Opaque and Dilemma-Ridden: A look back at transition

Author: Thomas Ruttig    Date: 12 August 2013

At its Lisbon summit in November 2010 NATO made “transition” its official strategy for Afghanistan, setting mid-2013 as the time when responsibility for security throughout all of Afghanistan should have been handed over – or “transitioned” – from NATO to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in a process of five phases. This time has now arrived, with President Karzai having announced the commencement of the fifth and last phase on 18 June 2013. It seemed a good time for AAN to look back at transition and our analysis of it. Sifting through dozens of related dispatches published since 2010, AAN’s senior analyst Thomas Ruttig finds it becoming more and more opaque over time, with the criteria of the readiness of Afghan forces constantly defined downwards and governance criteria dropped completely, or at least never making it into the public sphere. He summarises our analysis and looks at how stable the post-2014 Afghanistan can be.

In another dispatch appearing today on our website (under “AAN Publications”) we also present our first “Thematic Dossier”: a one-stop link gathering all our publications, papers and dispatches on transition, offering an overview of what happened since 2010, of what worked and didn’t, and a unique collection of expert opinions and analysis on a complex process.

Transition (or inteqal, in Dari and Pashto) has involved mixed messages from the very beginning. When the Afghan government and its international partners – prompted by the growing unpopularity of the ISAF mission in the troop-contributing countries – decided to develop a “plan for phased transition to Afghan security lead“ at the January 2010 international Afghanistan conference in London, they made a pledge “to strengthen Afghan ownership and leadership across all the functions of government and throughout the territory of Afghanistan … within the framework of Afghan sovereignty” [our emphasis]. The “political and military criteria” for the start of transition were endorsed by NATO and ISAF foreign ministers during a meeting in Tallinn, Estonia, in April 2010 and, “after consultations with the Afghan Government”, the plan was made official at the international Kabul Conference on Afghanistan in July 2010 and adopted by NATO at the November 2010 NATO summit in Portugal’s capital, Lisbon (read the official version here).

Most of the media understood immediately that transition was all about President Barack Obama’s “exit strategy from Afghanistan” (read here, for example).(1)

At the Lisbon meeting, it was emphasised that transition would be gradual and “conditions-based, not calendar-driven”, as the summit’s final declaration made clear:

“Transition assessments will also consider the ability and authority of the Afghan government to provide the rule of law and manage public administration at sub-national and local levels; and the capacity of an area to sustain socio-economic development.”

However, by that time, the military aspects of transition had already taken centre stage – something Barbara Stapleton, in her 2012 paper for AAN, described as the “marginalisation of governance criteria”. Conditions-based assessments had also become secondary to getting it all finished by the date of 31 December 2014. US Vice President Joe Biden confirmed the deadline’s absolute priority on the very morning of the opening of the Lisbon summit when he called it a “drop dead date”.

For the Afghan President, Hamed Karzai, patronised by western governments and ridiculed as a “puppet” by the insurgents, another aspect of transition was central: Afghan sovereignty. This was acknowledged by NATO’s Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, at his press conference after the Lisbon summit, where he called transition the “process by which the Afghan people will once again become masters in their own house”. Implicitly, he confirmed that they had not been thus far. Indeed, many key decisions on Afghanistan’s post-2001 future had been taken outside Afghanistan, sometimes after consulting with Karzai (for example, when the new constitution stipulated for a presidential system in 2003), sometimes without and sometimes even despite Karzai’s resistance (for example, the abolition of conscription for the Afghan army and police).(2)

Karzai, who also attended the Lisbon summit, strikingly avoided any clear definition of transition in his speech there (which would have made it necessary to define concrete responsibilities and conditions-based benchmarks). He emphasised, instead, that he was mainly interested in territorial control(3) as an expression of the country’s territorial integrity under the central government’s control:

“We must particularly work together to ensure that provincial transitions are guided by a coherent national approach” [our emphasis].

