President Obama's decision to send 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan to bolster a deteriorating security situation and provide some breathing space to launch a more effective reconstruction and stabilization strategy will face multiple challenges.
The first of those may be trying to find 87,000 weapons -- from pistols to mortars -- that the U.S. government gave the Afghan police and military. An official from the Government Accounting Office testified last week before the House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs that "complete records" do not exist for those weapons, nor in fact for thousands more from 21 other countries. In fact, the witness could not assure the committee that the weapons had not ended up in the hands of the Taliban.
Along with the GAO and Defense Department Inspector General, I testified on the failure by the U.S. and its allies over the past seven years to build effective Afghan security forces. That failure has provided an opening for the Taliban and its extremist allies to re-group in Pakistan and ratchet up their suicide and roadside bombs and attacks on Afghan communities, aid workers and the U.S. and NATO peacekeeping forces in the country.
In fact, when members of the UN Security Council returned from a trip to Afghanistan in December, they reported that almost 40 per cent of Afghanistan was either "permanently or temporarily inaccessible to government and non-government aid."
The reality is, some of the newly dispatched U.S. troops won't be searching the rugged terrain for extremists, but will instead have to fill the gap in training and mentoring the Afghan police. The U.S. has spent some $6 billion on training a police force of 80,000, but today about 20 percent of those police are AWOL, and just as many are either dead or injured, even though their names are still on the payroll so their families can collect benefits. Of the remainder, most have had barely two weeks training. Crisis Group first reported on the police training flaws in 2007 and again in December Policing in Afghanistan: Still Searching for a Strategy which can be found at http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=5824&l=1
Providing law enforcement is central to any effective counter-insurgency strategy, and while the U.S. has finally decided that it has to start from scratch to re-train the Afghanistan police units, , it is going to take years before they are ready to go it alone. At this point only 18 of Afghan's 433 police units are capable of effective operations.
Hopefully President Obama's Afghanistan strategy will recognize that putting trained and competent police on the streets of Afghanistan's communities to deal with crime and law enforcement ranks at the top of the priority list. Hopefully it also will put a premium on finding several thousand civilian police trainers, and new mechanisms to track both the police who are being paid - mostly by the U.S. - and the weapons that are being given to the police - mostly by the U.S. It won't solve Afghanistan's security situation, but it is an essential start.
Mark L. Schneider, Senior Vice President, International Crisis Group