Security Sector Reform in Afghanistan: Whose Security?

Prof. Alp Ozerdem*


As part of the liberal peace agenda, the international community has implemented Security Sector Reform (SSR) in almost all contexts where it has undertaken state-building initiatives in recent years. There are four key areas in such a reform process as being: the political (entailing objective and subjective civilian control), economic development (including minimal resource use by the security sector), institutional (the professionalization of armed forces, police, and paramilitary), and societal (the provision of physical security for people).

Since the Bonn Agreement of 2003, one of the main obstacles to the peacebuilding process in Afghanistan was the fragility of security. The United States (US) military response to the presence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda members in different parts of the country, particularly in the south, has meant the continuation of armed conflict with corresponding high levels of violence. In tandem with the ‘war against terrorism’ waged by the US, there has also been a vicious lawlessness in most parts of the country. The deployment of International Security Afghanistan Force (ISAF) was supposed to deal with the security challenge in the country, but its jurisdiction was limited to Kabul and its immediate vicinity, and until NATO’s takeover of command in 2003 meant that there was a major security vacuum in the countryside of Afghanistan in the early days of the reconstruction process. It was in such a context that the Afghan SSR process has been structured over five pillars as disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) of Afghan Military Forces which is led by Japan; restructuring of the Afghan national army by the US; restructuring of the police force by Germany; reform of the justice system by Italy; and the fight against narcotics by the UK.

The re-structuring of the Afghan National Army (ANA) was one of the first pillars of the SSR to be initiated in the country, and the ANA reached a personnel strength of 86,000 in June 2009; which is often recognized as a success story of the Afghan SSR process, as over 52,000 of them are currently engaged in combat operations. However, it is important to note what indicator is used to assess success here – not the level of security improvement for Afghans but the ANA’s participation in combat. Meanwhile, the new Afghan National Police (ANP) force of 87,000 personnel has already been marred by the three major problems of corruption, human rights violations and poor operational capabilities.

Although there were a number of issues contributed to this, the most important reason was the way that its capability was geared towards the support counter-insurgency operations rather than being able to undertake conventional policing tasks. Moreover, the Afghan DDR challenge received an ad-hoc, ineffective and uncoordinated response by the international community, and the process to identify which armed groups to include in the DDR initiative was completely arbitrary. A loose network of military units that had fought against the Soviets and the Taliban formed the targeted caseload of the DDR programme, while approximately 1,800 separate militias with some 80,000 combatants were considered as ‘illegal’.

Another important element of security in connection with the post-conflict reconstruction of Afghanistan has been the increasingly dominant role of the military in various recovery programs. The Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) which include combat forces, military personnel, and civilian expertise have been involved in a wide range of programs such as relief aid distribution, needs assessment, coordination of aid work, liaison with regional commanders, and security. The core argument for the justification of PRTs relates to the provision of such activities in areas which are not suitable for civilian actors to operate effectively due to security challenges. However, most PRTs were not deployed in low-security areas until 2004 and created a great level of confusion within the aid community concerning their role and motivation for winning ‘hearts and minds’ of Afghans.

“The SSR has been used as veneer for the establishment of a security governance system and its tools that can be sustained externally in the long term, and therefore, would be operationalised in line with the security interests of the US and its allies.“

Today, the international military forces are waging a war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the south on a daily basis, finding it very difficult to remain in control of the region. Furthermore, the military attacks on the international community’s presence, both military and humanitarian; kidnappings; assassinations of local and national politicians; suicide bombings; and looting and extortion of private properties have, unfortunately, been part of day-to-day life in post-conflict Afghanistan. More importantly, almost every aspect of the SSR process showed that the key question to ask was ‘whose security’, as the experience indicated strongly that it was not Afghans’ security that has been the priority for the international community. The SSR has been used as veneer for the establishment of a security governance system and its tools that can be sustained externally in the long term, and therefore, would be operationalised in line with the security interests of the US and its allies. They have not been able to provide security for war-torn Afghan communities, and rather than trying to improve an approach that is futile even with its basic foundations, it would be more appropriate to initiate the SSR process with that famous, but rarely used question: SSR for ‘whose security’ and ‘what purpose’ and by ‘whom’ and ‘how’?

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* Alp Ozerdem is a Professor of Peacebuilding at Coventry University

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