At the start, it all looked fairly straightforward. Transitions were to be undertaken in five phases – or to use the NATO term, tranches. For the first two (the easiest), announced on 22 March 2011 and 27 November 2011 respectively, we were given the lists of the areas whose security would be handed over to the Afghan authorities. Later phases would be a lot messier. But even with the first two, a closer scrutiny revealed things proceeding far from smoothly and also not fully transparently. First of all, the assessments of each province’s readiness for transition that were to be “undertaken by the Joint Afghan-NATO Inteqal Board, with its recommendations to be submitted to the Afghan Cabinet for approval” were never made public.(4)

When AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini looked back at the first two stages in March 2012 he found that, during Phase One, many areas included in transition “were already devoid of foreign soldiers” (read about the example of Mazar-e Sharif here). That first phase included three other provinces – Kabul, Panjshir and Bamyan – and, as well as Mazar, three cities – Herat, Lashkargah (Helmand) and Mehtarlam (Laghman). In the case of Kabul province, which consists of the capital city and 14 rural districts, one of those districts, Sarobi, was unruly enough to be exempted from that phase. Moreover, the capital city itself had already been handed over in 2008, before transition officially started, but – after initial public announcements that it was to happen – it took place in such a low-key manner, without any public ceremony, that it was barely noticed in the media (except here). It was further revealed that Lashkargah and Mehtarlam had been added to the Phase One list on Karzai’s insistence: he felt it was impossible not to include some Pashtun areas. In order to make Mehtarlam’s transition possible, the district borders were gerrymandered – re-drawn so that one rural area of the provincial capital that had been in Taleban hands for years was separated from it and turned into a new district. It was to be transitioned later on.

During Phase Two, that began on 27 November 2011, even more problems became visible. First of all, the withdrawal of western troops went ahead even when security was still poor or sometimes led to a deterioration. At the handover of the Helmand districts of Marja, Nad Ali and Nawa-ye Barakzai, our analyst, Fabrizio Foschini, wrote that:

“The situation on the ground is … portrayed by the fact that the handover ceremony could not take place in any of the three districts, but, given the concentration of government and ISAF possible targets, took place inside the governor compound in [the provincial capital] Lashkargah.”

In January 2013, the New York Times reported from those very three districts, noting “dissatisfaction with the Afghan government [for its] widespread corruption and hypocrisy”, not much faith in “the ability of the Afghan government and security forces to maintain the security gains won by the huge American and British military effort here” and the Taleban “creeping back.” A few weeks earlier, AP had reported from the same area “it appears the flaw in the plan was with the quality of Afghans chosen by the president, Hamid Karzai, to govern and police the area after most of the fighting ended.” It also said that “a corrupt government poses one of the biggest hurdles to stability, alienating the locals and driving them into the hands of the Taliban”.

NATO’s three pronged surge strategy – beat back the Taleban, give space for the Afghan government and ANSF to take over and win the support of the people – was seen to be fragile at best. As part of that, administrative personnel were flown in from outside the district, a policy unveiled with much fanfare at the time of the Marja campaign in early 2010 by ISAF commander General Stanley McChrystal: “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in” (quoted here). It also proved to be a failure in the longer run, despite initial (or initially spun) success.

Some areas – and not only in the more volatile south and south-east of the country – were transited only to experience fresh outbreaks of violence. As we reported in October 2011, these included Obe and Chesht-e Sharif in Herat province. In the case of areas in Nuristan and Kunar, as my colleague, Fabrizio Foschini, put it – the withdrawing western troops were “not replaced by their Afghan counterparts, but rather by insurgents”.

Here, in the country’s east, an “insurgency corridor” leading right up to the north-eastern approaches of the capital Kabul emerged. This trend has intensified during this year’s spring offensive. The Taleban have started attacking and temporarily taking over district centres for the first time since 2006/07, albeit only, so far, in more ‘peripheral’ areas, using concentrations of up to several hundred fighters. Allied airpower and temporary deployments of ANSF units have made sure the Taleban are pushed out again, as we reported from northern Uruzgan. However, as western troops leave more swathes of Afghan territory, the possibility cannot be ruled out that Taleban attacks could turn into attempts to occupy territory longer term as were analysed here.

As to Phase Three, as Fabrizio remarked in his analysis of the first year of transition, information about it started to “seep out”. This was because of two developments. First, it became clear there was a “sliding scale” of transition. As Fogh Rasmussen explained in a 2012 press briefing, it took “between 12 and 18 months to actually fully implement a transition” in a certain area. This meant that the announcement of each stage and area of transition actually just marked the start of that process, not its end. Secondly, there began to be less and less transparency about transition. Lists of areas to be handed over stopped being published, and whereas areas in the first two lists looked reasonable candidates for ANSF control, some of the areas in later phases only prompted questions as to how they were thought to be ready for handover.

