson from the 2002-03 experience is the importance of a comprehensive approach. Afghanistan’s security sector at that time consisted of the army, police, justice system, and counter-narcotics entities. An international security sector reform (SSR) team also took on demobilizing, disarming, and reintegrating all the militias tied to earlier conflicts, although excluding the Taliban. This broad-based SSR scope ensured the consequences of reform in one area were visible in others; such as linking army recruiting and arming to militia demobilization and disarmament. Below, we discuss other critical lessons from this period.

  1. Effective Leadership and Early Conversations

The right Afghan SSR leadership team is essential to forging consensus on inherently divisive issues. These leaders must be capable and knowledgeable, and make effective use of international advisers and best practices. Directing and coordinating the activities of multiple Afghan and international agencies is a full-time job and SSR leaders will be responsible for earning and keeping the public trust.

It is vital to start discussions as soon as possible, meet regularly, and be inclusive. The SSR team should encompass non-security ministries that have a role to play in force realignment or downsizing, such as the Ministry of Higher Education or the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation. As with so much in Afghanistan and diplomacy generally, successful SSR discussions will very often take place informally, which can help to gather all SSR participants (e.g., at long meals, when those are permitted again) and build trust while solving difficult issues. It is not too soon to start informal or formal conversations with Taliban military leaders now, challenging though it may seem.

  1. Retaining the Capability of the ANDSF to Prevent Chaos

A key task in 2002 was getting Afghans to agree on future ANDSF configuration, size, mission, and funding. There was a very real threat the army would not be able to adapt fast enough in capability and size to stop the nation from returning to a civil war. This echoes some of today’s concerns, especially if spoilers and splinter groups work to stop peace from fully taking hold.

A future Afghan security sector must be large enough to secure the peace and suppress possible spoilers, but small enough to be sustainable. In 2002, there was a very real threat that the new army would not be able to grow fast enough in capability and size to prevent a return to civil war.

In 2020, tough questions lie ahead before the military and police can integrate former combatants; many of the same questions asked in 2002. How large of an Afghan force would be needed to keep the peace? What types of security forces? What missions should it train for first? How will the force handle inevitable funding decreases?

ANDSF funding was also an immense problem in 2002: It was run on a shoestring budget with many Afghan National Army (ANA) units receiving a hodgepodge of equipment because donations of military gear were trickling in weekly from participating nations. The likely decline of international aid will again be a significant constraint on ANDSF capability and readiness in 2020.

Precipitous downsizing of forces can lead to a loss of good leaders and reduced ability to integrate former rivals into the ANDSF. One way to tackle this challenge is to find ways to save money while maintaining the size of the force and better allow Taliban militia members to join the security sector. Utilizing, and possibly expanding, the ANA Territorial Forces (ANA-TF) might help; this force would need training and resources, but is less expensive than regular ANA. SSR planners could also move some talented leaders from the shrinking ANA into the ANA-TF or Ministry of Interior police forces. This could help retain top talent and manage the risks involved with the likely enlargement of the police forces and the integration of the former Taliban combatants.

One international sustainment mechanism would be to create a NATO-funded regional counterterrorism and Special Operations Forces “training center of excellence” in Afghanistan that is similar to the Jordanian model. Besides helping to unify and improve regional counterterrorism operations and special operations’ capabilities, this could become a source of funding for the ANDSF as they are paid by other nations to train security sector students from around the region.

  1. Getting Former Rivals to Become Security Partners

If there is a peace agreement, Afghans will likely require some form of integration program that includes former Taliban combatants. This is similar to the 2002 challenge of getting former combatants from various rival militias to serve in new military units together under the training and leadership of former rival civil-war commanders and even communist-era army officers.

It is no less important now to build patriotism inside the force, and use the force to build national pride across the country. The security forces—regardless of who is leading the country politically—must earn the trust of the Afghan people, and practice political neutrality. Educating all new members on their role protecting Afghan people and laws will be a large task. Trainers and instructors must be fully transparent with military and police leadership about any concerns, and leaders have to prioritize resolving problems early. Failure in this area could destroy the security institutions.

Proper integration of security members will be critical to trust building. Blending recruits ethnically into the military, down to the squad level, helped to temper many long-standing tensions and stereotypes in the early years. A quota system may be a risky but worthwhile approach. To get proper integration at all levels, careful screening and assignments would be desirable for all mid-grade and senior Taliban militia leaders that might choose to join the formal government security sector. In 2002, considerable time was spent vetting leaders from the militias to ensure there was an equal mix of various militia alliances and that the militia leaders were properly trained.

  1. Building Faith in Security Institutions

After decades of fighting together it may be difficult for many Taliban sub-commanders to release their combatants to enter into any government-sanctioned security force. Experience with this in 2003 serves as a guide. When various militia commanders visited the ANA basic training center with the new ANA leadership, they watched training, ate meals with privates, talked to the Afghan instructors, and assessed the soldiers. This created enough trust for them to send their militia members to join the new ANDSF.

The most critical questions facing SSR leaders will include who can take part in the integration process, and how will it be linked to the military and police building efforts? Getting an early buy-in for SSR from the Taliban leadership will be critical. As Afghan peace negotiations move forward, these SSR discussions might seek to solicit the input of Taliban military commanders on the highest priority goals for the ANDSF. Increasing trust between them and military and police commanders might prompt the early inclusion of their fighters into government service. Resentment by the military of the insurgents who have killed so many of their people will also be strong. All of these issues will bedevil SSR leaders trying to create a rightsized, affordable security sector.

The future ANDSF will require sustainable solutions. The Afghan government will own this SSR process, fixing the major flaw of the 2002-03 process. Afghans have demonstrated multiple times since 2001 how to successfully realign their security sector to meet a changing security situation. The 2002-03 efforts demonstrated that Afghanistan can make an imperfect, yet largely successful, shift from an assortment of organized and disorganized militias who were recently at war with each other into a modern security force. The international community, led by the U.S. military and U.N., aided Afghans in this effort in the early 2000s and should be ready to provide resources again.