A cloud over EUs legacy in Afghanistan?

The Afghan National Police (ANP) is critical to Afghanistan’s ability to shoulder the security burden increasingly thrust upon them as the international military presence draws down. For Afghanistan to stay on an even keel and advance and sustain overall stability, the ANP, alongside the Afghan military, must be marginally better than the armed non-state groups that threaten the current political order. But the ANP is very ineffective, hamstrung by widespread corruption, attrition, illiteracy and public distrust. Progress is being made, albeit slow and uneven, but this is unlikely to significantly alter the bottom line by 2014, when the international military combat mission in Afghanistan formally draws to a close.

Training the ANP has been the centerpiece of the EUs engagement in Afghanistan since 2007. What began as a German-led police training mission in 2002 became an EU-led mission in February 2007, christened EUPOL. The German effort was found wanting or, in the words of then-SACEUR James Jones, “very disappointing”. Today, after six years, the conventional wisdom of EUPOL and its results generally echo Jones’ verdict. This will undoubtedly cloud the EUs legacy in Afghanistan. But the conventions should not overshadow EUPOLs strengths, for herein lies a lesson can be leveraged in future statebuilding missions.

The EU was widely seen as the ideal candidate to lead the police training mission in February 2007. The EU had extensive experience and expertise from police training missions in Bosnia, Kosovo, Georgia and elsewhere. In European capitals many saw the mission as an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the EUs capabilities in a war that still enjoyed broad public support in most European countries. Finally, there were few serious alternatives to the EU. President Bush had recently announced a military surge in Iraq to enable a dramatic shift in strategy, effectively rendering a larger US role in Afghanistan unfeasible at that time.

As stipulated and adopted by the European Council, EUPOLs mandate was ambitious in scope – although also somewhat ambiguous – explicitly emphasizing the need to link the mission of training the Afghan National Police to a broader undertaking of strengthening rule of law in Afghanistan. Since its inception, however, EUPOL has severely struggled to fulfill this ambition. It hit the ground stumbling, not running. The means were never commensurate to the ends. Results were meager. In recognition of the ill state of the Afghan police and army, and their centrality to Afghanistan’s future and a viable international withdrawal,  the US led a push in late 2009 to form the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A). Eventually it came to dominate the entire training effort and symbolize the ineffectiveness of the EUs parallel effort.

What when wrong? EUPOL has suffered from ineffective leadership, dysfunctional internal procedures and political and bureaucratic in-fighting since 2007. The first EUPOL-chief resigned after just three months at the helm. Since then, the quality of leadership has varied greatly, but regardless of the person, they have all been hampered by consecutive battles to secure and retain institutional autonomy. This was a fight on several fronts. In Brussels, a strong EU bureaucracy and the contributing member states were reluctant to delegate authority. In Kabul, the EUPOL-chief had a rocky relationship with the EU Special Envoy, who, acting on behalf of the EU, would insist on being the EUPOL-chiefs in-country principal. This was ostensibly a cause of the first EUPOL-chief’s quick resignation. Even withinEUPOL infighting was common. Seconded staff had national agendas, methods and interests specific to their preferences and domestic political context. This further weakened the EUPOL-chiefs authority as well as EUPOLs autonomy and decision-making process.

Moreover, EUPOL has been dramatically and consistently under-staffed since 2007. The mission never had sufficient means at its disposal to achieve its objectives. EUPOL was planned to have 400 police trainers, but for most of its existence the mission has hovered between 200 and 300 trainers. Even if the staffing threshold had been met, it would still have been incommensurate with the task at hand. It paled in comparison to the thousands of trainers NTM-A devoted to build the Afghan national security forces since 2009. This severely limited EUPOLs capacity to drive the ANP forward. Leaving quality aside for now, the output was simply too slow and too little.