Even the Afghan authorities sometimes seemed to lose control over the progress of transition, as the case of Paktika shows. On 1 April this year, the head of the Afghan transition authority announced that, after an inspection of the province, Afghan forces would “soon” take over security responsibility for its capital, Sharana. However, in September 2012, it had already reported that Sharana had been transitioned. Was this a mix up or an unannounced delay in transition? What is clear, however, that with the last and fifth tranche on-going – it commenced on 18 June this year – the ANSF are on their way to a full security lead role on Afghanistan’s whole territory.

Apart from geographical areas, certain institutions have also been “transitioned” to Afghan responsibility. Here, too, the question of sovereignty has been at stake, as in the handover of the US run detention facility on Bagram air base. Although it officially happened in March 2013, the agreement that constitutes the legal basis for the transfer has never been published, despite both sides claiming it is not classified. Moreover, AAN found out that the US military is still running the so-called ‘Black Prison’ (Tor Jail) on Bagram air base where it interrogates some detainees prior to handing them over and that, even after handover, according to former detainees, it still has access to detainees for interrogation (the Afghan authorities have denied this is the case).

Another trend that became visible during the transition process was that criteria on the preparedness of the ANSF to take over security responsibility were constantly re-defined downwards while progress was talked up. We have followed this on a number of specific topics, from the role of Special Operations Forces to the ANSF logistics and air force capabilities. One sentence of AAN’s guest writer Gary Owen sums it all up:

“[Given] ISAF’s bulldozer of a PR campaign to portray the ANA as ready to shoulder the nation’s security, … it is critical to look at the metrics: … Since January 2009, the [US Department of Defence] has changed its standards so regularly that it has become practically impossible to measure the ANA accurately…”

Given certain “fundamental problems” with the ANSF, such as the high attrition rate, lacks in training, equipment and supply, a general “innate dependence on foreign forces for military success“ and for the Afghan air force, a “potentially fatal capability gap”, particularly in transport and medical evacuation operations, as our guest author Gary Owen points out, it might well be that:

“[in] the rush to get out of the quagmire that Afghanistan has become, the US and other NATO member states [are] preparing the ground for more instability, rather than less”.

Barbara Stapleton comes to similar conclusions in her already mentioned study for AAN under the self-explanatory title “Beating a Retreat”. The understanding that not all went well seems to have taken root in NATO capitals as well. The British Ministry of Defence (MoD) has now publicly warned that the ANA’s attrition rates “continue to represent a risk to the sustainability of the future force”. And the Bundeswehrverband, an association representing German soldiers and not a government body, has just questioned Berlin’s decision to withdraw all its combat forces as per NATO decision by the end of 2014, arguing with the “scary” security situation in Afghanistan.

It was clear from the beginning: a “conditions-based” transition combined with a fixed end date could not work out. Sooner or later any major complication or delay would let the process collide with the “drop-dead” end date. And it did. NATO had maneuvered itself into a classic dilemma. With no genuine “solution” possible, it has chosen to lower the criteria (unloved by Kabul anyway), limit transparency, talk up successes and hope for the best. And that is where Afghanistan stands today.

(1) Another aspect of transition and the related conferences was that it sent different messages to different audiences. As the Los Angeles Times summarized immediately after the Lisbon conference:

“To a war-weary European [and US] constituency: There’s an exit strategy. To a conflicted American public, whose troops are bearing the brunt of rising battlefield casualties: Things are going better militarily, but it will still take some time. To Afghan President Hamid Karzai: Please watch what you say. And to the Taliban: Don’t get your hopes up.”

(2) Conscription had reportedly already been abolished by the mujahedin-led government in 1992, but the country was engulfed by factional wars during this period and subsequently under the Taleban (who did conscript, at least from some areas), so that such a decision only became politically relevant after 2001.

(3) How important this was to the president had already become clear previously. In 2006, when British troops were sent to the southern province of Helmand, he insisted that, although overstretched, they should defend all district centres from the Taleban. He also reacted extremely vigorously when it was suggested in media reports that western governments, in contacts with Taleban representatives, had offered them control, or governors’ posts, in a number of provinces.

(4) NATO still publishes maps of the transition tranches, though, but without districts names.

Tagged with: ANSF, handover, international troops, ISAF, provinces, Security, Transition
Thematic Category: War & Peace