Addressing the subject of American assessments of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in the run-up to ‘Transition” in 2014 and beyond, Anthony H. Cordesman’s 24th July 2012 testimony before the United States’ House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations is worth quoting:

“No assessment system that measures performance against training, manning, or equipment benchmarks can be adequate…  Most insurgencies are won or lost not by tactical military success but by the behavior of the host country government; by its ability to maintain cohesion, by its ability to win support at the local level, by the quality of its governance, by its perceived integrity, and by its ability to compete on the level of ideology and strategic communications.

Measuring the ANSF’s ability to fight is not nearly as important as measuring its will to fight – and to fight for the central government and not some powerbroker or warlord.”

More often than not, Cordesman notes, it was (and is) “the failures in politics, governance, equity and economics that led to the insurgency in the first place” that also led (and can lead) to the breakdown of security forces and of government. In such cases, the security forces often mirror the corruption and weakness of the government they serve, commit abuses similar to or worse than those of the insurgents, and hence lack any capacity to “win and hold” on a consistent and lasting basis.  Observing that Afghanistan experienced several national and international peace agreements between 1988 and 1993 even while the state government failed and Afghan society collapsed into a savage internal war, Cordesman warns bluntly that “ ‘spinning’ positive reports to the neglect of real problems at the strategic level is a recipe for defeat regardless of how well the ANSF perform militarily.”

While Western governments attention, and resources, now appear to be focused on the “hard edge” of security transition – just as these same Western states’ allocation of resources over the past decade overwhelmingly has focused on NATO’s military mission in Afghanistan – there are other, less visible but at least as critical dimensions of transition that are being neglected or even actively suppressed, by both Afghan and Western governments. One of these is the question of recognizing the massive human rights abuses and atrocities suffered by ordinary Afghans in the decades preceding the fall of the Taliban in 2001 – and most controversially, recognizing the persons accused of being responsible for committing or ordering those abuses and atrocities. Included in the latter group are powerful current or former Afghan warlords, leaders of insurgent groups fighting against the government (and sometimes each other), and of course a number of leading members of the Karzai government itself. All of them, as reported by The New York Times recently, were identified in the final report of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), “Conflict Mapping in Afghanistan Since 1978”. I deliberately use the term “reported”, because the report itself – which was commissioned by President Karzai in 2005, and completed in December 2011 – has been suppressed, and its commissioner, chief researchers and analysts replaced and/or threatened with reprisals for releasing any details.

There are dangers in addressing allegations and evidence of past crimes, without doubt. That is one of the major dilemmas of what is called “transitional justice” – the problematique of seeking forms of justice in states and societies either recently emerged from mass violence, or currently transitioning from war towards a negotiated and (hopefully) sustainable peace. Being potentially called to account is not a prospect that is palatable to those who are alleged to have committed such criminal acts – mass murder, torture and brutal ethnic cleansing being amongst the worst acts cited in the Commission’s 800-page report covering the period 1978-2001. Commissioner Ahmad Nader Nadery, who led the team of 40 Afghan and international researchers and forensic analysts working on the report over the six-year period 2005-11, cannot discuss details of the report’s contents but pointedly argues that “Everyone should know that what they suffered was not unique. We should be able to tell our people; ‘This is our past, this is our history. It’s ugly, it’s bad, but we should be able to face it.’”

Aside from the five hundred Afghan warlords, insurgent leaders, and current government officials identified in the report as being responsible for some of the mass atrocities that contributed to the figure of approximately one million dead and 1.3 million disabled Afghans, the American Embassy in Afghanistan also has expressed opposition to any public release of the AIHRC report. The argument is that the evidence in the report might open old wounds, reigniting ethnic and tribal rivalries from the post-Soviet civil war period that have been managed for mutual practical benefit. Perhaps most telling, however, is their argument that the report should not be released at least until after the 2014 Afghan presidential election – also when NATO’s withdrawal from major combat operations in Afghanistan is due to be completed (although some significant US combat and special forces capabilities will remain in place). While the discussion continues, of course, the 180 mass graves documented in the AIHRC report – and all of the evidence within them – are being destroyed. The grave sites are being bulldozed, the remains of the bodies of men, women and children victims are being removed and reburied or burned, or in at least one case built over by a new residential complex developed and owned by the general who also is governor of the province.

When a significant number of leading government officials are known to be the perpetrators of mass crimes for which they remain unaccountable, it is an open question, at the very least, whether ordinary Afghans – who suffered these mass abuses in such large numbers, for so many years – will see the Karzai government and its representatives in any better light than they do the various rival warlords, insurgents, or the Taliban. These also are the Afghans who en masse make up the individual ranks of the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police, the Afghan Local Police, and the Afghan Public Protection Force. These are the people on whom the Karzai government and its Western backers are relying to replace American and NATO-ISAF units during and after the 2014 security transition. In Anthony Cordesman’s words, they are the individuals who will compose the units intended to form “the credible presence of governance, police and a justice system at the local level”, especially in key Afghan districts and provinces where there is an active opposition. Will they choose loyalty to the central government or to local warlords, insurgent groups or the Taliban?