29 SEPTEMBER - 2 OCTOBER 2009 - VISIT TO AFGHANISTAN by MEMBERS OF THE ASSEMBLY'S BUREAU AND COMMITTEE OFFICERS
1. Five senior members and the Secretary General of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly travelled to Afghanistan September 29 - October 2, 2009 for meetings with high-level Afghan and international officials. The delegation, led by Dutch MP Hendrik Jan Ormel, discussed military strategy with General Stanley McChrystal, the Commander of ISAF, as well as reviewing the current political situation in the wake of the inconclusive August 20 presidential elections with the Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament, the Ministers of Defence and Interior, and senior UN and diplomatic representatives. The delegation also visited the Afghan National Military Academy, observing training manoeuvres and interacting with cadets.
2. After three days of discussions in Kabul, the delegation travelled to Mazar-i-Sharif, where members heard the ISAF Regional Commander’s situational assessment, dialogued with regional UN staff, and visited a regional coordination centre for Afghan security forces as well as a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) led by Sweden.
3. The delegation’s visit came at a critical time in Afghanistan. Elections bodies were in the midst of addressing controversy over reports of fraud potentially affecting the Presidential and provincial council elections of August 20. The uncertainty surrounding the election results, combined with the stark Initial Assessment of the situation by ISAF Commander McChrystal, as well as incidents of civilian and military casualties and declining public support for the mission both in major NATO countries and amongst Afghans, led to a sense that major decisions regarding the mission were both necessary and imminent.
4. Information gained in the visit was intended to inform discussions at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s Autumn Session, scheduled for November 13-17, 2009 in Edinburgh, Scotland; in particular, British MP Frank Cook will present a report and policy recommendations on Afghanistan to the Defence and Security Committee.
5. The delegation was accompanied by Jack Segal, the Chief Political Adviser to the Commander, Joint Force Command Brunssum and Alex Tiersky, Director of the Assembly’s Defence and Security Committee.
The Political Scene
6. The political context for the delegation’s visit was dominated by the aftermath of the 20 August Presidential elections. The provisional elections results were declared on 16 September with President Karzai winning 54% of the vote and Abdullah Abdullah, his only effective rival, said to have 28%. An audit was underway to determine the extent of fraud in the election. Several observers noted that the Afghan population was essentially tired of the process and seeking a resolution as quickly as possible in order to return to normality and predictability in the political process.
7. If necessary, a runoff election should be held before the end of October, several interlocutors told the delegation, because the onset of winter could make voting impossible in some areas of Afghanistan.
8. The Afghan public was said to be disappointed. Some observers saw this as a confluence of several problems: unrealistic expectations of the Karzai government and the international community in the early post-Taliban years, evidence of continued corruption, and services undelivered.
9. Nearly all interlocutors expressed their understanding that the publics of troop contributing nations were increasingly, and appropriately, questioning the mission in the context of the uncertainty surrounding the August 20 elections.
10. Even in the face of the difficulties, some positive signs existed, according to international observers. These included, for example, increasing contacts between Kabul and Islamabad and a developing practice of cooperation; the holding of the elections, after some critics had expressed scepticism about their logistical possibility; and the performance of several Ministers including Foreign Affairs, Defence, Agriculture, Finance and Interior. Overall, these developments demonstrated that although the effort was ”not where it should be”, progress had been made in the last several years, according to NATO Senior Civilian Representative Fernando Gentilini.
Security Environment and Military Operations
11. Several officials described a deteriorating security situation. By one account, 25% of the population was under government control; 12% under insurgent control; and the remainder was under the control of other actors such as local power brokers. The UN estimated that 58% of Afghanistan was seen as medium- to high-risk for UN agencies to operate, essentially cutting off most of the country to effective work. This geographic area has been increasing over time. “Kinetic events” throughout the country had increased by 60% this year over the year prior.
12. According to ISAF leaders, the security situation and Afghanistan overall are extremely complex and difficult for anyone, let alone outsiders, to understand. Most Afghans were said to be ‘on the fence,’ waiting to determine who the winner will be before committing to one side. Afghans were practical people, and were willing to be convinced if international forces demonstrated through their actions that they were there to protect the population for the long term.
13. In this context, ‘force protection habits’ such as use of armoured vehicles, body armour, and especially sunglasses, have become counter-productive, alienating international forces from local people, and projecting a lack of interest in communication, officials said. Spreading a new culture of operations centred on the protection of the population is essential, even at the risk of increased casualties in the short run. Ensuring that all levels of the force integrate the new approach is critical but challenging, especially given constant rotations of personnel. But eventually, the population’s support will provide for the security of international forces.
