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First Impressions from ISAF HQ in Kabul

Crossposted at opencanada.org’s Dispatch blog

I am in Afghanistan as part of a NATO TOLA tour. On Friday the six participants met in Brussels for a day of briefings at the NATO HQ, and then flew to Kabul together.  For 8 days, we are to be treated to incredible access to civilian, military and Afghan leaders.  There is no doubt we are receiving a very particular perspective on country, conflict and mission; but we are getting it in a large number of blunt, open, briefings.  In addition to time in and around Kabul, we will be doing trips to Mazar e Sharif (RC-North), and then to Herat in the west (RC-West).  I have a large number of more specific comments to make, but as an intro post, let me just make a few initial observations, based on 48hrs of briefings in Kabul.

The ISAF security infrastructure is suffocating. This is i’m sure obvious to anyone who has spent anytime here, and I certainly expected it, but nonetheless, the security within the green zone, which houses various headquarters, country bases, embassies and ministries, it a fortress like I have never seen (the only thing that come close for me is the US base in Erbil). The labyrinth of 20-30 foot blast walls, the immense rows of barbwire, the absurd amount of checkpoints, and the elaborate chambers for exiting and entering by foot, are truly incredible. Being inside it, and under the ‘protection’ of it, makes the thought of existing in the other Kabul seem impossible, even though you know that this is what many friends and colleagues do.  It feels like a catch-22, though – you are safest with either full military protection, or none.

The singular focus is on “transition”. So far, there has been only one theme of our briefings (by senior military, civilian and Afghan officials) – namely, transition. Whereas a year ago, I’m certain one would have heard about more generalized counterinsurgency strategy and tactics, now everything is about what will be in place by 2014.  The overwhelming focus of this is on training, or the NTM-A.   The training command, which only began in earnest in November 2009, has an objective of training and educating between 300,000 and 350,000 soldiers and police officers by October of this year.  While many of the early problems have been worked out (such as pay inequity, some of the corruption, 85% illiteracy), and while the program is now properly resourced ($11 billion a yr), it is still a monumental task.   What’s perhaps most concerning, though, is that the US force draw down is meant to be replaced by these new recruits.  For example, the reduction of 30,000 US forces over the next 18 months, will be replaced by 50-70,000 new ANA troops.  While there is something to be said for the argument that an Afghan soldier is in some ways more effective than a western one, the lack of training, organization, leadership, and equipment, combined with the remaining corruption, make one question this premise.   Interestingly, this is what the Canadian mission will shift to this week, and I will be visiting two places where our trainers will be based (RC-N and RC-W) this week.

The layers of bureaucracy are astounding. Several years ago I did some work on the whole of government approach that Canada was using in Afghanistan.  One of the things I took away from this research was that despite good the planning and coordination  between the military, diplomatic and development components of our mission, the overall complexity of the task and institutional responses built threatened to marginalize these efforts. And this was only in the Canadian context. The overwhelming sense I am getting through these briefings is that the layers of bureaucracy that are being created and used to tackle the incredibly challenging tasks we have given NATO are so vast and complex, that they ultimately may become unmanageable, and are almost certainly unsustainable post-transition. They feel all but certain to collapse in on themselves. Take just as one example the NTM-A. They are building a dozen military and policy schools, teaching all recruits to read and write, building an air force, training a special ops team, constituting anti-corruption programs, training officers and military leaders, and on and on.  All are positive, but they are all based on a western military and institutional model, and there is no doubt that this is am immense system being build for a country that does not have a recent institutional history. These same phenomena can be seen across the ISAF, OED, EUPOL, and UN missions.

Obama’s speech has had a real impact: It is easy to forget when one is watching politics in North America, that major policy changes are announced in what are often simply viewed as political speeches.  We arrived here a couple of days after Obama’s Afghanistan speech, in which he announced the beginnings of the draw down of the surge. The ubiquitous reaction we are getting is that while this was largely expected (Obama said when he announced the surge that he would begin drawdown in July 2011), it still has a real impact.  Much of these forces will likely be taken from non front line combat troops, but it will have a real impact. As an interesting side note, it took the US military a year just to physically fly in the 33,000 troop surge. So draw down will ultimately take a fair amount of time.

One final, perhaps minor point before I have to get some sleep:

There seems to be lots of talk at HQ that the new leadership trio of Crocker-Allan-Gass is a positive combination for the transition. It’s no secret that Patraeus and Ikenberry didn’t get along.  It was also no secret that Patraeus was the primary American voice in Afghanistan. This has served to reinforce the strength of the military as the primary voice and public face of the mission for the past two years.  While resources will of course continue to be overwhelmingly military, and there is little evidence of a shift to a real civilian surge, there is considerable talk that the balance of power will switch to the diplomats for the remaining 3 years of the mission. Crocker is a big presence and has the star power of Patraeus. And Simon Gass has a lot of experience in Afghanistan. They also get along well. It sounds like it is likely that the US embassy and NATO civilian civilian rep are about to take a lead role. Allen, less of a personality than McCrystal or Patraeus, will likely take less of a public role, as the focus shifts to polical transition and away from full scale counterinsurgency and towards training, reintegration and reconciliation.  Again, this does not necessary mean the local governance challenges are going to get the attention they require, but it is likely that this diplomatic leadership will move aggressively on high level reconciliation and pressure on Kabul.

Ok, those are a few very quick rough notes on the first 24hrs.  Will have much more to relay in the coming days.