Collapse of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces

Afghan Police, near Kunduz, December 2006. Picture taken by the author
Makeshift police checkpoint near Kunduz, used by the Afghan police pictured above. Picture taken by the author, December 2006

Summer 2021, both the Afghan National Government and the international presence in Afghanistan imploded, in whichever sequence and dependency from each other. The Taleban took control. First they promised a more liberal approach, compared with the situation of their first brutal regime, after the collapse of the Soviet invasion into Afghanistan.

In what feels like an endless stream of bad news since then, May 20, 2022 the Taliban’s Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue ordered that all women must wear a face veil in public, or risk punishment – which was extended to TV presenters. Here one German news coverage on it. Some women protested and refused in public appearances. It is the most recent of many bold and shameful steps imposing restrictions on women. Threats of punishment in case of non-compliance being doled out to the women, their employers, and the familiy members of these journalists led to that the female news presenters had to succumb under pressure.

Do we have the capacity to keep our public awareness focused on what happened in a country in Central Asia, and how we were, and are, collectively contributing to the suffering of its people, whilst a war broke out in the Ukraine?

Are we able to come up with a satisfactory joint assessment of what happened in Afghanistan?

When the catastrophic events of August 2021 occurred, just ten months ago, we were all shocked. Then, new catastrophic events unfolded, and sure this will affect our ability to invest enough time in grappling with an understanding about the complexity of two decades of international engagement, leading to what, seemingly, is a failure of epic dimensions. 24 August 2021 I argued here that we would benefit from a collective forward-looking assessment. Basing conclusions on what is publicly available, not having privileged insider information, the mileage may vary.


May 12, 2022, SIGAR issued an Evaluation Report in the form of an Interim Report: “SIGAR 22-22-IP Collapse of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces: An Assessment of the Factors That Led to Its Demise“. Like other SIGAR-Reports, this one is available for the general global public.

SIGAR stands for “Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction”. This is an Office created by the United States Congress in 2008, to provide independent and objective oversight of Afghanistan reconstruction projects and activities.

May 24, BBC headlined “Afghanistan: UK’s withdrawal a disaster, inquiry concludes“, reporting about the results of an inquiry of the United Kingdom’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

Germany is still preparing to conduct a full fledged and self-critical holistic assessment of what went wrong, and led to the catastrophic situation in Afghanistan during summer 2021.

SIGAR considers that “the single most important near-term factor in the ANDSF’s collapse was the U.S. decision to withdraw the U.S. military and contractors from Afghanistan through the U.S.-Taliban agreement in February 2020, signed under the Trump Administration and confirmed by President Biden in an April 2021 address to the nation.

The statement above is one of six factors which, according to SIGAR, accelerated the collapse of the Afghan Security and Defense Forces (ANDSF) in August 2021. Other factors identified are (2) the change in the U.S. military’s level of support to the ANDSF, (3) the ANDSF never achieving self-sustainment, (4) Afghan President Ashraf Ghani frequently changing ANDSF leaders and appointing loyalists, (5) the Afghan government’s failing to take responsibility for Afghan security through an implementation of a national security strategy, and (6) the Taliban’s military campaign effectively exploiting ANDSF weaknesses.


What is the “ANDSF”? The term ANDSF has been coined to describe what, in a simplification, can be understood as military, and police. If one looks “under the hood” of the development of policing and military capacities in Afghanistan, the number of different entities with abbreviations such as ANP for Afghan National Police, or others, looks more complicated. Using the term ANDSF, both military and policing capacities are being thrown into the same pot. Which is symptomatic for a problem that affected the support of Afghan reconstruction from the beginning.

Of course, SIGAR is taking a U.S. perspective in coming up with nine factors that have led to the situation that, to quote, “after 20 years and nearly $90 billion in U.S. security assistance, the ANDSF was ill-prepared to sustain security following a U.S. withdrawal.” Reading the SIGAR report, the U.S. views of the report may reflect parts of the fundamental problems which we all had, and all contributed to: The fragmentation of international efforts, and the seemingly unsurmountable challenges in facilitating a jointness of strategic viewpoints which would have allowed for, at the very least, more coherence than we witnessed.

