(The following is a guest editor's entry by Daniel R. Depetris)
With thousands of troops scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan this fall, and with the remaining 68,000 soldiers tapped to leave by the end of 2014, the United States and its military allies in the NATO coalition are clearly focused primarily on handing over responsibility for security to Afghan forces. U.S. and NATO commanders have been gearing up for this moment ever since President Barack Obama announced the surge in December 2009, when 30,000 additional troops were deployed to Afghanistan’s most dangerous provinces to regain the initiative from the Taliban insurgency.
In the ensuing two and a half years Western forces have made significant military gains over the insurgency, including eliminating dozens of Taliban field commanders and thousands of insurgents from the battlefield, and an expansion of the security bubble in areas once seen as Taliban safe havens. These gains remain fragile however, and it will be up to the Afghan National Army and Police to sustain them in the long-run.
Accordingly, the Obama administration has invested significant resources into increasing the quantity and quality of the Afghan security forces in the hope that they will be able to secure the country in the absence of Western troops. For example, there are expected to be 352,000 Afghan security forces by October of this year, up from just 192,000 in November 2009.
Yet the smooth transition that so many in Afghanistan want may now be unattainable. Indeed, earlier this month the lower house of the Afghan parliament flexed their governing muscles by voting against a continuation of the current Afghan defense and interior minister—the same people who are responsible for helping the Afghan Government become self-sufficient in the security realm by 2014. What is more frightening for the United States is that both of these men— Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Bismullah Kham Mohammadi—have had a remarkably close relationship with NATO generals on the ground since the war began in 2001. Abdul Rahim Wardak is considered by many in the U.S. military to be a trustworthy and effective figure in his job—a consistent minister in an otherwise inconsistent Afghan Government. Wardak has been in the thick of Afghanistan’s Government from the very beginning of the war, so much so that his name even appears at the bottom of the December 2001 Bonn Agreement.
Bismullah Khan Mohammadi, the Interior Minster, was just as important. If the Afghan army is charged with taking the fight to the Taliban directly, then it is the job of the Afghan National Police to hold onto areas that are cleared by gaining the trust of the Afghan people and protecting them from Taliban intimidation. With insurgent violence still high in comparison to past years, Afghan police officers are clearly struggling to fulfill that mandate. But their ranks have grown considerably over the past few years; as of May 2012, there were nearly 150,000 police officers receiving a government paycheck.
These officers have been given an increasingly amount of responsibility as well. For example, this year ANSFs will take the lead in protecting 75 percent of Afghanistan’s overall population – a substantial amount of these forces coming from ANP units. Mohammadi’s leadership was critical in bring these successes about. It was, after all, during his tenure that the ANP first created a national police plan aimed at increasing ties between police officers and civil society, as well as building upon community policing initiatives to better prepare for lapses in security when they arise.
Despite these achievements, allegations of corruption within their ministries propelled Afghan lawmakers to vote for their dismissal—a call that President Karzai has said he will respect. But Karzai will have to do much more than respect the decision; he will have to quickly fill both security ministries with candidates that are competent, honest, and acceptable to Afghanistan’s four main ethnic groupings..
Indeed, the Afghan Parliament’s decision could have a detrimental impact on an ethnic balance that the United States and Hamid Karzai have long sought to cultivate. Bismullah Mohammadi is a native Tajik, a minority community that previously formed the backbone of the anti-Taliban fighting force, the Northern Alliance. The Tajiks also happened to be a group that suffered greatly under the Taliban, whose members are drawn primarily from Afghanistan’s Pashtun population. Although Tajiks hold a significant proportion of senior leadership positions within the Afghan army and police, Mohammadi’s dismissal could very well be seen by other Tajiks as a blow to their power, or worse, a direct assault on their community by politicians who have their own ethnic interests in mind.
Analysts say that more must be done to contain ethnic hostility if Afghanistan is going to avoid a civil war like the one in the 1990’s from taking root. Gaining buy-in from all of the country’s four main ethnic groupings (Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara) and ensuring that each community has a vested interest in cooperating with the Afghan Government is an objective that both Washington and Kabul consider a top priority. Any move that adds to the problems of realizing that objective, as Mohammadi’s vote of no-confidence could potentially be, will make it more difficult for Afghanistan to avoid the type of divisions that ruined the nation only two decades ago.
Daniel R. DePetris is a senior associate editor at the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis. He has also written for CNN, Small Wars Journal and The National Interest among other outlets.