Canada Should Keep Training Military in Afghanistan
Foreign policy towards Afghanistan has never been known for its farsightedness. From the Soviet Union’s decision to invade the country in 1979 or America’s response in covertly arming the Islamist mujahedin, to Pakistan’s assistance incubating the Taliban, the policies of stakeholder countries towards Afghanistan have often been characterized by negligence, and the consequences have been dire for Afghanistan and these same countries.
The past decade of the international community’s efforts to bring security and development to Afghanistan has also had its share of shortsightedness. But where there has been dogged, long-term investment that accounts for lessons learned and that aims to build systems from the ground up, recognizing that this takes time, there have been successes. These successes are such that the country has propelled forward despite an ongoing insurgency, a government mired in corruption, and much uncertainty over future security arrangements beyond this year.
The change can be seen in skyrocketing human development indicators, the visibility of women in public life, the thriving media sector, and Afghans’ ambitious pursuit of education, from the spike in primary enrolment to the rapid spread of post-secondary institutions throughout the country. And despite a highly centralized government still liable to patronage under an increasingly unstable leader, there are still understated processes of democratization underway. One such process is the professionalization and strengthening of Afghan-led security.
Professionalizing the security sector is not only about security, but is also critical to democratic development. The Afghan police and army, together known as the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF), represent government at the ground level, where the state interfaces with citizens.
These institutions serve as a kind of barometer for public confidence in government. That’s why it’s a hopeful sign that 88% of Afghans report having confidence in the Afghan National Army (ANA) while 91% say that the ANA is helping to improve security in the country, according to the 2013 Survey of the Afghan People. These confidence levels have remained consistent since 2007, and are assessed to be because the presence of the ANSF “has brought at least some sense of law and order to the country.”
That has been no small feat. These institutions have been largely built from scratch, with little to draw from the pre-2002 Taliban Government’s style of security, which consisted of ragtag bands of illiterate religious police, menacingly dangling off the backs of pick-up trucks, on the prowl for those committing “moral crimes.” With no uniforms aside from their black turbans and kohl-smudged eyes, yielding whips and Kalashnikovs, they gave the local population every reason to fear them, and little sense of being served or protected by professionals enforcing the law.
Besides attempting to change the very purpose and spirit of the police force and army in the aftermath of the Taliban, the current effort has required a heavy infusion of equipping, supplying, and training a force now numbering some 350,000 Afghans, including a growing number of women police and soldiers.
Canada has been part of the team of 37 nations undertaking NATO’s training mission of the ANSF, providing 950 Canadian trainers and support personnel who have delivered training in core skills for the forces, as well as leadership and other areas, in Kabul and at satellite sites in Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif.
In 2011, literacy became part of the required training for Afghan forces, and the successes in this area have been among the most remarkable. Consider that prior to the start of the training mission only 13,000 ANSF had even the most rudimentary literacy, while nearly all ANSF have now either completed literacy training or are currently enrolled (according to ISAF, as at January 2014, 233,643 have completed Level 1, 98,648 completed Level 2, and 76,834 completed Level 3, the level for functional literacy).
In 2012, the Darulaman Literacy Centre opened at the Regional Military Training Centre in Kabul. The literacy component of training is crucial because literate police and soldiers take themselves seriously: they think of themselves as educated professionals, serving their people, as opposed to preying on them. Further, literacy is the steppingstone to learning trades like signals or artillery, allowing the further professionalizing of the ANSF.
All of this is akin to a transformation of some consequence in terms of state building. Yet to be durable, this work must continue, for at least another two years, according to NATO. But at the end of March, Canadian military personnel will leave Afghanistan. That is too soon. As the second largest contributing nation to the training mission after the US, Canada’s contributions to this capacity development are too valuable to withdraw this close to the finish line. Canada should renew its training mission for another term, and continue contributing to the Afghan mission in an area in which it clearly excels.
NATO civilian leader Anders Fogh Rasmussen has called the “zero option”, of having no international forces left in Afghanistan simply “not an option”, stressing the need for continued capacity and training support in particular, to get the ANSF to a point where it can reliably and independently provide security for the citizens of Afghanistan.
I recently asked Canadian Major-General Dean Milner, Commander of the NATO training mission, how far the Afghan security forces have come in their development, and how far they have left to go. “They are well past the half-way point” Milner told me, “with just a few more years of financial and practical assistance from the international community they should be capable of sustaining themselves. They defeat the Taliban in every tactical engagement, but now they need assistance with more complex skills such as building their Air Force and their logistical and maintenance systems.”
With President Karzai delaying the signing of a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) there is fevered speculation that NATO troops will leave the country by 2015 and Afghanistan will once again return to chaos. When asked for his view, Major-General Milner was optimistic the BSA would be signed. “The Loya Jirga overwhelmingly supported the immediate signing and every serious contender in the presidential election has committed to signing the BSA if elected,” said Milner. “It would be unfortunate if the support of the international community were to come to an end after the Afghans have progressed so far.” Milner likened it to a swimmer making it 60% of the way across the channel when he gets tired and turns back.
It’s often said that Canada has expended blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Some say this to argue that we’ve given enough to a troubled country on the other side of the world that we had little to do with prior to 2003. But many who know Afghanistan well, and who, like me, have seen how close we are to reaching some enduring stability there, would say this is exactly why we have to see this through. Cutting short the goal of building a professional armed forces after years of investment, when valuable gains need to be protected, when the state’s institutions are within sight of being fully functional, and when the Taliban arerunning out of money to continue their insurgency would continue the pattern of shortsightedness that has too long afflicted the international community’s efforts in Afghanistan. Canada should stay, and continue to add value to the effort of training and educating Afghan soldiers and police. We have given too much and come too far to walk out this close to the finish line, and with so much progress at stake.