EUPOLs mandate also was also constrained by restrictive and risk-averse caveats, preventing it from taking on roles in unstable areas such as in the South and Southeast, where a concerted EU training and advisory mission could have made a difference to the counterinsurgency campaign. Instead, EUPOL operated in relatively secure areas on the outskirts of Kabul and in Bamiyan province in central Afghanistan. That EUPOL could only operate in on the war’s periphery is a stark reminder of the limits of the EUs footprint and impact. Moreover, to the dismay of its critics in Kabul, EUPOL trainers were allowed to drink alcohol, were often not allowed to work on weekends, and had considerably more time off than their international counterparts at NTM-A and elsewhere. Tellingly, in the international community in Kabul – an environment were scathing sarcasm admittedly is a common refuge – EUPOL was an easy and popular target.

Much can and should be learned from these mistakes and shortcomings before the EU takes on a similar task. But given the politics and mechanisms of the EU, it is highly unlikely that these issues will ever be sufficiently resolved. Future EU police training missions will also suffer from lack of delegated discretion, in-fighting across national staff, limited resources and restrictive caveats. Instead, it its worthwhile to consider the strengths of EUPOL in order to gain a realistic understanding of how and for what specific objectives the EU can make a serious contribution to future, similar missions. EUPOLs flaws should not lead to a neglect of its special assets that, if leveraged with a narrow mandate, could make a valuable impact.

One of EUPOLs unparalleled strengths in Afghanistan was that its training effort was conducted by active policemen and –women with a wealth of professional experience from home and in post-conflict settings. This is in stark contrast to NTM-As effort, which is predominantly led by military personnel and contractors. The lack of civilian police trainers has reinforced the ANPs heavily militarized nature. The training, mindset and operational activities of the ANP is more green than blue. This is a significant obstacle to the ANPs long-term normalization from a war-fighting force advancing stability to a constabulary force advancing the rule of law. Most of the ANP today lack the skills to perform even the most basic police functions beyond preventing and deterring malign actors by the use or threat of force. Officers trained by EUPOL at the ANP Staff College near Kabul are educated and socialized as a truly blue police force. As the ANPs future leaders, they have the capacity to act as agents of reform (though it is unclear if they have the incentives to do so). 

In Bamiyan province EUPOLs training effort has had a tangible impact, providing a visible benefit for the local population in that their police units are more effective and trusted. Being heavily dominated by the ethnic Hazara minority – the minority most exposed to repression under the Taliban’s brutal rule – the insurgency will likely never attain a strong foothold in the province. Nevertheless, EUPOLs effort may have hardened the security against pressures from criminal networks and potential spill-over effects from less stable neighboring provinces. Moreover, while Bamiyan is relatively unimportant to the outcome of the counterinsurgency effort, EUPOLs presence there has somewhat counteracted what many Afghans point to as a morally hazardous incentive structure inherent in the international community’s strategy: the logic of counterinsurgency prevails upon ISAF countries to devote the lion’s share of their development resources in areas that are contested by insurgents in order to shore up fragile security gains. To many Afghans outside these unstable areas – such as in the orderly Bamiyan province – ISAF is essentially rewarding bad behavior.

The story of EUPOL is a testament to the limits of the EUs capacity to shoulder large, strategic burdens in the “hard” end of the spectrum of counterinsurgency tasks. EUPOL was never designed, resourced or able to build a sufficiently effective ANP – at least by 2014. Its results have fallen dramatically behind the goal envisioned when the EU took on the responsibility in 2007. As such, EUPOL will cast a cloud over the EUs legacy in Afghanistan. It has not been a success. But the silver lining sheds light on an important lesson: The EUs capacity to produce a high-quality, although incremental, training output is an asset that should not be forgone in future missions. In nascent security institutions, where professionalism is weak and internal cohesion low, effective leaders can make a truly decisive difference. Well-trained leaders have an amplifier effect. They can prove the difference between an ANP unit that stands its ground, builds rapport with the local community and prevails and a unit that preys upon the local citizens, colludes with malign actors or simply falls apart. The EU cannot supplant US-led actors like the NTM-A in large scale training efforts, but it can complement it in ways that, if leveraged effectively, can make a substantial contribution.


Christian Bayer Tygesen was an Anna Lindh Fellow at The Europe Center at Stanford University from September 2012 to January 2013. He was in Kabul from February to June 2011 and from May to June 2012 to conduct field research and other assignments.