Transition in Afghanistan explained

With 50 per cent of the Afghan pop­u­la­tion liv­ing in areas of tran­si­tion, it’s all change. But what exact­ly is ‘tran­si­tion’? Report by Ian Carr.

A British sol­dier from 2nd Bat­tal­ion The Para­chute Reg­i­ment and a mem­ber of the Afghan Nation­al Army plot a patrol route in north­ern Nad ‘Ali (stock image) [Pic­ture: Sergeant Rupert Frere, Crown Copyright/MOD 2011]
Source: Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

Look up “tran­si­tion” in the Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary and it will define it as “a pass­ing from one place, state or con­di­tion to anoth­er”. That seems fair enough, but like many things in Afghanistan, when applied to the trans­fer of respon­si­bil­i­ty for secu­ri­ty, the def­i­n­i­tion is not quite so straight­for­ward; which is why Brigadier Tim Bevis has spent 12 months in Kab­ul as Direc­tor of the ISAF Tran­si­tion and Assess­ment Group devel­op­ing and refin­ing “what we mean by transition”. 

The ISAF brief describes tran­si­tion as a Joint Afghan NATO Inte­qal (the Dari and Pash­tu word for Tran­si­tion) Board, ulti­mate­ly result­ing in the Afghan Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Forces (ANSF) tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for secu­ri­ty. It also makes clear that tran­si­tion is a lengthy process, not an event. And although work­ing towards a full ANSF lead is not time-con­di­tion­al, 31 Decem­ber 2014 is con­cen­trat­ing the mind: 

“Our mod­el of tran­si­tion,” says Brigadier Bevis, “is secu­ri­ty with a big S, gov­er­nance with a rea­son­able-sized G and devel­op­ment with a small D – devel­op­ment is a slow­er burn over a longer time frame. 

“The prob­lem is – well, one of the prob­lems is — each geo­graph­i­cal area has a dif­fer­ent start­ing point, and maybe a dif­fer­ent end point, and a dif­fer­ent jour­ney to get there.” 

At the begin­ning of his tour the Brigadier became famil­iar with the typ­i­cal view from the ground when assess­ing whether an area was ready, which was, he says: 

“ ‘Well it’s not per­fect, so I’m not ready to tran­si­tion just yet’. Which, if you are not care­ful, can become a con­tin­u­ous roll to the right.” 

Hap­pi­ly, this was bal­anced by a strate­gic view which was, if you tran­si­tion ear­ly, the Afghans will have longer to devel­op with more time to make mis­takes while ISAF is still there to help. 

“That’s where the stages became the answer,” said Brigadier Bevis. 

The stages he is refer­ring to are the four imple­men­ta­tion stages of tran­si­tion – five if you count stage zero, the pre­tran­si­tion stage. 

“With the four dif­fer­ent stages it allows you to go in very ear­ly. The last year has been all about get­ting peo­ple into tran­si­tion – and 50 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion is now under ANSF respon­si­bil­i­ty. What we are going to see over the next year is the ISAF teams work­ing hard­er on man­ag­ing them through the var­i­ous stages, and look­ing at what does it real­ly mean to reach an end.” 

So what are these stages? 

“When you go into stage one it is real­ly all about man­ag­ing the shock of the change, and you ame­lio­rate things by at first not chang­ing very much,” the Brigadier said. 

“You change over flags, and the coor­di­na­tion meet­ings and con­fer­ences are chaired by an ANSF guy, not an ISAF one, but actu­al­ly the forces remain pret­ty much unchanged. The whole point of stage one is don’t go too far too fast.” 

In sim­ple terms, going from there through stages two, three and four is essen­tial­ly a down ramp for ISAF and an up ramp for ANSF

“You go from the point where you car­ry on part­ner­ing one to one until you reach the point where you only get involved in the more com­plex oper­a­tions because they can do the sim­ple ones them­selves,” he adds. 

“By the time you are get­ting to stage three that’s when the real changes hap­pen because essen­tial­ly you only have advis­ers out in the field with the ANSF. By stage four – sus­tain, you could say what we do is most­ly behind the wire, giv­ing high-lev­el advice, and we only inter­vene, with ANSF coor­di­na­tion, to help in spe­cif­ic areas.” 

The beau­ty of the staged approach is that the tran­si­tion progress can con­tin­ue with ISAF sup­port being tai­lored to meet the local unit’s needs, and that input can be altered if the threat type changes: 

“They might be hap­py doing counter-nar­cot­ic clear­ances, but may need help doing search­es,” said Brigadier Bevis. 

