Tuesday night’s news that Afghan insurgents killed seventeen members of a local anti-Taliban militia in the eastern province of Ghazni is dismal — and is made all the more dismal by coming as it does against allegations earlier this week of widespread corruption and child abuse by Afghan police officersin the southern Helmand district of Sangin — once one of the most dangerous places in the country — and charges of torture and murder leveled against U.S. special forces in the restive Wardak province.
Both reports offer a troubling indication of the true preparedness of Afghan security forces, despite reassurances by Afghan and American military brass that the transition of security responsibilities from a U.S.-led military coalition to local groups is running smoothly. In Sangin, Afghan forces have taken over the majority of policing duties while the remaining U.S. Marines play an advisory role. Although tribal militias have helped to pacify an extremely violent district, prevailing loyalties to familial or ethnic groups mean the local security apparatus remains largely splintered. Bribery, drug use, and theft are common: police officers often hoard their own ammunition, weapons, and fuel which are then sold on the black market (where, in many cases, they end up in the hands of the Taliban insurgency security forces are fighting).
Local officials have acknowledged the problem as well as a more disturbing trend of sexual abuse of young boys, commonly referred to as “chai boys,” working and living on police bases in Sangin. But despite reassurances from the Afghan government that they would “investigate the claims of corruption and abuse,” the problem is far from being resolved — according to the BBC, an Afghan operation to rescue abused boys was inexplicably called off in 2012; three “chai boys” were shot and killed while attempting escape the same year.
Although the reported sexual abuse by Sangin police officers is far from an isolated incident — child rape is sadly common in Afghanistan — Afghan forces are not the only ones under the magnifying glass this time. On Sunday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered the pullout of U.S. special forces from the central east Wardak province for their alleged role, in coordination with local groups, in the torture, murder, and illegal detention of civilians (or suspected insurgents according to the U.S. troops). NATO has found no evidence to corroborate allegations which echo human rights violations committed by U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in the early 2000s ; despite the findings, over 500 Afghans turned out for an anti-U.S. rally on Tuesday to second Karzai’s demand.
These allegations against both arms of the U.S./Afghan security apparatus come at a crucial time: Karzai is facing enormous international pressure to secure peace with Taliban leadership in the months preceding the scheduled pullout of foreign troops at the end of 2014 (and before his successor is chosen in the April 2014 presidential election). The U.S. is negotiating a presence in Afghanistan past 2014 that is largely contingent on American soldiers’ legal immunity from Afghan prosecution in case of criminality — a sticking point that will undoubtedly loom larger in light of recent allegations. As Kabul and Washington attempt to secure peace in a country that has been a violent geopolitical front for over three decades, the actor most likely to benefit from schisms within Afghan security forces and with their main Western ally, remains the very insurgents all the major parties (i.e., Afghanistan, NATO, and the U.S.) are desperately seeking to contain.
Although some top Taliban commanders have expressed a willingness to participate in peace talks, others continue to vigorously pursue a military victory. With the spring fighting season mere weeks away, further instability in the region is likely to compound current doubts about Afghanistan’s security preparedness, and will only add to the many headaches of America’s top foreign emissary — the newly appointed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry — whose current world tour (one understandably focused on Iran’s nuclear program and the conflict in Syria) does not include a visit to Kabul. But given that recent efforts to foster an Afghan-Taliban truce have backfired — further proof, some argue, that a long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan is necessary — it’s a safe guess that Kerry will be visiting the region in the coming months. Here’s hoping he won’t mispronounce the name of the country.