The New York Times (Room for Debate blog)

The Taliban Jailbreak and Afghanistan's Future

The latest Taliban jailbreak from the Sarposa prison sounds like something out of a bad gangster movie. Its fiction-like quality notwithstanding, the break does have very real, unfortunate consequences.

It gives a boost to the Taliban at the time when the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is trying hard to break its morale. With the fighting season around the corner, it can potentially replenish Taliban leadership ranks, especially middle-level commanders, whose reduction has been at the core of ISAF’s military strategy. The psychological effects this summer’s fighting will have on the Afghan population, the Taliban, and Western audiences will be even more important than its effects on the Taliban’s physical strength.

Although the jailbreak shows the level of corruption and incompetence of the security forces at Sarposa, it does not necessarily invalidate the general sense that the Afghan military has been making major strides.

Prison forces are not the same thing as fighting forces, and many a country with a competent military struggles in guarding and reforming its prisons. Moreover, the only way for the Afghan National Army to learn is to allow it to take the lead, even if the Afghan population may be afraid of such a transfer. Such learning by doing is necessary even though areas that will be transferred to Afghan security forces will become major magnets for Taliban attacks.

Equally, however, the army’s improvements do not necessarily indicate equal improvements of the Afghan National Police. With some localized exceptions, the national police has been growing in numbers but continues to be greatly lacking in quality. Still plagued by widespread corruption, it continues to be deeply resented by the population for its abusiveness. It is still trained mainly as a light paramilitary force to hold off insurgents until the Afghan army and ISAF can arrive on the scene and has little ability to deal with ordinary crime, the daily scourge for Afghans. The lack of order on the street creates important inroads for the Taliban.

The stampede to create militia forces in Afghanistan further complicates the reliability of Afghan security forces. The local police set up by ISAF may have robust vetting and safeguard mechanisms, but the myriad of other militias created by ethnic politicians and local strongmen often don’t have any vetting at all. Their growth reveals the level of ethnic tensions and uncertainty in Afghanistan. Nor does the Ministry of Interior have any clear ability to control any such forces that go rogue.

Indeed, lost in the debate on the readiness of the Afghan forces and the size of U.S. troop withdrawal this summer is the fact that few improvements in governance have taken place during the surge in force in the past year.

President Karzai, distrustful of and confused by Washington, operates an increasingly narrow patronage network and easily overrides the local officials whom he perceives as threatening, regardless of their performance. Many Afghans, not the least of whom are the Northerners, are deeply worried about negotiations with the Taliban. Even with well-trained Afghan security forces, the current political situation in Afghanistan is unstable.