Security Force Assistance: Bringing Local Politics Back In

General David McKiernan, former ISAF commander, meeting with Afghan National Army soldiers in 2009. Courtesy of isafmedia / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

The history of recent interventions shows that the West needs to review its approach to security force assistance missions abroad.

After the panic, the hype and the media headlines, the time has come for an assessment of our 20 years of involvement in Afghanistan. Several such efforts are currently ongoing in NATO and in some of its member states, first and foremost the US. There are many aspects of the ill-fated Afghan mission that deserve scrutiny. In terms of current and future military missions abroad, possibly the most relevant concept currently scrutinised is that of security force assistance. This was a major component of the first NATO missions to Afghanistan, ISAF (2002–2014), and the core of the Resolute Support mission (RS, 2015–21). The quick collapse of the Afghan security forces in May–August 2021 does not throw a positive light on either mission, but what exactly went wrong with them?

Evident Roots of Failure

Soul-searching and assessments are just starting – the US’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has announced it will be making one – but some facts are already emerging. Former members of the Afghan security forces are highlighting how the political implosion of their republic preceded and accompanied the collapse of the security forces. In fact, throughout 2002–2021, political infighting and rivalries disrupted efforts to reorganise and reform the security sector. Why the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was so dysfunctional deserves a separate analysis, but the lesson to be drawn is that when engaging in security force assistance and security sector reform in conflict and post-conflict countries, the political environment has to be considered as part of the operating environment, just as insurgents, terrorists, geographical conditions, logistics and so on are. Afghanistan is not an isolated case: think of the recent experience of Iraq and the even more recent experience of Mali, where the French mission has found itself having to work with a military regime which is now inviting Russian mercenaries in. Arguably, local politics and infighting are one of the factors most likely to derail such missions, if not the most likely.

In the case of the ISAF and RS missions in Afghanistan, political factions consistently tried to manipulate appointments to senior army, police and security services positions to their advantage. Not only did this not serve the cause of ‘meritocracy’ in the Afghan security forces, but it also created a constant disruption to the chain of command, with opposing factions often refusing to cooperate with each other. The most dramatic demonstration of this was during the final Taliban campaign in spring/summer 2021, when opposing factions in the Afghan army and police were still busy undermining each other, rather than fighting the Taliban.

Using Political Intelligence

How could local politics be factored in by a security assistance mission and dealt with? Undoubtedly, Western militaries lack the capacity to effectively monitor and assess local political developments. In Afghanistan and elsewhere in the past, they have relied on NATO’s diplomatic efforts and on the diplomatic services of member countries, as well as intelligence agencies, whose output is of course very hard to assess. Essentially, these diplomats were ‘advising’ the military leadership about the political environment. But in the case of Afghanistan the military leadership seems to have considered that the political environment was not really their concern and that they should steam ahead as fast as possible towards their own self-imposed targets, regardless.

A long-term security force assistance mission, even if not as long-term as the ‘never-ending’ mission to Afghanistan, is almost guaranteed to run into some kind of host government infighting

One important lesson to be derived from this unhappy experience is that ways must be identified to cope with host government infighting more effectively. Some possible ways of mitigating political risk are:

  • Acquiring the ability to act quickly and authoritatively, because evolving political crises need fast responses; this implies having somebody clearly in charge and ‘owning’ the mission.
  • Concentrating the political and military authority in one entity/individual, because diplomats often do not have sufficient leverage on their own to resolve crises and because military leaders often lack the ability to deal with political risk.
  • Developing and maintaining adequate political and diplomatic intelligence alongside security and military intelligence. This political and diplomatic intelligence capacity should operate outside the military chain of command, but under the direct authority of the ‘head of mission’.

It is not, however, just a matter of developing an early warning system, capable of detecting impending crises and perhaps intervening diplomatically to prevent or mitigate them. Political crises are a daily affair in conflict and post-conflict countries, which lack solid and tested political institutions. A long-term security force assistance mission, even if not as long-term as the ‘never-ending’ mission to Afghanistan, is almost guaranteed to run into some kind of host government infighting, sooner or later. Such infighting might well be endemic and, even if mitigated, it might still be disruptive enough to invalidate much of the work done in the fields of security sector reform, professionalisation and other forms of assistance. This raises the question of whether security assistance can be proofed, at least to some degree, against political infighting.

When the Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

The recent Afghan crisis is the clearest demonstration that the ‘perfect’ of a shining security services model, designed to fit with Western standards, is the enemy of the ‘good’ of a model proofed against political risk. The latter model will in all likelihood look sub-optimal from the military-technocratic point of view, but will just as likely turn out to be more effective overall.

In Afghanistan, security sector reform was viewed by the bulk of the security forces as an obstacle to successful counterinsurgency

Some possible ways of proofing security force assistance against political risk could be:

  • Keeping security force assistance as low-profile as possible and highly focused on ‘growth niches’ within the security apparatus – that is, portions of the apparatus which play a relatively small role but are likely to play a much bigger role in the future.
  • Opting whenever possible to create parallel structures, as opposed to trying to reform institutions that are busy fighting a major conflict or in a security emergency.
  • Keeping the patronage rewards for the new parallel structures low, reducing their attractiveness to powerbrokers seeking resources to fund their infighting. An abundance of senior positions to be appointed to, for example, will attract unwanted attention.
  • Focusing on non-frontline capabilities such as administration and training, which are less likely to be coveted by powerbrokers engaged in infighting. These capabilities are also the ones that are most likely to be neglected by host governments, require considerable investment that host governments likely cannot afford, and take a long time to develop.

A likely objection to all these suggestions may well be that in some situations a political priority will emerge to assist entire security forces engaged in major conflicts, as happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. The point, however, is that security sector assistance and security sector reform do not have to coincide. Security sector reform rarely works in situations of existing conflict. Any reform effort taking place in a conflict environment should be sheltered from the ongoing conflict (hence the idea of ‘niches’), or postponed. In Afghanistan, security sector reform was viewed by the bulk of the security forces as an obstacle to successful counterinsurgency.

By contrast, aspects of security sector professionalisation other than reform are more likely to be viewed by local actors as functional to their aims. Intelligence-led policing, for example, turned out to be much more popular among Afghan police officers than human rights and the rule of law. What foreign advisers and donors view as useful or even essential is not necessarily seen in the same way by the hosts. At least, however, professionalisation is not per se in opposition to the short-term concerns and interests of the belligerents, in the same way as reform is usually perceived to be. The obvious example from Afghanistan is the establishment of the commandos and special forces for the army and police, which was a successful enterprise.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Antonio Giustozzi

Senior Research Fellow

Terrorism and Conflict

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