14. International forces continued to face shortages of key assets. Among the most needed capabilities were helicopters; ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) assets such as UAVs – some of which might be made available from a drawdown in Iraq; and medical evacuation capabilities and field hospitals. In addition, military sources expressed concern that some nations have provided forces without enabling capabilities (such as helicopters, planners etc) and are therefore unable to move or react to the high operational tempo. These types of contributions are therefore of limited use to commanders.
15. Officials also suggested that for soldiers engaged in regular operations, a four to six month tour would be appropriate, while personnel with responsibilities including forging ties to local communities should serve in theatre for approximately 12 months.
17. A visit to the ISAF Special Operations Fusion Cell demonstrated a new capability that allows for the increased sharing of the best intelligence across NATO nations for information gained across Afghanistan. While only nine nations currently participated in the effort to fuse all available intelligence across the theatre and provide it through a web-based database, this number is expected to increase steadily. In addition, information sharing with Afghan officials has increased.
18. ISAF Commander General Stanley McChrystal informed the delegation, in a pledge of continuity to the mission, that he was signed up to stay as long as his political leadership wished him to do so.
Afghan Perspectives on Increasing Afghan Security Responsibilities
19. Every Afghan official who met with the delegation expressed gratitude for the efforts of international forces in Afghanistan and condolences on Allied casualties.
20. Minister of Defence General Abdul Rahim Wardak conveyed his conviction that Afghan forces will eventually take over responsibility for security and the lead in all military operations, allowing for a drawdown of international forces. In the meantime, the mission would require sufficient resources and support from the international community, and especially patience, to counter the insurgency’s expectation that it can simply outlast the will of the international forces.
21. Wardak endorsed the Obama administration’s strategy and General McChrystal’s Initial Assessment, having participated in the formulation of both. The Afghan National Army (ANA) was a success story, according to Wardak, but continued to face shortcomings in firepower, mobility, and counter-IED technology. Improvised explosive devices caused 80% of ANA casualties. He advised endorsing General McChrystal’s strategy and providing it the needed resources.
22. Current plans called for a growth to 134,000 ANA troops by October 2010, according to Major General Richard P. Formica, Commanding General of Combined Security Transition CommandAfghanistan. In order to increase the force further, ANA units will no longer be ‘balanced’ with enablers but rather will be infantry-centred, small units that will be merged into existing structures. The new units will therefore be dependent on coalition enablers. Training will also be compressed to eliminate non-essential tasks such as drill and map reading for illiterate soldiers. Formica emphasized the critical need for additional trainers, equipment donations and funding to maintain the momentum of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) training effort.
23. The need for a large Afghan National Army was justified because a weak Afghanistan would always draw in regional powers, according to Defence Minister Wardak. An Afghanistan that could defend itself would be a complement to regional security and a critical ally for the west in a difficult region. The recruitment of the large number of soldiers necessary to create the numbers currently being proposed for the ANA was certainly feasible, Wardak said. But just as important was increasing the current 65% rate of retention of forces, which would be improved with better salaries, living conditions and training, and lowering high rates of attrition.
24. The budgetary sustainability of such a force, given limited Afghan resources, was a concern in the longer term, although the point was repeatedly made that funding the Afghan forces would in any case be a fraction of the cost of sustaining international forces in Afghanistan.
25. The Taliban have no inspiring leadership, according to Wardak. They are definitely being supported by foreign intelligence services and are the instruments of fundamentalists with global links. It would be ‘extremely helpful’ if the international community worked to sever the support to the Taliban from outside Afghanistan.
26. The Afghan National Police (ANP) were still about six years behind the Afghan National Army in their development, according to Major General Formica. Minister of the Interior Mohammad Hanif Atmar stated that one of the principal limitations of the ANP was its inability to gather and analyse intelligence and act on it, allowing it to carry out ‘intelligence-led policing.’
27. Addressing reports of corruption in the ranks of the ANP, Minister Atmar stated that appointments were now only carried out on a merit basis and under strict supervision; a major crimes task force addressing these issues was being established with the help of international experts that would be fully operational within two months. He also suggested that the ANP’s development had been focused on a law enforcement role, and the force had therefore never been trained or equipped for a counter-insurgency role; in its current configuration, it should not therefore be expected to be successful in such a role.
28. In order to address retention problems in the ANP, Atmar suggested the two most important factors were salaries and housing. He suggested a housing loan scheme of $200-300 million to build the loyalty of police forces, stating that he had had success with such an approach with teachers in his previous position as Minister of Education.
29. Speaker of the Lower House (Wolesi Jirga) H.E. Younus Qanooni sought support for the democratic institution of Parliament under the Afghan Constitution, which had established three equal centres of power. The Constitutional arrangements were not being properly implemented. Members of Parliament had felt a lack of respect for the decisions of Parliament by the government, pointing in particular to no-confidence votes on three ministers, all of whom continued to serve in the President’s cabinet. He called on the international community to raise the issue with the government. Qanooni also recommended greater support for the development of political parties as a means of strengthening parliamentary work.