In the summary section the report is listing nine factors, though only eight are numbered. SIGAR notes that “no country or agency had complete ownership of the ANDSF development mission, leading to an uncoordinated approach.”

Number 8 reads as follows: “(8) the U.S. and Afghan governments failed to develop a police force effective at providing justice and responsive to criminal activities that plagued the lives of Afghan citizens.”

Within the chapter “Background”, the report spends the three initial paragraphs on describing, in the briefest possible terms, how the United States began training the Afghan National Army ANA from 2002 onwards, and how “Coalition partners” accepted the responsibility for other efforts: “police reform (Germany), counternarcotics (United Kingdom), judicial reform (Italy), and disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (Japan)“.

The report goes on by saying that, following a United Nations Report in 2004, “in 2005, the United States assumed the lead for developing the ANA and the ANP. In 2006, the U.S. military created CSTC-A as a temporary entity responsible for training, advising, assisting, and equipping the Afghan security forces.

This section is riddled with military terms, and this is indicative for the motivating rationale. Two sentences stand out proving this: “Meanwhile, the Afghan security forces lacked appropriate equipment, which threatened their combat readiness. According to a 2005 U.S. military report, some ANP units had less than 15 percent of the required weapons and communications systems on hand.

Meaning: ANP, the police, being assessed as being “combat ready”, by the U.S. military. It is indicative for what follows, within a sound, though U.S.-centered politico/military analysis of the factors leading to the developments culminating in August 2021. For many pages, the lingo is entirely military, whilst the collective term ANDSF is used for uniformed capacities of the Afghan State. Policing appears to become somewhat an annex. This continues mostly until page 16 of the report, where, for the first time, some substantial reference is made to police issues, by referring to “President Ghani replaced more than half of Afghanistan’s district police chiefs, along with almost all ANA corps commanders, the chief of the army, and the ministers of defense (once) and interior (twice).” After that, the term “police” is only getting some prominence on page 22 again, within a narrative describing Taleban efforts to coerce district police chiefs into surrendering.

Following this detailed narrative, the report explains on page 24 and following pages the nine factors which SIGAR assesses as contribution to “U.S. and Afghan government’s ineffectiveness and inefficiencies in reconstructing Afghanistan’s entire security sector over the 20-year mission.”

In explaining the first factor, namely that “no single country or agency had complete ownership of the ANDSF development” there is another long and self-critical assessment which includes the sentence “Lead responsibility for constructing the Afghan National Police was initially given to Germany in 2002, but was quickly transferred to State, and then to DOD.” This reads like this decision has been a U.S. decision, and that it was taken back. Insofar, the entire report is indicative of a catastrophic development which I witnessed also personally during 2006 and the following years, in my then capacity within the European Union External Action Service. Importantly, I do not challenge the factual correctness of this U.S. view, inside a U.S.-centered perception of what happened. But from all I have been part of, this view will not go unchallenged by others in the international community. For many, this was not a U.S. unilateral decision, like, “to give” lead responsibility to partners. There is a whole record of international conferences from the early years of the development which would describe this very differently. And at the same time, if an internal U.S. decision then “took this back”, my memories do not include neither clear communication, nor that there would have been consent. Riddled with uncommunicated issues, this certainly contributes to the correctly described chaos, in SIGAR’s report.

In explaining the seventh factor, namely that “the U.S. and Afghan governments failed to develop a police force effective at providing justice and responding to criminal activities that plagued the daily lives of Afghan citizens”, the report presents two disappointing paragraphs on page 31. Whilst remaining highly critical about history, reputation, and systemic shortfalls of policing concepts and the Afghan National Police in general, and rightly stressing the importance of community policing and law enforcement capabilities in general, there is an entire absence of mentioning any efforts, whether under German Lead Nation activities, other bilateral, or European Union, efforts which attempted to contribute to Afghanistan’s efforts developing policing concepts, capacities, and capabilities. They often clashed with the U.S. conceptual framework, and the entire SIGAR report in itself is pointing into the direction that this is a crucial part of what happened throughout 20 years.


