I was a light infantry platoon leader when the Twin Towers fell, and my unit deployed to Kuwait and then to Afghanistan in the months that followed. By Christmas of 2001, the Taliban had been deposed, and by the spring of 2002, the last large formations of the Taliban and their allies had been routed from the battlefield and driven into Pakistan.
The past ten years have largely witnessed an effort, first by the United States and a few close partners, but later with the entire NATO alliance, to stabilize Afghanistan. The challenges have been immense. At the same time in which my unit was helping to defeat the last remnants of the Taliban in the Shah-e Kot Valley in March and April of 2002, the Bush Administration was already redirecting the vast majority of our available military and intelligence resources away from Afghanistan and toward Iraq.
The disastrous decision to invade Iraq is one from which the United States and the war effort in Afghanistan have struggled to recover. Actors both within Afghanistan and in neighboring capitals began to make decisions based on the premise the United States was no more serious about stabilizing in Afghanistan in 2002 than it had been at the end of the Cold War. Ties with old proxies were reestablished, and planning for the post-American Afghanistan began in earnest.
But the United States -- and the U.S. military in particular -- learned much from its misbegotten war in Iraq. Old ways of war were rediscovered, talented field commanders were identified, and units innovated and adapted in the face of what seemed like, in 2006, certain defeat.
One lesson the United States learned was the enduring value of host nation security forces in expeditionary operations. The Philippines aside, the United States has never been a colonial power and has little experience pacifying nations where U.S. soldiers and their officers neither speak the language nor understand the culture. T. E. Lawrence, though, was neither the first nor the last to recognize the value of local forces -- even if those forces do not execute each military task with the speed and competence of, say, the U.S. Marine Corps. Local forces -- depending, of course, on where they are recruited from -- better understand the dialects and nuances of the society they are trying to stabilize.
There are a number of reasons why the U.S. military has traditionally struggled with training local security forces. First, we tend to make these forces in our own image, regardless of whether or not U.S.-style military and police forces are what best suits the local environment. (The nations we assist don't often help, either: countries like Lebanon and Afghanistan, which above all need competent light infantry, often desire heavier mechanized units and all the prestige weapons that go along with such units.)
We also, in Afghanistan and Iraq, created national armies and police forces in the hopes of building coherent states and national identities alongside and through them. And this effort has had some real success. The armies of Iraq and Afghanistan are in fact respected institutions. But in Afghanistan, real security has more often then not been provided not from Kabul but at the local level. The United States and its allies were too slow to invest in what are now labeled "Village Stability Operations" or the "Afghan Local Police," though the latter have come under increasing criticism related to accusations of improper conduct including criminal activities. It is worth noting the United States itself does not have the kind of national police forces we attempted to construct in Afghanistan. One can only imagine how my friends and relatives back home in the mountains of East Tennessee would respond if our local police were replaced by national police hailing from other areas of the country! Why the United States, administered locally through a federal system, attempts to create the kind of highly centralized governing structures elsewhere that would never work here is a consistently interesting question to ask.
Second, only the U.S. Army's Special Forces -- and, to a far lesser degree, the U.S. Marine Corps -- takes the training of local forces really seriously. The U.S. Army still sees its primary mission as being to "find, fix and finish" the enemy's fighting forces. But at some point in both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that mission ceased to be the main effort of the campaign, and was replaced by the need to train competent local security forces so that the United States could go home. Nonetheless, to this very day, slots for required trainers and mentors go unfilled within the NATO training mission in Afghanistan, while sending an understaffed infantry brigade into combat would be unthinkable.
Third, the U.S. government generally does a very poor job training local police. There are very good legal restrictions on the U.S. military training police forces (this training is, in fact, handled by the State Department, while the military handles training of military forces), but this capability does not exist organically anywhere else within the government. Police forces in a counterinsurgency campaign are not the same thing as those police forces that walk the beat in our nation's cities and towns. The kind of police forces often required in counterinsurgency campaigns look more like the gendarmerie forces of Europe: paramilitary police forces whose capabilities exceed those of local police. Even then, few countries among the United States and its allies -- tiny Finland being a notable exception -- have police forces prepared to deploy in an expeditionary capacity to train police forces abroad.
Finally, if the U.S. military waited too long to take the training of Iraq's security forces seriously, it left the training of Afghanistan's security forces to the proverbial Eleventh Hour. Until the appointment of a three-star general officer, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell IV, to command the NATO training mission, the command itself was a backwater -- despite the genuinely heroic efforts of the men and women who worked there prior to 2009. Notwithstanding all the reasons why U.S. and allied military organizations fail in training local forces, the NATO command has had some degree of success training the Afghan national army. And the Afghan intelligence and security services have proven themselves to be capable and adaptive.
The Obama Administration's hopes for transition in Afghanistan, though, rest entirely on the shoulders of the Afghan forces that will take responsibility for the country. And there is still much cause for concern. Maria Abi Habib's devastating reporting for the Wall Street Journal on conditions in the Afghan military hospital raises questions of whether or not Afghan military institutions are akin to the Kabul Bank -- places where the key actors simply attempt to maximize their own short-term gains with little to no concern for long-term institution-building. And Matthieu Aikins's reporting for The Atlantic on U.S. support for Col. Abdul Razik illustrates the kind of moral trade-offs the United States and its allies have made in order to pacify as much of the country as possible as it transfers lead security responsibility over to the Afghans.
But the real issue when looking to the future is one of independence. How will Afghan military and police forces function and fight independently of NATO trainers, mentors, and indirect support? This is the question, absent some kind of political reconciliation between Afghanistan's warring parties, that will determine the success or failure of the U.S. and allied transition in Afghanistan -- not to mention the size and capabilities of the force the United States and its allies leave behind after 2014.
Andrew Exum is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. A former U.S. Army officer who served in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2004, Exum has also served as a civilian advisor in Afghanistan to Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Gen. David Petraeus.