To be a police officer in Afghanistan takes a particular kind of courage. Mina (not her real name) was tasked with conducting body searches at a checkpoint on the road leading to Kabul airport when I met her in 2014.
Working alongside her male counterparts she faced twin threats – being a woman in a largely male domain and violence from insurgents. Checkpoints have long been viewed as dangerous choke points for improvised explosive devices and suicide bomb attacks.
But as remarkable as the bravery shown by both male and female recruits was the lack of authority they wielded over ordinary citizens, who challenged their status despite the heavy arms they carried. It underscores the question of legitimacy that has impeded Afghanistan’s fragile security service. It also echoes similar problems facing those engaged in security sector reform in Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan.
Against this backdrop of a legitimacy deficit and government corruption, one can perhaps appreciate why many uniformed personnel melted into civilian life when the Taliban swept through Afghanistan in early August.
Chilling reports that the Taliban are now using the interior ministry’s biometric database to track down police and military personnel amplify the precarious situation members of Afghanistan’s security services face.
Security sector reform was a cornerstone of nation-building efforts in Afghanistan. Foreign forces and their advisers were deployed from 2015 to July 2021 to ‘train, advise and assist’ the Afghan National Security Forces and the Afghan National Police. This was part of the Resolute Support mission of the United States (US) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
From 2014 the mantra from US and coalition force generals at news conferences was that the Afghan security forces were ‘in the lead’ with foreign forces simply as backup. However, questions about the capabilities of the new recruits have now been laid bare.
Many Afghan watchers agree that the mission, though well intended, was arguably a politically driven ambition rather than intelligence-driven policy based on facts and requirements reflected on the ground. It was aimed at paving the way for the withdrawal of foreign forces rather than presenting a realistic account of security capabilities.
By 2014 attrition rates among the Afghan police were soaring, as more and more were being targeted by the insurgents’ roadside bombs or improvised explosive devices rather than direct fire. Alarmingly, by 2019 a US Defense Department report revealed that attrition and retention rates in the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces had ‘outstripped’ recruitment.
In other settings such as Somalia, those involved in efforts by foreign partners to build a professional security infrastructure should take note. ‘Afghanistan has re-enforced the failures of liberal state building. Interventions often overlook local dynamics and context,’ argues Mohamed Gaas, the Institute for Security Studies’ Senior Researcher for the Horn of Africa.
The two countries have relied heavily on foreign assistance missions to rebuild broken institutions. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AIMSOM) and United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan both aim to build the state’s rule of law capacity. Moreover, both Afghanistan and Somalia have endured decades of instability and have been wracked by governance challenges, ethnic rivalries, complex geopolitics and rampant corruption.
The two have been engaged in protracted asymmetric wars in the form of violent insurgencies. While the Taliban pursues a nationalist agenda in Afghanistan, in Somalia al-Shabaab seeks a wider Islamist goal. Yet their relatively inexperienced police and militaries have been expected to counter insurgencies, drug trafficking and transnational crime, while building grassroots trust and enforcing the rule of law.
AMISOM’s mandate is due to expire in December 2021, after an extension was secured. There will be a phased handover to Somali security forces, and obvious parallels are being made with Afghanistan’s experience of foreign interventions.
Much has been written about the ‘right’ way to do security sector reform. The 2011 World Development Report on Conflict, Security and Development identified three key elements for success – employment, safety and security for the wider population and institutions to support the rule of law.
But Nicholas ‘Fink’ Haysom, the UN’s Special Representative to the Secretary-General in Afghanistan in 2014-16 and who later held a similar position in Somalia until 2019, argues that there are further conditions. Afghanistan police and soldiers needed ‘values, ideals and motivation’ from the Afghan leadership. Yet, ‘in the face of a clear imperative [Afghanistan’s political elite] spent more time competing with each other than they spent dealing with a national priority.’
Internal political contestation in Somalia could present similar obstacles to durable security sector reform. ‘Where units have been trained by different external actors, Somalia’s security forces have suffered from the same challenges of internal cohesion,’ says Andrews Atta-Asamoah, Head of Africa Peace and Security Governance at the ISS.
The absence of leadership in Afghanistan meant that a key pillar of nation building was overshadowed by personal gain. For example, joining a militia to man a checkpoint and thus secure bribes and status would often be perceived as more appealing to recruits than joining the police or regular armed forces.
This too has been a constant challenge for recruitment in Somalia. Competition with local militias who exert influence and impose vigilante justice on local communities is another destabilising reality.
The sequencing of security sector reform may also be important. Some scholars have argued that creating the political environment to enable reform must take precedence over technical requirements in order to generate local ‘buy-in’. However in the case of Afghanistan and Somalia, where active insurgencies are being fought, both must be done simultaneously.
A centralised police and defence force has been the favoured model of external actors in Somalia and Afghanistan. But this top-down approach is difficult for states with strong regional or ethnic identities and rivalries. As a federation, the lack of unity between states in Somalia has disrupted governance, electoral processes and law and order.
These challenges raise the question of how to achieve legitimacy, internal cohesion and robust command and control structures in the face of significant threats. A federal model of security infrastructure may be the way to go, Gaas argues, ‘with Puntland and Somaliland’s devolved security services having demonstrated an ability to stand up to insurgents.’
But surrendering control of security to the local level may bring its own set of problems, not least the issue of oversight. Afghanistan’s community policing teams became notorious for their lax selection criteria, high levels of human rights abuses, corruption and infiltration by insurgents.
All this adds to the debate about whether foreign forces should be engaged in nation building in the first place, leaving aside the complex dynamics associated with external players such as Pakistan in Afghanistan and Kenya and Ethiopia in Somalia. The experience of Afghanistan adds fuel to those who suggest they should not.
Karen Allen, Senior ISS Consultant and previously the BBC’s Kabul Correspondent and BBC’s East and Southern Africa correspondent