Afghan Security Returns to the Grassroots

As the United States reduces its presence, Afghanistan's police and tribal leaders come to the fore.

As the U.S. and international forces scuttle for the exit in Afghanistan, questions concerning the United States’ involvement and its role in the country after 2014 loom large.

The Obama administration is reportedly weighing different options recommended by the U.S. commander Gen. John Allen in order to plan the strategic context related to the way ahead with Afghan transition and beyond. The size and purpose of the flexible residual force that will remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014—mostly Special Forces and trainers—will soon be determined. Although the final numbers are still uncertain, the overall U.S. civilian-military campaign plan is likely to be in the range of thirty thousand personnel. In the months ahead, Washington not only needs to ensure a successful transition to Afghan lead—it also must devise new ways to maintain security across the country after 2014.

One such element that remains largely out of public attention is a growing interest in the Village Stability Operations (VSOs). These missions are conducted by the U.S. Special Forces embedded with villagers to maintain social stability by supporting villages from within. The VSO methodology is part of the broader counterinsurgency campaign and is crucial not only to understanding local villages but also in identifying and addressing sources of instability at the grassroots level. Most of the VSOs are clustered in areas that are plagued by insurgents and have limited Afghan or U.S. military footprint. While the source of insurgency is not rooted in Afghan villages, but outside the archconservative countryside, and essentially outside Afghanistan, such an effort helps the U.S. forces to isolate the local population from insurgents and curb their influence at the local level.

As a counterpart to these efforts, Afghan security agencies developed their own national operations plan this year known as “Operation Naweed.” Afghans have focused the plan to secure civilians, borders, and expand the current security gains by engaging local people. This effort is further underpinned by Afghanistan’s Social Outreach Program, which assists villagers in certain critical provinces by engaging and connecting influential village leaders and indigenous structures to local government.

Why are such grassroots approaches important?

Despite the transformation the country has witnessed over the past decade, Afghanistan is still a rural and tribal society. After the Taliban regime was ousted, Washington backed local warlords at the expense of influential village and tribal leaders, known locally as the Maliks. These local strongmen have traditionally held important roles in villages and communities – as tax collectors for the government, as peacemakers in local disputes and as key interlocutors between the government and the local people. While their roles have been increasingly undermined by the successive regimes, they still command great legitimacy and carry a lot of influence across Afghanistan.

Most key targets for U.S. forces in villages are safe houses and suspected militants, many of whom easily blend in among the local people. Insurgents are always on the move, so becoming familiar with local leaders, who know the ins and outs of their villages, provides U.S. forces a good opportunity to weed out insurgents who live among the villagers.

Such an ancillary role is precisely what was foreseen for the Afghan Local Police (ALP), recruited locally from villages and in recent years trained by the U.S. Special Forces. Tribal leaders work closely with U.S. forces to vet all recruits. While the Afghan government has sanctioned the ALP program, it is not yet been formally registered as the national police. However, there is a bumpy road ahead for the ALP – from recruiting and vetting, especially with the recent uptick in insider attacks, to training, validation, and payment procedures. Little clarity on transition requirements for ALP and the absence of a viable plan to sustain its various sites across Afghanistan further adds to its uncertain future.

VSOs and the ALP are both supplementary and yet vital elements of the overall U.S. counterinsurgency campaign. These approaches are certainly not without challenges but are potential assets to bolstering the Afghan national security forces and ensuring durable social stability.

In a recently released Asia Foundation survey of the Afghan people, the most commonly cited reasons for optimism are good security: 93 percent of respondents have confidence in the Afghan army and police and 57 percent say they have no fear participating in resolving problems in their community.

After 2014, the Pentagon’s auxiliary role will most likely come in the shape of air support, surveillance, intelligence, artillery and combat logistics, including transport and medical evacuation. But at the grassroots level, it will be these fledgling policing entities that will stand between the Afghan civilians and insurgents long after the U.S. forces leave Afghanistan.

Javid Ahmad is a Program Coordinator for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC. The views expressed here are his own.