NATO partners and Afghan leaders are gathering in London for what some are saying is the final all-in push to salvage Afghanistan. Their wish list is comically long: flipping the Taliban, killing the irreconcilables, squashing the poppy trade, establishing local governance, and igniting economic growth. To say nothing of health care, roads, schools, and women's rights. Oh, and there's also Pakistan. "We have no illusions about the challenges ahead of us," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton writes in the State Department's new civilian strategy. Taken as a whole, the strategy is sound. But we have to prioritize, and any list has to begin with the local army. Without a monopoly on the means of violence, we don't stand a chance.
If you look at the last 60 years of civil wars, that's the obvious conclusion. In her new book, Securing the Peace, Harvard's Monica Toft analyzed 129 civil wars that raged in the last six decades (Rwanda, Colombia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Lebanon among them). She concluded that security-sector reform—the wonky phrase for building an army and a local police force—is essential, and too often neglected, in creating a lasting peace. "Building the Afghan National Army is a key piece to stabilizing the country," Toft says. It's not the only one, but without it, any settlement, as countless others before it have, will prove short-lived.
Without a functional military, wars are hard to end. Take the case of Liberia, which fought two bloody civil wars in the past 20 years. There were 14 different negotiated settlements, but troops weren't demobilized or retrained, and under the reign of the tyrannical president Charles Taylor, the carnage simply went on. Compare that with El Salvador, which fought a civil war for a dozen years. "In El Salvador, an incredible amount of effort went into reforming the security sector after that war ended," Toft says. And the peace held. (Today, Liberia is finally at peace, thanks to the huge effort by the U.N. and others to reform the security sector there.)
So how are we doing? Not bad. In recent months, Afghans have been signing up to serve at a feverish pace. Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the commander of the NATO training mission, recently reported to Congress that the number of Afghan National Army recruits nearly quadrupled from 3,000 in the month of November to 11,000 in January. Mainly, that's because NATO bumped up the pay. But Caldwell stressed another point: Afghan commanders heard President Obama's surge-then-shrink strategy and realized that the Americans would soon be pulling back. "We pressed Gen. Caldwell on this," Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters on Monday. "Because it was coming from a military man, frankly, we weren't expecting to hear something that positive."
Should the breakneck pace continue, the NATO training mission could hit all its proposed goals. After eight years of occupation, NATO has already built a standing force of about 100,000. The plan is to reach 134,000 by the end of October 2010, and 171,600 by October of 2011.
But this is no walk in the park. Those troops can't merely be enrolled; they also have to be trained and tested. For one thing, Afghanistan has been at war for three decades, so there are few Afghan recruits without blood on their hands from local or tribal conflicts. For another, screening recruits to weed out Taliban double agents (or even warlords) is virtually impossible. "It is a kind of buying off the bad guys," one outside adviser to the U.S. and NATO said privately. "But this is the right kind, I think, as it is offering incentives for people to join the legal system."
More distressing is that in September, the inspector general at the Department of Defense unleashed a laundry list of potential catastrophes: lack of oversight for contractors supplying the new recruits; subpar logistics capability for the new Army; a disconnect between the Army, police, and Afghan justice system; and, to top it all off, a "lack of accountability at all levels of Afghan national security forces." If nothing else, at least the Pentagon is being frank.
The biggest problem, though, is the political question looming over Afghanistan: is President Hamid Karzai's government worth fighting for? If Karzai is seen as illegitimate by the Afghan people in the wake of the contested 2009 elections, the entire counterinsurgency strategy—even beyond just building a national army—is almost hopeless. Without sound political leadership in Kabul, even the economic and development plans that might come with a stable Afghan National Army begin to look like a pipe dream. So, it is full-speed-ahead suiting Afghans with military uniforms, and it is up to Karzai to make the flag on their shoulder worth wearing.