30. Speaker Qanooni expressed disappointment that the reputation of the Afghan Parliament, which he said had demonstrated more achievements than any other Afghan institution, had come under criticism regarding the controversial Shia Personal Status Law. He assured Assembly members that Parliament had “improved” the law significantly, fundamentally altering the original version. After the August 20 elections, President Karzai had proposed an amended version of the law, according to Qanooni, and the Parliament was reviewing it carefully with an eye to further improving its provisions.
31. Members of the Afghan Parliament also raised the issue of civilian casualties of ISAF operations, suggesting greater leadership by the Afghan national security forces in operations would alleviate the problem; the dangers of announced withdrawals by NATO countries strengthening the morale of the enemy; and a lack of attention paid by the international community to the needs as described by the Afghan government. Several members underlined their wish that the international forces would remain until a stable Afghan government was firmly established, and that terrorism needed to be addressed at its source, lest it manifest itself in western capitals.
32. Speaker Qanooni and several Afghan committee chairmen endorsed the strategy outlined by ISAF Commander General McChrystal, and its emphasis on moving towards self-sufficient Afghan security forces.
Reconstruction, Development and Governance
33. According to the NATO Senior Civilian Representative Fernando Gentilini, a global strategy for Afghanistan is already in place, as spelled out in the international and Afghan agreements set out in the Bucharest Summit, the Paris Conference (including the Afghan National Development Strategy); the issue now was implementation.
34. Gentilini also said that while the impetus for quick-impact, bilaterally provided development assistance projects was understandable, these should be deemphasized in favour of nationallycoordinated, longer term development projects in accordance with the Afghan National Development Strategy (ANDS). This message was echoed by UN officials, who recommended providing aid through established Afghan channels rather than bilaterally through Provincial Reconstruction Teams. UN officials reminded the delegation that the ANDS was the product of collaboration between international experts and the government of Afghanistan.
35. Regional Command North Commander, German Brigadier General Jorg Vollmer, explained that Germany funds all of its development projects to its PRTs in the north of the country rather than through the Afghan government, in order to facilitate accountability. Vollmer suggested that the fact that the UN plans its activities independently may be a challenge to the “shape, clear, hold, build” strategy, given that development aid and officials are already programmed and may not flow immediately into a cleared area.
36. Officials at Provincial Reconstruction Team Mazar-i-Sharif told the delegation that efforts to develop better governance at the local level were hampered by several factors: the low levels of literacy, little understanding of the mandate or purpose of institutions such as district councils, corruption, and low public trust.
37. Afghanistan’s different regions and provinces are unique and should not be treated with a uniform approach, according to RC (North) Commander, Brigadier General Jorg Vollmer. The threats he saw in the north centred on organized crime and regional power brokers, as well as insurgent cells. While incidents of violence had increased dramatically in Kunduz province, this was a challenge in the context of the relatively quiet north rather than one of the major problems for the country at large. Vollmer attributed the relative calm to the ethnic mix particular to the north; however, security challenges had led him to request the presence of an additional 2,500 Afghan National Police to focus on Kunduz and the border.
38. Vollmer was adamant that any program to develop locally-based security or militias, rather than finding ways to increase the presence of Afghan national security forces, was counterproductive and would inevitably result in uncontrollable armed groups.
39. The delegation visited Provincial Reconstruction Team Mazar-i-Sharif, commanded by Swedish Colonel Olof Granander. The PRT is led by Sweden and was jointly manned by Finland and supported by US civilians from USAID, with a total of roughly 370 personnel. Colonel Granander stated that the PRT’s efforts were currently focused on security rather than development or governance, in order to set the conditions to progress on the latter two prongs of the overall strategy. Indeed, the security situation was deteriorating: PRT personnel is now regularly fired on, which did not happen as recently as two years ago. The Colonel assured the delegation that his non-NATO contingent was fully interoperable with NATO forces and systems, although some problems did exist, for instance in communications or intelligence sharing workstations.
40. UNAMA Northern Regional Office Head Pavel Ershov recommended that the north not be ‘punished’ for its stability with less assistance funding than other, more turbulent areas of the country. Without economic progress, even relatively quiet areas are at risk of destabilization, he warned. He suggested that even a ‘sliver’ of what is spent in the south would be extremely helpful. Funding longer-term development projects would also be useful in order to give the Afghan government a sustainable tax base. This view dovetailed with the Commander of Regional Command North’s request for more resources in his area of operations.
