By Tlaloc Cutroneo
The American people and the international community deserve to know if all our efforts in Afghanistan are worth the sacrifice – in lives and resources. We need to know whether the Afghan people are preparing to take on responsibility for securing their own country. Are the Afghans readying to take the lead in securing their own country? After a year-long deployment throughout Afghanistan, I believe they are.
Everything about counter-insurgencies is unconventional and complex. They are people-centric and conducted on multiple tracks, involving both defensive and offensive operations, extensive intelligence gathering and economic intervention.
In the course of my deployment spanning 2010-2011, I spent months living among the Afghans. My assignment allowed me an intimate, unadulterated view of our operations – both as they were planned by commanders and executed in the field. More importantly, the mission enabled me to observe the evolving capabilities of the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF).
One objective was to gauge the competency of ANSF units and their ability to conduct autonomous counter-insurgency operations. I worked with a force known as the Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP) that augments the Afghan Uniform Police (AUP). ANCOP is a much smaller force than the AUP and has a different responsibility. They are deployed across Afghanistan and are responsible for a more robust response than the AUP. They are strikingly similar to the French Gendarmerie and were actually created in its image – influenced by French Gendarmerie advisors.
The ANCOP was commonly referred to as the ‘model’ force. They were viewed and operated as a more professional force, recruiting Sergeants and higher ranks from other elements in the ANSF. U.S. Marines in small outposts in the south and German forces in the North regularly reported the ANCOP forces as very effective. The ANCOP manned checkpoints, conducted patrols, and were community-based. The current ANCOP commander, Brigadier-General Zamary Pakistan, was chosen for his past successes in the Afghan National Army. He provided the positive direction and a mission based on securing the population that the ANSF needed.
And the population is more secure. I visited cities and villages throughout Afghanistan. In the South, I drank tea with villagers in the former Taliban stronghold of Lashkar Gah. In the western city of Herat, I shopped in the bazaars and visited outdoor hookah bars and functioning amusement parks. In the north, I walked in the parks of Mazar e Sharif on the Afghan New Year's Eve. The famous Blue Mosque was decorated with lights, and families were enjoying the holiday with ice cream cones and music. Not something that the Taliban would have permitted.
We encountered almost no Taliban-related attacks and those observed were small and ineffective. That’s noteworthy because almost all of my experiences were observed from the ground, by driving thousands of miles across Afghanistan, from Kabul to far-flung border provinces, and throughout the Kandahar and Helmand, the provinces where the Taliban has historically been strongest.
During my travels, I routinely polled Afghan civilians as well as ANSF personnel about security. They seemed genuinely pleased that security – and the quality of daily life – was improving.
So what of those statistics showing that civilian casualties in Afghanistan increased in 2011? As a counterinsurgency progresses the insurgency is forced to retaliate. The number of attacks is not an accurate gauge of the effectiveness of a counterinsurgency campaign. The “space” for normal, peaceful life in Afghanistan is expanding. The flourishing markets, girls’ education, developing agriculture and commerce are more difficult to measure than casualty statistics, but they are real enough.
Historically, counterinsurgency campaigns require time and funding to be effective. Since 2009, the ANSF has benefited from a thorough and synchronized effort to improve training, discipline and equipment – one that will have to continue as the draw-down of ISAF personnel gains momentum. There are challenges, and the risk that a trust deficit will imperil the handover to Afghan leadership. Incidents such as the inadvertent burning of Qurans, the massacre of Afghan villagers in Kandahar and the killing of ISAF personnel by Afghan soldiers or infiltrators in uniform all strain the already delicate Afghan/ISAF relationship. But these incidents shouldn't be allowed to detract from the positive momentum the counterinsurgency has gained – nor the fact that across the country, daily patrols involving thousands of Afghan and ISAF personnel are carried out successfully.
Given the appropriate tools, training, and resources, the ANSF can effectively take the lead in counterinsurgency missions. Their capabilities, and especially those of ANCOP, are growing.
The coalition’s mission is to afford them the ability to provide security for the Afghan people, which is the only way they will gain legitimacy.
Tlaloc Cutroneo has a background in human terrain and military intelligence. He served 24 months as an embedded counterinsurgency adviser to both Iraq and Afghan security forces, reporting directly to General David Petraeus.