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Amrullah Saleh
Amrullah Saleh
Amrullah Saleh, a former Afghan intelligence chief, is an opposition leader.
Ending the politicisation of Afghan security forces
Well-equipped security forces have been derailed by politics and a lack of incentives, says author.
Last Modified: 19 Apr 2012 11:32
The Afghanistan security forces spend 12 times more than the country's entire income [AFP]

Kabul, Afghanistan - A decadent leadership and a disciplined force - can it be?

The aftermath of every deadly Taliban attack brings voices that condemn the Taliban and praise the Afghan security forces. And some muster up the courage to criticise the political leadership and the government of the country.

Have the Afghan national security forces reached a level of competency where we can trust their skills and abilities? To understand the answer to this, we need to look at three areas: the relationship between the political leadership and the security forces, the capabilities of the forces, and the role these forces will play in the future.

The upper and middle echelons of Afghan forces are filled by people who have not risen to their promotions in a democratic system. They are not "secu-crats": Most of them have been placed in their posts through political consultations and personal connections. This directly affects the loyalty and inspiration of the officers at different levels.

When the president ventures out to pay a visit to a unit of the national police, national army, or intelligence, his personal security detail, called the President Protection Service (PPS), disarms everyone in advance. It sends the message that the only loyal unit to the president and the system is the PPS, comprised of 750 people who guard and protect him.

By infiltrating the ranks of Afghan army and police, the Taliban have brought about unfortunate incidents. But the president’s mistrust of Afghan forces goes back much earlier.

Saleh served as Afghanistan's chief of intelligence until his resignation in June 2010

In the early years of the new government, mistrust was at such a high level that for up to six years, an American company named DynCorp was responsible for the president’s security. Now, foreign mentors operate in the PPS who, in addition to coordinating with NATO forces, ensure discipline in the ranks and file of the unit. Their influence is clear on the behaviour of the president’s bodyguards, who often act insensitively to Afghan cultural values.

In the army units, too, prejudiced views stemming from ethnic sensitivities exist as many officers turn to seeking ethnic, political, or personal sanctuaries for protection against political meddling.

The political relations with the Afghan police are more complex than the Afghan army. The police were far from international attention until 2007, when most of the aid was going to the army. For this reason, and many others, the influence of political figures in the police is greater, and continues to increase.

Before Zarar Ahmad Muqbel’s sacking as minister of interior, Karzai had lost faith in him and his abilities. In security meetings, he would invite General Ali Shah Paktiawal, the then-CID at Kabul police department, along with the minister. It was an odd mix that did not even befit the management of partisan or guerrilla forces. On occasions, Paktiawal would reject the words of Muqbel or explain the issue in a completely different way. When police forces understand that their minister and one of his managers are not on the same level, it’s clear that a certain kind of chaos will reign.

Ordinary citizens in the ranks of Afghan forces are, to a remarkable extent, sheltered from the personal and ethnic tension. But some of them are certainly influenced by the mentality of high-ranking officers who have ethnic or regional leanings.

Cost of interference

It is possible that one day young officers, who are devoid of ethnic or regional leanings and graduates of institutes of higher education, will enter the security forces and become a beacon of hope for the Afghan people. But this scenario remains just a possibility, and depends entirely on whether there will be an end to the politicisation of our security institutions.

Interference in the management of the security forces, be it in the upper or lower levels, slows their growth rate, increases their expenses, and strikes a major blow to their morale. The nepotistic appointment of officers in upper and middle echelons of the security force will at best protect narrow interests instead of national ones.

With the intelligence force, the situation is also not much different. In this institution, pockets loyal to President Karzai, his vice presidents, provincial leaders and those protected by Americans are distinctly visible.

This problem had been minimized in previous years, but in Karzai’s second term, which has been characterised by the distribution of state resources to his allies, the intelligence force have also been affected.

 Ex-Afghan spy chief decries Taliban talks

Without corruption and decadence at the leadership level, the strengthening of the ranks and the creation a strong incentive for fighting negative trends are not difficult tasks.

Idealism and belief in values are crucial to strengthening the ranks. But when the security forces witness the decay of values at the leadership level, the incentive for sacrifice plummets. The effectiveness of the force declines. And in such situations ethnic and regional divides, personal connections, and mistrust creep in.

Continuing the current situation, in which the leadership lacks vision and is corrupt in certain areas, will corrupt the forces to a tragic extent, or will make the relationship between political leadership and security forces one of deceit, lies, and narrow interest, the results of which will be felt deeply by the Afghan people.

Another sign of this decaying relationship is the negative competition and accusations. These days, government institutions attack each other through the media. It doesn’t take more than a brief observation of the media to see a clear lack of coordination.