Mindful of not overstepping mostly self-imposed limitations on how I would like to contribute to public discussion and opinion-making through the means of this little blog, I will, however, make a personal statement:

I have never counted them, but I believe the numbers of police officers who contributed to the effort providing Afghanistan with a capable Police, not a Police “Force”, go into the thousands.

Like all other of these thousands, we were in Afghanistan under the umbrella of Lead Nation concepts, such as the German Police Project Office GPPO, and its later successor, the German Police Project Team GPPT, under national deployments into Provincial Reconstruction Teams PRT or other forms of bilateral contributions, or embedded into military deployment, or under the European Union Civilian Crisis Management Mission to Afghanistan dubbed EUPOL AFGHANISTAN, or in the form of small scale advisory functions within the United Nations Mission UNAMA, and else.

None of this finds mentioning in the SIGAR report. In December 2006 I was leading a European Union Factfinding Mission which contributed to the establishment of EUPOL AFGHANISTAN. For the following years, I contributed to EU headquarters efforts making the EU contribution a part of the international efforts, and hoping for making a difference. Thus, I have personal memories of talks with highest representatives of the international and Afghan national authorities during that time, and they are indicative for the fundamental underlying problems which are outlined in the SIGAR report, as well as for the fact that even how this report is being written from a politico/military U.S.-centric perspective is profound testimony for some of the central elements which haunted us for 20 years. Collectively. I’m seriously stressing that this is, by no means, a criticism towards U.S. policy and implementation. I do stress that we collectively, all of us, were unable to find the coherence which any international assistance to the cause of Afghanistan required.

Many of these thousands of police women and men who have spent tours of duty in Afghanistan have invested hugely, putting lifes and personal relationships at risk, and they all have made friends with Afghani women and men. Many of us felt, like our military friends and colleagues who got attached to Afghanistan’s people, an enduring pain seeing our friends being in danger, having had to flee, to hide, to take duck and cover, attempting to escape from the brutal regime which the Taliban appear to reestablish, within some thinly veiled deception that is vanishing more and more. I am sure that the single-handed absence of any of these parts of the story, within this undoubtedly important SIGAR interim report, hurts many of us.

On a personal level, the experiences with, in, and around Afghanistan have been a key motivating factor to work on answering the question as to whether it is possible to come up with a universal denominator on what we all should, under the umbrella of the United Nations, understand as principles for policing. I have written about the United Nations Strategic Guidance Framework on this blog since its inception. Likewise, the recent article “On Coherence of International Assistance” is motivated by experiences including the international incoherence over 20 years in Afghanistan.


Conducting honest and self-critical assessments on two decades of international military and civilian presence in Afghanistan, following the events in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, is critically important. We need to establish fact-based knowledge how the failure and implosion of the Afghan system of governance under former President Ashraf Ghani was intertwined with the circumstances and the demise of international efforts in Afghanistan. For reasons of accountability, honesty, and as an element which at least will inform us how we can avoid future mistakes.

Starting with honest assessments, secondly a public discussion which assesses how we want to avoid this in the future, and thirdly visibly delivering on conclusions, these three steps together are necessary.

Demonstrating the strengths of a democratic understanding of accountability must be based on the principle that attraction is more important than promotion. Even more important is a collectively accepted international peace&security architecture centered around the United Nations providing perspectives for all of us, globally, and notwithstanding the different cultural, political and faith frameworks within the societies we live in.

National assessments such as the ones which I have referenced in this blog are for starters only. I wish I could be looking forward to an effort to get all of us, Afghanis and “Internationals”, into a concerted effort to come up with an analytical narrative to which we all agree. It may never happen, and it would be really very challenging, and depend on sound political commitment on the side of many.

But it would be more than worth it.

