Security concerns in Afghanistan.

A few weeks ago Australian Prime Minister Julian Gillard made a surprise visit to Tarin Kowt to meet with the troops stationed there. Then days after that Opposition leader Tony Abbott made a surprise visit to the same place. Earlier in the year US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a surprise visit to Kabul. See the pattern? Every single visit by a foreign dignitary is either a surprise, a secret or is unannounced – exactly the same pattern that has prevailed in Iraq since the invasion of 2003.

22nd Nov 2011


Editorial

Security concerns in Afghanistan.

A few weeks ago Australian Prime Minister Julian Gillard made a surprise visit to Tarin Kowt to meet with the troops stationed there. Then days after that Opposition leader Tony Abbott made a surprise visit to the same place. Earlier in the year US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a surprise visit to Kabul. See the pattern? Every single visit by a foreign dignitary is either a surprise, a secret or is unannounced – exactly the same pattern that has prevailed in Iraq since the invasion of 2003.

The reason for this is obvious – the security situation continues to be tenuous, even in the relatively safe Afghan capital, Kabul. The fact that after a decade of fighting by International Security Assistance Forces, senior figures such as visiting dignitaries still have to come and go under a shroud of secrecy is surely cause for concern. Recently, Defence Review Asia had the opportunity to visit Kabul – see separate report in this issue – and it is clear that there is still a long way to go before Afghanistan could be considered a normal country.

The vast majority of ISAF troops in Kabul continue to live and work inside their heavily protected bases, with little contact with local people. This is not to say that the security situation has not improved – it has – but the threat posed by even a single suicide bomber is such that few soldiers are prepared to put themselves and their comrades at risk.

The recently concluded fighting season has seen the conflict taken to the insurgents in a co-coordinated and aggressive manner. Coupled with the deaths of senior figures in the Taliban, the Haqqani network and especially al-Qaeda with the killing of Osama bin Laden, it is reasonable to assume that ISAF has the initiative in a large number of areas. While it seems unlikely that Afghanistan will be turned into a shining beacon of corruption-free democracy in central Asia, it might be getting to the stage where it can be considered no longer a potential safe haven for terrorists – at least not a Government-sponsored safe haven.

The scattered remnants of al-Qaeda are most probably far more concerned about staying alive than plotting attacks against the West. Having said that, attacks can be plotted by a handful of people – even individuals – but what counts is their ability to actually stage something involving the significant use of force. The probability of that would seem to be low, but not zero. Unfortunately for the West, it is highly likely that Islamic extremists have moved out of Afghanistan a long time ago and are now in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia – to name only the most obvious locations.

The big question is what will happen from 2014 onwards. The true test of the success of the recently concluded surge will be the next Afghan fighting season in six months time. It is likely that ISAF forces will continue vigorous operations during the winter and if they keep the pressure on the insurgency then the result should be a considerably weakened opposition. If this is the case then the level of violence against ISAF troops next spring should be down considerably on previous years. Speaking with people on the ground, this is their expectation and officers from several nations have expressed the belief that they have succeeded in inflicting major blows to the insurgents and they will continue to do so. However, the situation remains highly complex and in many areas even the motivation of locals to take up arms remains opaque. In some cases it might be nothing more than the sheer boredom of a life spent herding goats in a rigidly structured society with few outlets for emotions and energy.

At the same time, training of the Afghan National Army continues on schedule, despite setbacks such as the recent killing of three Australians by a rogue soldier near Kandahar. Unfortunately, this tragedy was not an isolated case and many nations – including the United States and Britain – have suffered casualties inflicted by troops they were training. Some of these attacks might have been motivated by political reasons, but it also seems that others are caused by personal grudges brought about by relatively minor – in Western eyes at least – breaches of etiquette, such as not removing sunglasses during meetings or usurping someone’s authority in front of his comrades.

Overall, progress is being made in training and there are more stories of success than of failure. However, what is going to count in the longer term is not simply the level of tactical expertise transferred to the ANA but also the motivation of troops. They might be the best-trained forces in the world but if they are not prepared to fight then the effort will have been wasted. A further complication will be the level of equipment provided to them. ISAF forces can draw on considerable resources – artillery, helicopters, UAVs, close air support from advanced military aircraft and even satellite data. It is unlikely that the ANA will ever have this level of equipment, even if the residual post-2014 ISAF commitment – and especially that of the United States – fills some of these gaps.


 

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