As one of the few large ground engagements that members of our generation in Britain have been involved in, the costs of the War in Afghanistan – human, economic, social – have incurred passionate debate and stark introspection in the British public. These have extended beyond the common subjects such as the morality and necessity of war, or total absence thereof, that were topics of discussion in classrooms of politics and literature well before the first schoolchildren could recite the chilling closing lines of Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est. Among many other things too, people in the United Kingdom have been given another opportunity to contemplate the country’s changing international role. To the relief of many, however, these issues now involve looking back, as the last of the British transport helicopters dusted off from Helmand last month.
While nearly 10,000 U.S. troops are set to remain in the country for at least another year, the last of the British Task Force has officially withdrawn, with only a handful of officers to remain in an administrative capacity to assist the continued process of ‘transition’: the training and preparation of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP). In recent months therefore, the preponderant activity in British camps such as Bastion and Leatherneck has been this process of transition, as opposed the counter-insurgency that dominated media attention for the majority of the 13-year conflict.
A total of 140,000 British troops have served in 137 military bases in Afghanistan since 2001, the majority of them deployed to Helmand Province, a region that quickly earned media notoriety due to its particular intensity of violence. Although substantial, this figure is less than half of the current Afghan security forces, numbering over 350,000, that have been cultivated over the course of the latter half of the war. National security and stability are difficult concepts to solidly determine, and any process of relieving a state of tens of thousands of foreign troops is inevitably disruptive. However, there is good reason for confidence in the native police and military.
Police from across the United States and the European Union have contributed to the training of the Afghan National Police, in areas ranging from community support to forensic investigation to counter-terrorism. Officials both in the training bodies and the Afghan Police themselves have expressed confidence of postwar stability and the successful maintenance of community safety, and although taken in the context of such a controversial conflict it is always difficult to distinguish genuine self-belief from shaky public reassurance, the law-enforcement situation is undoubtedly a better one than in recent years.
Reading the Ministry of Defence’s excruciatingly long and now forever-silent Roll of Honour – which numerically pales in comparison to the American list, let alone the Afghan one – can evoke many things in the sheltered British civilian. But by no means trivial are the genuine leaps of social progress achieved so far by the whole affair in post-Taliban society. Almost three million Afghan girls are now attending school there, using the textbooks and pens that, under the old regime, were entirely exclusive to boys. Women have also begun induction into the ranks of the new security forces, providing the institutional openness that surely acts as a basic prerequisite for societal stability. Furthermore, widespread electrification, the construction of roads, and the much broader provision of sanitation improve the lives of millions, and in an equally important sphere, participation in local politics has also soared. Avoidance of attributing the progress wholly to Western presence is important of course, and stronger praise of Afghan strength and resilience is always necessary.
As in these areas, the logistics of ensuring efficacy in the Afghan security forces goes beyond the supply of advanced equipment and resources. The commitment and sacrifice required by soldiers and police can stem only from genuine motivation and belief in the cause. While desertion levels were high in the ANA under the previous president Hamid Karzai, who was re-elected in 2009, one might reasonably expect them to fall again under Ashraf Ghani, who won his presidential election this year by a significantly larger margin than his predecessor, and who comes across as an extremely capable, progressive and articulate official.
Among other challenges to preparing Afghan forces is rooted in the diverse ethnic make up of the country. There are over a dozen officially recognised ethnic demographics in Afghanistan, a sum far higher than in any of the nations that constituted the NATO presence. This is just one example of the disparity between Western and Afghan cultures that complicates the exchange of organisational doctrine. However, efforts have been put in place to ensure fairness through ethnic diversity in all units of national law-enforcement.
Another vital logistical factor in developing both the ANA and the ANP towards self-sufficiency is literacy. Jack Kem, a deputy in the NATO-run training programme highlighted in 2011 the importance of literacy for the reduction of corruption and the improvement of professionalism in the forces in general. According to the Ministry of Defence, literacy and numeracy are the very first things taught in the Afghan police schools; then followed quickly by the law and practical field skills. The provision of such education, as well as improving the field effectiveness of the police, is an important factor in conceptually distancing the legitimate forces from the numerous insurgent groups still very active in the country. Efforts in place now are set to continue and indeed duplicate as the process of transition spreads and NATO instructors are replaced by capable Afghan police.
The Afghan police and army cannot be expected to perfectly maintain the nation’s stability once every foreign boot is off the ground. That there will be trouble in the near future of a country that has been dragged through to the end of yet another foreign military intervention is beyond doubt. Obstacles to peace are as varied and almost as frequent now as they have been at many points during the war. However, continued investment of resources and energy into the maintenance of two established, trustworthy, and learned organisations is a definite step in a very positive direction.