On Coherence of International Assistance

Elements of successful strategic assistance measures

This outline of considerations is based on personal experiences and lessons learned in a specific professional context, and it is based on many years of work in various international capacities. I have recently put this into a specific context and the following is the de-sensitized version which I hope is useful for a more general reflection on international assistance efforts.

  1. Any form of international assistance to domestic, national or regional development of governance happens in different societal and cultural contexts, has to be framed within a specific and complex historical and political environment often including various and very complex stages of post-conflict states of affairs, and depends on political and strategic motivations of (a) States receiving assistance, (b) involved regional and international organizations and (c) donors. There are only limited blueprints available, and no copy/paste strategy works.
  2. Situational ambitions and motivations by all involved actors are driven by the momentary situation and need to be used for, and reconciled with, the requirements forming the basis of long-term strategic and sustainable development based on a vision, a strategic framework, its operationalization, its measurability, and constant evaluation. There is no successful strategic development if it fails to deliver immediate operational impact, nor will quick-impact-projects without an evolving framework of flexible strategic commitment, robust enough to sustain itself in rapidly evolving political and security contexts, be more than piecemeal.
  3. “Local/domestic ownership” and “assistance” are crucial terms. However, they are vulnerable to becoming lip service. Thus, the DNA of any strategic assistance must hard-wire the commitment of all who assist to put beneficiaries into the driver seat and to demonstrate this in all actions. Since growth of confidence, capacity and capabilities of domestic governance are inherently a fundamental objective of such assistance, constant dialogue on all levels needs to mitigate the different motivations of all involved actors, putting the beneficiaries front and center. This requires a high-level agreement of beneficiaries, implementers and donors prior to any development of a concrete assistance strategy. The agreement needs to reflect motivation, commitments, and limiting conditions of all parties involved, and it should be subject to regular proactive evaluation on a high level, bringing all partners in this joint exercise together. In order to get there, operational kick-starter activities need to demonstrate visible commitment to partnership and transparency.
  4. Strategic assistance, if successful, attracts many who are interested to participate. Coherence of efforts must be robustly built in from the outset on, an accountability framework must bring all actors together. It works better if the capacity for growth is built in early. It is particularly relevant to include beneficiaries as partners: If unguided, donors and implementors can develop a mindset based on exclusive talking. This can be very subtle, allowing for claiming that domestic ownership is fully implemented, and the differences only been seen by insiders, but especially being felt by beneficiaries. Donors need constant reminding of what “assistance” means, and implementors will benefit from a larger accountability mechanism which helps them to mitigate their genuine motivation to assist (thus, to work at taking themselves ultimately out of the equation) with their business models (they need to generate projects because it is part of their raison d’être and they have payrolls to serve).

Recommendations

Identify Champions

Beneficiaries with a strong interest in identifying needs on a strategic level and a commitment to implementing governance processes and institutions committed to international principles and standards and resilient against undue political interference and corruption;

International/Regional Organizations with an ability to reflect and integrate regional political and security aspects and a willingness to establish, or significantly contribute to, and politically support, a technical steering process for all aspects of assistance to beneficiaries;

Donors with a willingness to be trailblazers in a partnership approach within a long-term political commitment, bolstered by the ability to significantly contribute to financial funding, political support, and being ready to deploy long-term advisers into the regional context.

Map a path into structured dialogue, based on principles of strong partnership

Champions on the side of international organizations and donors to generate a technical dialogue leading into high-level ministerial support, visibly owned by political stakeholders of beneficiaries.

Use kickstarting assistance in order to establish visibility and demonstrated immediate commitment

On basis of a preliminary needs assessment, from the outset on empowering representatives of beneficiaries, to identify quick-impact projects.

Tie kickstarting assistance into a political dialogue encouraging to express long-term intent and readiness to establish a roadmap

It allows for regional cooperation amongst those who are ready for it, and design a draft roadmap with vision, objectives, first-level operationalization, and benchmarking.

Identify the coordination mechanism which involves stakeholders from all sides allowing for what is needed most: Growing technical dialogue on basis of an understanding of equal partnership. This then is the basis for political operationalization, using these examples as successful templates for stating: “Cooperation works”.