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Afghan Security Institutions Need Robust Leadership

Afghan National Army soldiers perform during a ceremony to mark Independence Day, in Kandahar, August, 2015.
Afghan National Army soldiers perform during a ceremony to mark Independence Day, in Kandahar, August, 2015.

A military analyst on the front lines once opined that 'the situation is catastrophic but not serious.' Another analyst in the same battle described the situation 'as serious but not catastrophic'. These infamous lines seem to poignantly pertain to the current security assessments of Afghan officials: We are constantly moving between the serious and the catastrophic in a proverbial pendulum.

In describing the unprecedented insecurity in the country, political pundits and military analysts are quick point out the lack of mature, permanent leadership at Afghan security institutions.

Masum Stanekzai has not received a vote of confidence in parliament and yet has served as acting defense minister for the past 18 months. He is joined by Massoud Andarabi, interim leader of the National Directorate of Security, after the former leader of the Afghan intelligence service Rahmatullah Nabil resigned in December. The resignation of Interior Minister Noor-ul-Haq Ulomi last month completed the triangle of Afghan national security’s ‘acting’ leadership.

The pertinent question is whether security would improve if there were permanent leadership in the security sector with the backing of parliament. This begs two more questions: First, what advantage did Afghanistan have on the battlefield for the 14 years when there was a permanent defense minister, along with the defense ministers of 44 other countries and dozens of foreign military advisers? Secondly, how does the Afghan security leadership looks in contrast with the Taliban military leadership?

Last month, General John Campbell, the outgoing commander of NATO's Resolute Support mission and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, attributed 70 percent of security failure there to poor leadership. While his statement might have been based on a leadership assessment in the field, it nonetheless reflects the top management.

The fact remains that the past six months have seen key areas of the country return to the grip of a resurgent Taliban. The Afghan security forces are losing ground, either to the Taliban or to the Islamic State (IS). Ironically, IS and the Taliban are also fighting each other. The Taliban have nationalist intentions and want to establish a caliphate in Afghanistan with no threat to Western values and interests outside Afghanistan. The so-called Islamic State, on the other hand, has a global jihadist agenda. It is not interested in conquering Afghanistan, but in global jihadist issues that threaten Western values and interests around the world.

Currently, the threats to the Afghan security forces are growing. According to Campbell, IS challenged the Taliban for control of the Pakistan-Afghan border last summer. Currently, several districts in eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar are believed to be under IS control. The situation in southern province of Helmand is similar to Kunduz Province in the north in late September, which led to the Taliban takeover. Right now, a heavy battle rages in the Baghlan region in the north, wherein Afghan forces have made no progress in the past two weeks. The conflict has been devastating to the nation as indicated in the most recent UN report: "Civilian casualties of the war in Afghanistan rose to record levels for the seventh year in a row in 2015, as violence spread across the country in the wake of the withdrawal of most international troops."

Meanwhile, during the past 14 years, in addition to a permanent defense minister heading the Afghan army, there were individual NATO member states’ defense ministers and hundreds of top professional generals directly helping the Afghan Army in planning special events and executing operational plans, but without substantial success.

While there is no doubt that the presence of a permanent, professional, and talented leadership is crucial to the success of the security apparatus of a nation, the underlying key lies in a holistic vision. A leadership marred by a factional-partisan interest can never win the hearts and minds of its soldiers and cadets and hence provide sustainable security to its people. When addressing this leadership failure, it is necessary to contrast it with the enemy, namely the Taliban.

It is evident the Taliban do not have a professional military leadership or sophisticated military training, and they use asymmetrical warfare. Nonetheless, they have managed to seriously challenge the relatively well trained and equipped Afghan security apparatus. With the death of their founding leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban also faced a leadership crisis. Political pundits quickly began to envision the breakdown of the enemy and the eventual demise of Taliban. However, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour emerged as a leader, and the opposition was soon quashed. Seldom do we hear of a resignation of leadership in the Taliban ranks followed by a comical rant on Facebook.

It does not matter if the Taliban leadership is in an acting role or in the shadow. They have had an uncompromising vision since their inception, and regardless of the banality of such a vision, there is much for us to learn in terms of common unity. The problems in the failure of the Afghan forces depend on more important factors than simply the lack of a defense minister. The rapidly deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan can hardly be improved just by appointing a permanent defense minister.

Mohammad Dawod is a Canada-based Afghan commentator. His Twitter handle is @dawod5551. These views are the author's alone and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.