Capability of the forces:

In the context of threat assessments for Afghanistan, the majority of the experts believe that Afghan security forces will not be faced with the invasion of foreign armies. And if they do face an invasion, they will never be able to stand their ground due to weak economic base of the country.

Instead, neighbouring countries will try to train and equip forces that will fight for them and thereby destabilise the situation in Afghanistan. These countries will exploit the political turmoil, poverty, ethnic divides, the porous borders, and most importantly the weakness of our national identity to rally our own citizens against the state on different pretexts. This scenario is the foundation for the Afghan security doctrine - how would we deal with this kind of a threat? With what mechanisms, systems, and firepower?

The structure, equipment, and training given to the Afghan security forces have provided them with the capability to move quickly and react swiftly. Threat assessment, target evaluation, coordination and execution of operations all fall within the current capabilities and skills of the forces.

Some of the world’s military and security thinkers, including the late Ahmad Shah Massoud (the anti-Soviet resistance leader), believed that poor countries surrounded by hostile or bad neighbours needed a tripartite formula: a strong motivation, followed by a capable and disciplined leadership, and then by resources.

Talk to Al Jazeera- Amrullah Saleh

For poor countries, a resource-only based motivation, resource-based leadership and organisation is not sustainable. These countries will always lack sufficient defence and security resources, and will always try to protect their macro security through alliance with regional or global powers.

The resources at the service of the Afghan forces are sufficient for the total or partial diffusion of defined threats, but here the formula is implemented backwards. The emphasis has been on equipping the forces, not on strengthening their non-materialistic motivation.

Excessive dependence on resources, strengthening organisation and management through resources, and eventually creating incentives through financial resources is the opposite of what has proven effective in history.

The fact that the existing method is dependent on foreign aid - and every day the leadership of security forces complains of shortage or lack of resources - shows the weakness from both a practical and academic lens.

The aid from US and the west to Afghan security forces is uncertain and short-term. This aid is dependent on the donor country’s national interests rather than the national need of Afghanistan. Coincidentally, we share a common enemy with the western world, but this situation will change. Therefore, the insistence of the Afghan military and security leadership on increasing the quantity is flawed. Not only is a foreign aid dependent military and security force hard to trust, but it also creates constant uncertainty as the situation changes with the wiles of the donor.

Role of the forces in political shifts

The number of professionals and non-professionals who occupy leadership positions in Afghan security forces for political and nepotistic reasons is over 90 per cent.

It will not be possible to change this percentage in the next two years before the next elections are held. In the meantime, the retirement of the older officers also are delayed on ethnic or political basis.

Considering this issue, the possibility of interference by security forces in politics in future years is very likely.

Large-scale interference that could lead to a coup d’etat is less likely, first because the security forces are divided in their political views and leanings, and secondly because the leadership at different levels are dependent and conscious of western aid.

Training the Afghan security forces

But as the previous election showed, certain police and army units, through soft intimidation and influence in various parts of the country, brought local leaders to support the candidates of their choice. The appointments of the past two years point to the possibility of this recurring, in a more organised way.

The dream situation would be that the security forces defend the system in its entirety, which includes the legal opposition. But we have never gotten close to our dreams. The security forces spend 12 times more than Afghanistan’s entire income. When such resources are given to vulnerable institutions, it will surely be tempting to use it for political influence.

Therefore, the solution will be to put together an oversight commission for monitoring the neutrality of the security forces before any election. Even now, institutions that have the ability to tap phones listen to the conversations of political figures under the pretext of “special operations”. For a dictatorship, that is natural. But we speak of an infant democracy built on the blood of the people - we shouldn’t let the few national resources be used for protecting the narrow interest of a clique.

A large number of officers from our national security forces, especially those deeply rooted in the country and not returnees from exile or foreign institutions, know that involvement of the military in politics has been tragic for Afghanistan. And some in these years, through visits to prosperous countries, have been acquainted with soft demeanor and nationalistic behavior of those countries’ military forces. They have noticed that the dignity of the security forces is in defending national rule, not in defending small political circles.

Possibly, getting acquainted with new methods has influenced the outlook of the Afghan officers. The officers are from this land, this country. But just hoping for a good outlook on their behalf is not sufficient. Hope is not something solid and measurable. We need to create mechanisms so they are not turned into pawns. Not only is the creation of these mechanisms important for the transparency of our politics, but also for the durability, dignity, and honor of the Afghan security forces.

Amrullah Saleh was the head of Afghanistan's intelligence agency from 2004 until 2010. He is currently the leader of an opposite movement.

A version of this article first appeared in Dari/Farsi, on the BBC Persian website.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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