41. The Initial Assessment by ISAF Commander General Stanley McChrystal was endorsed by Afghan members of Parliament as well as by UN Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General for Afghanistan, Robert Watkins, who stated that it set a stark tone reflecting the realities of Afghanistan. The United Nations broadly agreed on its focus on building civilian infrastructures, confidence in the government and economic opportunities. The emphasis on engagement with the population was largely already in operation, according to Watkins and ISAF officials.
42. The United States strategy had changed fundamentally under President Obama, according to Embassy officials. The goal – addressing the threat from Al-Qaeda – now centred on three prongs: developing policy on Afghanistan together with that for Pakistan; separating the Taliban from Al Qaeda; and taking a whole of government approach focused on increased civilian elements and an “Afghanisation” of the process.
43. While a civilian “surge” was certainly necessary, the lack of mechanisms for effective deployment of such officials (such as those characterizing military deployments) meant that nations were struggling to implement pledges in this area – even the United States, according to several international officials.
44. The strategy of the international community at the time of the visit involved first arriving at an outcome to the elections that the Afghan people would consider legitimate. Second, ensuring the composition of a cabinet that responded to the need for good governance and avoided the pure repayment of patronage; third, the articulation by the new government of a new strategic vision to reassure the Afghan people and the international community; fourth, the delivery of governance to gain credibility, for example through the prosecution of major criminal cases of corruption or narcotics cases; finally, the ratification of this new beginning through an international conference at the ministerial level in Afghanistan.
45. Ideally, a new government would express a strategic vision that would take into account several elements, including a reaffirmation of the desire to exert Afghan sovereignty over the borders and over national defence; an embrace of the Afghan National Security Forces by political authorities; measures on justice, governance and development; new measures on the reconciliation and reintegration of insurgents; and a positive vision for Afghanistan as a peaceful, neutral, free and independent state in the region.
46. One option under consideration to arrive at such an outcome was to make the post-election support of the international community for any new Afghan government conditional on the type of new Compact described above.
47. Should efforts to create a more stable Afghan state fail, the repercussions could be extremely worrying, according to several interlocutors. One impact would be the potential destabilization of a wider region, especially Pakistan. In addition, the return of terrorist organizations establishing sites to train and launch attacks around the world was a central concern.
48. Minister Atmar also suggested it was time for the international community to cease its micromanagement; he cited as unacceptable the fact that he cannot decide to increase a single position in the police force without the permission of 21 countries. Afghans can and will make the decisions, he affirmed, and the international community should hold Afghans accountable for those decisions. He recommended giving the strategy outlined by President Obama in March the time it needed to demonstrate success.
49. Some observers such as Speaker Qanooni saw an inherent weakness in the Constitutional designation of a Presidential system of government, rather than a Parliamentary system. The former had allowed for the continuation of a system of patronage that enhanced opportunities for corruption.
50. Reconciliation and reintegration was considered by all interlocutors to be a crucial element of any long-term solution to the conflict. This process must be Afghan owned and led; Afghans will best understand how to navigate such a process. Indeed, the fact that a number of polling stations were able to open for the election in contested areas had demonstrated that communication links already exist. Such a progress would also need to include opportunities and alternatives for those insurgents who participate in the insurgency only for money.
Visits to Afghan Military Installations
51. The delegation visited the National Military Academy of Afghanistan, the crown jewel of college-level military education and leadership development in Afghanistan. Working with a team of mentors and trainers from 10 contributing nations, it offers a bachelor degree and commissions 300-400 new lieutenants annually intended to lead the Army with the highest standards of professionals. The delegation observed complex urban operations training by cadets at the colocated Kabul Military Training Centre and had the opportunity to interact with them directly. Members were impressed with the dedication and professionalism of the soldiers they encountered as well as their Afghan leaders.
52. The Delegation visited an extremely well-equipped German military field hospital in MazarISharif that treated not only German and coalition soldiers, but also Afghan National Security Forces, and based on availability, local Afghans.
53. Finally, the delegation was briefed at an impressive but nascent institution, the Operations Coordination Centre for the Northern Region (OCCR), Balkh province, by Afghan Major General Ali Murat. The OCCR is jointly manned by representatives from the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police, the National Directorate for Security, and ISAF. Its purpose is to coordinate command and control aspects of operations between Afghan National Security Forces and between them and ISAF.
The delegation was composed as follows:
* Hendrik Jan Ormel (Netherlands), Vice-President of the NATO PA
* Jack Segal, the Chief Political Adviser to the Commander, Joint Force Command Brunssum
* Speaker of the Lower House (Wolesi Jirga) H.E. Younus Qanooni
* ISAF Commander, General Stanley A. McChrystal
OTHER DIPLOMATIC OFFICIALS
* UN Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General for Afghanistan, Robert Watkins
MILITARY FACILITIES VISITED
* ISAF Headquarters