Stag­ing also means that the plan­ning process can be bet­ter tak­en into account as it helps to tar­get ISAF support: 

“There may be places where you are hap­py to progress, but cer­tain bits of kit won’t be deliv­ered for anoth­er nine months. You might feel that the police are not as mobile as they should be, you look at the pro­gramme and see that they’ve got 100 vehi­cles com­ing. As long as that plan works out that’s good enough, you don’t have to stop the process, it just means you fill in those gaps until the ANSF are ready.” 

Intro­duc­ing this approach also gets buy-in from the locals and helps them to focus on the prob­lems they are facing. 

“You go through the tran­si­tion plan with them and ask them which of these issues apply to you? They may not have prob­lems with nar­cotics, some places may see them­selves as not hav­ing a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem with insur­gency even if the lev­el of vio­lence is high. You get them to pri­ori­tise and you agree a rea­son­ably small list of vital tasks.” 

What can be dif­fi­cult is being able to inter­pret the sit­u­a­tion from an Afghan point of view. Abid­ing views, inter­trib­al or intereth­nic con­flicts may cause prob­lems, but equal­ly local reme­dies that are seen as per­fect­ly accept­able — trib­al deals, mar­riages, com­mer­cial arrange­ments — may appear odd to ISAF eyes. The mind­set need­ed to keep tran­si­tion on track tends to fly in the face of nor­mal mil­i­tary staff planning: 

“Achiev­ing enough is what we have to do. We may look at the cir­cum­stances and say ‘that’s not thor­ough, its not homo­ge­neous or cohe­sive’, but the locals will look at you and say ‘Why should it be? — It nev­er was and it nev­er will be!’ ” 

Brigadier Tim Bevis

HQ may be ask­ing you what the time­line is for some­thing, and you can’t give a def­i­nite answer. You may have been try­ing to advance things in a cer­tain province for months, sev­er­al roule­ments may have gone through with­out things pro­gress­ing. Then sud­den­ly you con­vince the Pres­i­dent to change the Provin­cial Gov­er­nor and you will do in 10 days more than has been done in the last year,” said Brigadier Bevis. 

Reach­ing a suc­cess­ful con­clu­sion to tran­si­tion also depends on an Afghan-shaped inter­pre­ta­tion of what is accept­able, rather than by judg­ing every­thing through West­ern eyes: 

“The orig­i­nal con­cept was ‘every­thing fin­ish­es and it looks like this’,” said the Brigadier. 

That con­cept is now being seen as too inflex­i­ble and does­n’t take into account what an area was like orig­i­nal­ly – what were the resid­ual lev­els of vio­lence like, how entrenched were land disputes? 

“Achiev­ing enough is what we have to do. We may look at the cir­cum­stances and say ‘that’s not thor­ough, its not homo­ge­neous or cohe­sive’, but the locals will look at you and say ‘Why should it be? — It nev­er was and it nev­er will be!’ ” he adds. “To them, that’s a per­fect­ly accept­able view.” 

For brigades deploy­ing to future Her­ricks, a dif­fer­ent type of job may well await them from what has been done in the past. It is in the mil­i­tary make-up to want to step up to the mark and take con­trol of a situation: 

“But they will have to sit back and try and advise. We have to be flex­i­ble enough to let Afghans deal with things in their own way. Cul­tur­al­ly speak­ing that will be hard for our peo­ple to do,” the Brigadier said. 

But that means that the ANSF and Afghan gov­ern­ment will also need to mature, and the signs are that it’s hap­pen­ing. Dr Ashraf Ghani, Chair­man of the Tran­si­tion Com­mis­sion, is proac­tive­ly cam­paign­ing for mem­bers of the gov­ern­ment to get things mov­ing and sort out the prob­lems block­ing progress. 

Mil­i­tar­i­ly, there are, as you would expect, some com­man­ders who are bet­ter than oth­ers, but the Brigadier says in his expe­ri­ence when­ev­er they have been giv­en the chance to step up, the response has been impressive. 

The chal­lenge the ISAF advis­ers now face is tem­per­ing the ANSF pro­fes­sion­al­ism to seek Afghan not West­ern solu­tions to problems. 

“It’s inter­est­ing to hear the ini­tial irri­ta­tion dur­ing plan­ning –‘Where are the UAVs [unmanned air vehi­cles]?’, ‘When are we going to get more vehi­cles?’, ‘Give me more heli­copters!’. We have to say, you need to work out how you are going to do it with a lot less,” adds Brigadier Bevis. 

And will they man­age to do that? 

“Of course they will. They are a very flex­i­ble peo­ple. They might not do it the way we would – they might call a shu­ra when we might con­duct a search – but they will get there.” 

Press release
Min­istry of Defence, UK 

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