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NATO's senior civilian in Afghanistan discusses challenges ahead

NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, Ambassador Sir Simon Gass, gave a lecture at the Royal United Services Institute yesterday on the challenges ahead as Afghanistan prepares to take on responsibility for its own security by 2015.

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Sir Simon began by reflecting on the fact that, as 2012 begins, there are just 36 months left before the ISAF mission in Afghanistan comes to an end and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) take on responsibility for the security of their country. ‘How should those remaining months be used to achieve a sustainable degree of stability?’ he asked.

Progress so far

To put that question into context, Sir Simon first reflected on how much progress has been made so far:

That would depend,” he said, “on what you take as your starting point. If you go back to 2001 when ambition was very high and the insurgency seemed to have been stamped out, then you would say that the progress that we have made since then has not been as much as we would have liked or expected.

Taking mid-2009 as a measuring point, when General McChrystal signed off his report, Sir Simon argued that the mood was one of potential mission failure. The General had been clearly stating that if the campaign was not scaled in the way that he suggested then he believed the campaign would be lost:

That was not too surprising, because when you look back at 2009, in substantial parts of the country, the insurgents had freedom of movement and quite a degree of control,” said Sir Simon.

Those involved in the more dangerous parts of the country at that time spoke of having to endure continuous and substantial attacks.

The General’s warnings also centred on the state of Afghanistan, which was a country rife with narcotics, crippled by weak and ineffectual institutions, and with weak links between governors and the governed. The ANSF were inadequate in terms of numbers, training and equipment. But, Sir Simon said:

If you roll forward some 28 months from the McChrystal report, I think it would be fair to say that the outlook in Afghanistan does look quite different…

He argued that the surge in forces allowed two major achievements in security. The first, he said, was that the insurgency has been rolled back in some important parts of the country, including in traditional Taliban heartlands, particularly in Helmand and in Kandahar:

As ISAF and their Afghan partners pushed into those areas, the violence did grow, which was inevitable. But what we are seeing now is, in areas such as central Helmand, the number of enemy attacks comparing 2010 with 2011 is down by 30 per cent. That is because ISAF and the ANSF have a much better grip on security in those areas.

Although Kandahar is still being contended, the Ambassador said that the insurgency was on the back foot there, with substantial evidence that they were finding it ever more difficult to recruit, resupply and encourage their leaders to return from Pakistan.

The second security achievement was the remarkable project to train and equip the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP), a task not yet completed, but one whose beneficial effects were already clear.

With a headcount in the region of 320,000, the progress was not just one of numbers, but also one that could be measured in terms of quality:

Now, in theatre, about 95 per cent of all operations are partnered between Afghan and ISAF forces,” Sir Simon said. “And we are seeing more and more of those operations being led by Afghan forces, over 35 per cent of them.

Moreover the ANA now run brigade-level operations, in places like Helmand and Kandahar, coordinated with the ANP and the local authorities, which is proving effective.

A good example occurred recently in the north east where insurgents had kidnapped a number of people. Two battalions of ANA mobilised in harsh winter conditions and conducted what the Ambassador describes as an impressive operation which resulted in the freeing of the hostages and the pursuit of the insurgents:

So we are seeing not just a quantitative improvement, but also the qualitative improvement, in terms of leading the fight, that we have been looking for,” said Sir Simon.

The process may not be complete, but the direction of travel is in the right direction, he added, with 70 per cent of training now being provided by Afghans themselves; all of which shows that transition is achievable.

But security is still a major problem in Afghanistan; there are an unacceptably high number of civilian casualties, the vast majority of them caused by insurgent roadside bombs and suicide bombers.

Nevertheless, in a recent Asia Foundation survey, one of the most authoritative surveys, when those polled were asked ‘what was Afghanistan’s problem?’ 38 per cent replied that it was security:

But when you asked what the local problems were,” said the Ambassador, “security came in sixth in order, behind what you might expect - jobs, roads, water, electricity. I think that is a modest sign of growing normality in Afghanistan.


The process of handing over responsibility for security has begun, Sir Simon said. The first tranche was announced in July and, in November, President Karzai announced the second series of provinces and districts in which the ANSF will begin to take control:

By the end of this month, about 50 per cent of Afghans will live in areas which are transitioning into ANSF control. I think that is a significant success,” said Sir Simon.

The Ambassador said that there were still a number of variables which would affect transition. One was the insurgency itself. Last year was not a good year for the insurgents. They had announced that their campaign would retake control of areas of Pashtun heartland, Kandahar and Helmand in particular:

In that, they conspicuously failed. There were many other threats. They threatened to disrupt the ‘loya jirga’ which met recently to discuss the peace process with the United States - that failed. It was an extremely good operation run by the Afghans which foiled attempts to disrupt it.

Sir Simon said that the insurgents are a resilient and vigorous enemy, but he was sure that the momentum that they once had was no longer there. There were areas that needed more work, in the east for example, but that work would be done.


We all believe that reconciliation is a necessary component of success, because that is how insurgencies tend to end. They don’t tend to end with a military knockout blow,” said Sir Simon.

A careful watch would be maintained for signs that the insurgents were showing a genuine appetite for discussion, but it would be made clear that this could only happen on a conditional basis he added:

There are two key conditions. Any reconciliation would have to be an Afghan-led process, and owned by the different ethnic groups that make up the country. The insurgents would also have to accept the key criteria laid down by the Afghan Government, which would mean ending violence, breaking links with Al-Qaeda, but most importantly respecting the Afghan constitution, enshrining human rights.

The Ambassador said that it would be important to be clear about Pakistan’s role in the process:

The question is ‘what can we do to encourage Pakistan to turn up the heat on the insurgents to encourage them to come to the table and seek peace?’

Another major variable was the international community Sir Simon said:

We have all made a huge investment in Afghanistan. Beyond 2014, the sums of money needed will be very much smaller than they are today. But it is clear that if Afghanistan is to be successful in the future there does need to be a strong, long-term partnership between the international community and Afghanistan.

Part of this would be the support for the ANSF for some years to come, and generous developmental support would also be required, the Ambassador argued:

We should never forget that not only is Afghanistan a country laid low by 30 years of conflict, but it is also one of the poorest countries on earth, and therefore needs continuous support.

The Ambassador was confident that even in the light of the current, international economic problems, that support would be maintained:

The reason being, I don’t think that our governments would want to put at risk the huge investment which they have made in Afghanistan, particularly as the sums of money needed will be so much smaller than today’s expenditure. And were Afghanistan to sink back into conflict, the cost to our governments of increased flows of narcotics, and refugees, not to mention the instability in one of the most sensitive parts of the world, would be very costly for all of us.

But if this international investment were to continue, it seems only fair, argued Sir Simon, that President Karzai’s government itself would take the steps necessary to make that investment productive and lasting, which meant that further improvements would have to be made to improve governance and combat corruption:

Part of that would be to ensure that the governmental elections due to take place in 2014 will be seen to be fair.

Sir Simon concluded by saying that he was cautiously optimistic about Afghanistan’s future, accepting that while we might not leave behind us a model state, that would be an unrealistic ambition anyway, it would be a secure platform for the future.

He finished with the caution that research showed that countries emerging from conflict took at least three decades to fix, so we should be prepared for a long-term relationship with the people of Afghanistan.

Published 17 January 2012