Transition to what?: Our Role In Afghanistan

Now that the glowing reports about how well Afghan Security forces performed in putting down last week's attacks in Kabul have died down, it's worth having a serious and honest discussion about what exactly we are about to leave behind in Afghanistan.

The Afghan security forces did perform well, but they were aided by NATO special forces and gunships (almost every battle I've ever seen in Afghanistan involving British or American troops has been ended by air strikes or gun runs, and the Afghans don't have the aircraft necessary for either) and did not, as it was originally claimed, operate alone.

Even if they had worked alone, the attack signaled a staggering intelligence failure, as President Karzai has admitted. Intelligence officials had only just briefed journalists that the Taliban were no longer capable of such an attack. And putting down a relatively small group of attackers, whose only aim was to make a statement (which they certainly succeeded in doing) is no indicator that Afghan security forces are ready to defend their country in the eastern and southern provinces, where the war has always been fiercest, and where the insurgents often enjoy the support of the local population.

But the undoubtedly brave work of the Afghan men in Kabul excited the war planners and the large community of ISAF press officers, because it allowed them to emphasize the current buzzword in Afghanistan -- Transition.

It's the last of four stages of a counter insurgency policy that was meant to have delivered a death blow to the Taliban, spread the influence of the Afghan government and built enough infrastructure and stability for a battered state to start emerging from thirty years of war. In simple terms, the policy was described as clear, hold, build, transfer. But nowhere has been cleared of the Taliban. Even in towns like Marjah and Sangin, which have seen massive concentrations of coalition and Afghan forces, the Taliban still have access to the local population (often because they are the local population) and can still plant IEDs, snipers and ambushes within easy walking distance of any ISAF patrol bases ("we only control as far as we see" I have been told many times).

Reconstruction and development has been woefully inadequate -- the vast majority of our resources have been devoted to foreign forces providing security for themselves. Because we have not achieved our goals, transferring to Afghan security forces -- transition -- should be a long way off. Instead, it's actually being sped up. According to current plans, every province in Afghanistan will have handed to the Afghan security forces by the summer of 2013. Foreign combat troops will be gone altogether by the end of 2014.

Transition, in this context, is a sickening euphemism, masking a humiliating failure. What we're actually doing is handing over to an ill-equipped and undertrained Army that, even according to local officials, won't last 24 hours in some of the southern and eastern provinces. And if that weren't bad enough, funding cuts mean those forces are due to be reduced by over a third just as we leave.

I've been making documentaries in the war torn provinces of southern Afghanistan for the last five years, for the BBC and HBO. I've seen and recorded increasing violence and rising casualty rates among Afghan civilians and our troops. The last battalion I was with suffered 35 casualties and over 140 horrendous injuries, often leaving men as double, triple or even quadruple amputees. While this was happening, I started to hear statements from Washington, London and Kabul, claiming that we are meeting our goals (President Obama) and that the Taliban had been routed from their homeland in Helmand and Kandahar (Defense Secretary Gates). The exact opposite of what I had been seeing and recording. I suddenly felt that I had to get everything I've seen down on paper, in one place. In my book, NO WORSE ENEMY: The Inside Story of the Chaotic Struggle for Afghanistan (Oneworld, $24.95), I show just what the war really looks like on the ground, in all its horror.

In contrast to the Kabul operation, I have also seen countless examples of the Afghan security forces performing anything but heroically. A few months after the invasion of Marjah, US marine medics had to rescue two Afghan soldiers who had suffered heroin overdoses while on watch. Such stories are startlingly common. In the Arghandab valley in late 2010, I saw Afghan forces race ahead and quickly discover all the IEDs in a village that US soldiers had feared entering. The American Captain, amazed by their success, asked, "did you do like we've trained you? Did you offer locals $50 for every IED they showed you?" The Afghan commander laughed, "no, we pointed a gun at their heads and told them to show us where the IEDs were or starting digging their own graves."

The police are far worse. Many times I've seen US or British forces fight their way into a town or village, to be followed by the Police a few days later. The same thing always happened next; locals approach, begging; please don't leave us alone with those guys. The Police are well known for taxing and robbing people, and the abduction and rape of children is not uncommon. American forces recently announced that they would stop handing detainees over to the NDS (Afghan intelligence) because they were routinely torturing suspects, in some cases using a medieval style rack.

Our counterinsurgency policy is based on the idea that we can persuade Afghans to pick sides, choosing us, and our Afghan allies over the Taliban. But when you realise what we are transferring to, it is no wonder that so many Afghans remain on the fence, or choose the Taliban.

And there is an even bigger problem. The Army and Police are not 'National' forces. They are controlled by the Northern Alliance, sworn enemies of the Taliban and of the Southern Pashtuns. Handing control of the Army, Police and NDS (Afghan intelligence) was one of the most disastrous decisions made when we first declared victory in the rush to move on and invade Iraq. The Taliban were always going to play a major part in the future of Afghanistan, this decision ensured that the role they played would be as fighters.

Because of this, the various counter-insurgency policies that were adopted years later were doomed to fail. Even if the military part of a counter-insurgency operation goes according to plan- and it never does, there are always civilian casualties -- if the point is to hand over -- or transition -- to an predatory outside force it will always be resisted, not welcomed.

Transition, in this context, doesn't mean we have achieved our goals. It means we've given up on ever achieving them, and all the lofty ambitions we once had. We are now heading for the exit door, hoping that things don't fall apart before we've gone. A peace deal, which looks increasingly unlikely, might mean that all out civil war can be averted, but after almost 11 years of fighting, approximately $600 billion spent, and something like 17,000 lives lost, this is nothing short of a humiliating failure, where once again Afghanistan will be abandoned and left to those most willing and capable of committing violence.

It shouldn't be called anything else.