The just-completed NATO summit in Chicago highlighted two competing visions for Afghanistan. The first -- focusing on the Afghan people -- seeks democracy, civil rights, and the rule of law. The other, driven by NATO's rush for the exits, settles for a modicum of security to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for attacking the West. Rhetoric at the summit embraced the grander vision, but the dearth of concrete commitments raised fears that the minimalist one will prevail.
Like the U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership agreement signed earlier this month in Kabul by U.S. President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, many of the world leaders assembled in Chicago -- though, notably, not Karzai -- spoke eloquently about their commitment to human rights, particularly for women. But the test of that commitment is whether anybody cares enough to put in place a concrete plan to carry it out. The United States and its NATO partners have fallen disturbingly short on three key issues -- ensuring that security forces abide by the law, marginalizing the warlords at the heart of the Karzai power structure, and providing meaningful protection for the rights of women.
As the troops depart, NATO's hopes for keeping the Taliban at bay rest in large part on organizing and arming villagers as members of the new Afghan Local Police (ALP). The program, begun in 2010, now counts some 13,000 ALP members, with plans for 30,000.
But simply handing an Afghan an AK-47 and a couple weeks of training is a recipe for disaster. Because villagers can so easily abuse their new power -- mistreating suspects, pursuing private vendettas, stirring ethnic conflict -- paramilitary forces of this sort are inherently dangerous. A Human Rights Watch report released in September 2011 documented many such abuses. An internal Pentagon study obtained last week by the Los Angeles Times found ALP units making little contribution to security while engaging in assault, rape, extortion, and drug trafficking.
The Pentagon's plan for avoiding such abuses is to vet would-be ALP members, train them, and hope the Afghan Interior Ministry will hold them accountable. But given the troublesome record of Afghanistan's traditional security forces -- torture by the intelligence services is rife, for example -- there is little reason to think these measures will suffice.