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Expansion Of Afghan Security Forces Fraught With Challenges

Afghan police guard the Kabul-Kandahar highway
Afghan police guard the Kabul-Kandahar highway
For Kabul resident Shah Muhammad, 46, it is easy to recall the days when armed factions fought pitched battles in the city streets.

As he enjoys a sunny spring afternoon in a Kabul park, watching children playing and running around, he tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that foreign troops would have to leave one day, but says that until that day comes they should help the Afghan security forces to stand on their own feet.

The Afghan National Police (ANP) and the Afghan National Army (ANA) have effectively taken over all security responsibilities in the 16 police districts of Kabul.

Despite sporadic violence and numerous complaints about police corruption, residents appear to be content with the overall security the sprawling capital city.

The creation of disciplined and well-trained Afghan security forces capable of quelling insurgency and providing security has been a key topic of debate as Washington prepares to release the findings of its strategic review for Afghanistan.

Recent reports fueled that debate by suggesting that the number of Afghan security forces could be more than doubled to as much as 400,000. But sustaining such numbers and using them effectively could prove extremely challenging.

Washington Review

Washington has spent months increasing its awareness of the security needs in Afghanistan. As a result of its strategic reviews, "The New York Times" has reported, the United States is considering possible dialogue with insurgents and the promotion of regional cooperation to complement its announced troop surge.

According to the report, the Obama administration is mulling the expansion of Afghanistan's security forces to 400,000. Despite an early plague of desertions, and disagreements over strength levels and training commitments, the Afghan National Army now stands at 90,000-strong and the Afghan National Police (ANP) at 80,000.

Afghan Interior Minister Hanif Atmar, who was part of an Afghan delegation that traveled to Washington in late February, adamantly maintains that the U.S. and its international allies have agreed to help Afghan security forces -- and that they could number between 350,000 to 450,000.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, Atmar said that the international community questioned such suggestions in the past, but appear to have finally seen things Kabul's way.
They should only leave after ensuring that Afghanistan is not destroyed again and is not turned into a center of international terrorism again

"With God's help, we have been able to put our point of view across clearly and forcefully. We told them that if they want to make a new strategy for Afghanistan and want us all to succeed in Afghanistan, then the Afghan government and its security forces should be helped in undertaking that. Nobody but only Afghans can bring peace and the rule of law to their country."

Such plans are hotly debated around Western capitals and might be formally approved during NATO's upcoming summit in early April.

But for Amin Tarzi, director of Middle East Studies at the Marine Corps University in Virginia, any talk of increasing Afghan security-force numbers must address potential pitfalls in not only setting up, but sustaining such personnel levels.

Picking Up The Bill

By some estimates pushing the number of security forces could cost $10 to $20 billion over the next seven years in set-up costs alone, with the bulk of those costs to be paid by the United States.

Tarzi tells RFE/RL that "sustainable quality rather than unsustainable quantity" is key to achieving security in Afghanistan.

"I think we have to look at more realistic numbers which, No. 1, can be financed in the short term by donor countries. But in the long term -- maybe a little bit more reduced number [of personnel] -- but still the Afghans [should] have some capability in the near future to absorb that," Tarzi said.

With only $600 million in revenues, the current Afghan government budget of $1.1 billion is largely funded by donor nations and is not burdened with having to pay for the training and maintenance of security forces.

While those costs are believed to be greater than Afghanistan's civilian budget, they are nevertheless considered a bargain. But securing Afghanistan on the cheap has not worked over the past seven years.

According to Richard Holbrooke, President Obama's special envoy for Afghanistan, the administration is considering to significantly raise the numbers of police officers while at the same time working to improve their overall functioning.

But with Afghan Interior Minister Atmar predicting that 45 percent of all Afghan security forces will be police officers, questions arise.

This is because, while the smartly uniformed soldiers of the ANA are singled out for praise by many Afghans, the police are often seen as a corrupt element that is to be avoided.

According to Tarzi, unlike the ANA, Afghan police forces are poorly paid, leading some to subsidize their incomes by becoming "inept or corrupt." Again, training and sustaining a large police force free from such practices would pose a gigantic challenge.

"This is where the Catch-22 comes in. How you make a police force that can actually sustain itself? Initially, I think that has to be done with some foreign subsidies or direct foreign salaries. But then later on they [should] actually become part of an Afghan government system," Tarzi said.

Once created, the security forces -- and in particular the ANA -- would be in position to become Afghanistan's most powerful and best-functioning national institution.

But this also opens the possibility that the military could grow strong enough to undermine civilian leaders and institutions -- as has been the case in other Muslim nations with powerful militaries, such as Pakistan and Turkey.

On this possibility, Habib Mangal, a former Afghan diplomat who is now considering to run for this year's presidential elections, insists that Afghanistan's democratic process will keep step.

"If we are able to create a modern, well-defined and democratic state which is committed and subservient to democratic principles, our military will not pose any internal threats, nor will it be a threat to the region," Mangal said.

In the end, many ordinary Afghans questioned by RFE/RL hope that the international community understands that the cost of building security forces in Afghanistan overshadows the cost of failure in Afghanistan.

Haji Zyaai, a Kabul resident who has seen Afghanistan struggling with war and violence for most of his 55-year-life, puts it in stark terms.

"[They should only leave] after ensuring that Afghanistan is not destroyed again and is not turned into a center of international terrorism again. If God were to forbid that from happening, you can believe that America and Europe would also be destroyed," Zyaai said.
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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