Addressing the drivers of insecurity and conflict in Afghanistan

By Sayed Ikram Afzali
Executive Director, Integrity Watch Afghanistan

Recent tragic security incidents in Kabul, Balkh and elsewhere in Afghanistan that took many lives and left many others devastated remind us that security will be the number one priority of the Afghan people for the foreseeable future. But these incidents are only symptoms of deeper problems. While there are external drivers of insecurity (such as the presence of safe havens in neighboring countries), the internal drivers that have created the environment for insurgents inside Afghanistan are more critical and need more immediate attention. In particular, corruption and the criminal economy are critical drivers of insecurity which allow insurgents to grow and sustain their presence in many parts of the country.

The links between weak rule of law and security are direct and powerful. Elements within the security forces use their positions to collude with insurgents who capture mines and tax the drug-trade. In other cases, locals have invited the insurgents to take over the area due to illegal mining by powerful local warlords who deprived communities of any benefit. Revenue from drugs and illegal mining are the two major internal revenue sources of the insurgents.

Corruption in appointments, promotions, and transfers of high-level and lucrative positions within the security forces has been the norm in the last decade and a half. Corruption has also led to losses in procurement, the selling of weapons and ammunition to insurgents, the theft of food and supplies needed by the security forces, and the collecting of illegal road toll by elements within the security forces.

Corruption in security institutions erodes public trust, creates a sense of irresponsibility among soldiers, feeds the insurgency, and finally creates a war economy. It worsens the deficit of trust between the public and government institutions. In our recent survey, around 40% of the respondents believed people turn to the insurgents because of corruption in service delivery, including in the security services. More than half of the respondents believed that corruption facilitates the expansion of the insurgency.

While there has been a lot of talk about these drivers of insecurity, much has not been done to address them. Nevertheless, the Afghan government has increasingly expressed commitment to address the issue of corruption in the security sector. It is time to turn those commitments into tangible actions to build public trust through public engagement and to professionalize the security institutions through institutionalizing the fight against corruption.

The latter would require review and restructuring of internal and external oversight mechanisms such as the inspector generals’ offices in Ministry of Interior (MOI), Ministry of Defense, and National Security Department. Establishing independent mechanisms for merit-based appointments, promotions, and transfers within security agencies would assist in reducing political interference and corruption in appointments within security agencies. For instance, an independent police service commission, including civil society as watchdogs, is crucial for reforming of the Afghan National Police.

Public engagement is key to addressing corruption in any sector. Establishing regular feedback mechanisms to address public concerns within security institutions, carefully assessed for effectiveness and impact, is a first step. The Ministry of the Interior has made a welcome commitment to carry out a social audit of the 119 hotline. In addition, regular engagement of the public through community policing is key. Putting in place a “citizens’ report card” for police performance, and making key decisions such as promotions and transfers of police commanders based on the survey findings, would not only improve police accountability to the public but also increase public trust in security agencies – leading to better cooperation among public and security agencies.

There is also a need for a comprehensive strategy to block key insurgent revenue sources such as illegal mining. Security agencies should prioritize the security of strategic areas that are used by insurgents to gaining the profits of the minerals trade and to garner public support from locals who provide labor for the mines. More community engagement is vital – especially the creation of financial incentives for communities to support legal mining and to monitor mines for their own benefit. Giving communities a stake in legal mining is very feasible, and has the potential to turn their support to the government and keep out abusive actors.

The Afghan government must act now to strengthen security institutions not only to keep the insurgents at bay but also to enter into peace negotiations from a position of strength. In the battle for the future of Afghanistan, reform is a more powerful and more important weapon than any bomb.