Transition in Afghanistan

Understanding the logic of transition in Afghanistan: how ready are Afghan forces to take control? Does it matter?


TRANSITION is... a challenge?  An illusion? A myth?  A bitch?  Towards the end of July, I was in Australia to participate in a workshop comparing various actors in Afghanistan and how they tried to integrate their civilian and military efforts.  At about the same time, NATO started turning over various parts of the country to the Afghans.  The idea is that some places are safer and more stable, and local Afghans are capable of handling their own affairs.  Within four years (2014) the entire country will, bit by bit, come under Afghan leadership. NATO members and partners will first be working under and with the Afghans, then they’ll redeploy to un-transitioned spots,  and then, finally, they’ll leave.   In theory, the transition process will facilitate the reductions that countries are already announcing—that the French are taking out ¼ of their soldiers over the next year, that the Germans will be reducing a bit of their presence, and so on. 

The big issue is whether the Afghans are up to the task, and whether the territories they’ll be controlling are really ready for transition.  One of the first places to be announced was Bamyan, a remote, small province, inhabited by an ethnic group, the Hazara, who are no friends of the Pashtuns (or the primarily Pashtun Taliban), and who are even governed by (gasp) a woman.  New Zealand and some American units have been responsible for the province, with the Kiwis providing a very small but apparently effective presence.   The official transition took place in the middle of July.  Since it is remote and inhabited by an ethnic group hostile to the Taliban, it is the best case scenario. 

Mazeer-el-Sharif in the north was on the first tranche of transitioned areas. It made the news in the spring when rioters, outraged over Florida pastor Terry Jones organized the burning of a koran, killed a number of UN workers.  These were not NATO soldiers, often associated with civilian casualties. These were UN workers, who had done heaps of good works.  Yet they became targets perhaps of insurgent opportunity. That MeS was turned over despite recent events belies assertions by NATO officials that decisions about transition will be “conditions-based.”

Another questionable case among the newly transitioned is Lashkar Gah in Helmand, which has been one of, if not the, most violent provinces in the country.  Transitioning its capital is a questionable move.  To be clear, the rest of the province will remain in NATO hands.  The official position is that Afghans in the city will run security operations and NATO forces will back them up.  This particular transition has become more complicated due to the series of assassinations of power-brokers in the region, including Karzai’s brother. 

The timing of transitions is highly political. The Afghan government (and our ally Hamid Karzai) seemingly make decisions based on what is best for the individuals in government and not necessarily what is best for the stability of Afghanistan.   They do not have free reign as the transition process is a negotiation between ISAF and Afghanistan, but no one has yet explained adequately whyLashkar Gah should be on the list of early transitioned places. 

Caveats on the use of troops are also likely to complicate the transitions process and cause problems anew  for NATO commanders..  Troop contributing states have varied in what they are willing to let their contingents  do on the ground in Afghanistan (and in the air as well), with some restricted from engaging in offensive operations.  The most well-known restrictions are those that lock contingents into specific areas of operation, preventing NATO commanders from repositioning forces as necessary.

During transition, NATO commanders will likely want to move troops from safe to more dangerous parts of Afghanistan; national caveats will likely prevent this from happening, which means that some of the troops freed up by transition will not be moving to Eastern Afghanistan or to other parts of the country where they are most needed.  Instead, they are most likely to stay put or go home.  So, we should perhaps see more bickering between NATO and ISAF troop contributing states as the transition process raises questions about which parts of the country meet the conditions for it, and about what happens to the NATO troops in those areas.

Conflicting estimates of how much progress has been made only confused the matter further.  Overall numbers of attacks are down from the previous fighting season, but the Taliban still  manage enough spectacular ones—the second prison break in Kandahar, the Intercontinental Hotel, perhaps the assassinations of key leaders in Southern Afghanistan—that progress seems elusive at best.  Afghans taking the place of foreigners (who are exhausted and facing pressures to cut budgets at home) is the key to the exit strategies of the US and others. So, the transitions will continue, even if conditions do not warrant.