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A Case Study in Security Sector Reform: Learning from Security Sector Reform/Building in Afghanistan (October 2002-September 2003)

Authored by Captain Jason C. Howk. | November 2009

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Security sector reform (SSR) is that set of policies, plans, programs, and activities that a government undertakes to improve the way it provides safety, security, and justice. This is a complex and involved task against which Captain Howk evaluates the early international effort to rebuild effective governance in Afghanistan. The purpose of this case study is to document the lessons learned through the development and execution of the SSR program in Afghanistan, with special emphasis from 2002 through 2003. The author has a unique and enviable position from which to observe the inner workings of the highest level commands in Afghanistan—first as an Aide de Camp to then Major General Karl Eikenberry during his first tour in Afghanistan and as the current Aide de Camp to General Stanley McChrystal.

This paper is not only a case study, but in effect is a primer on SSR. It critically evaluates the underlying theories of SSR and discusses how SSR should work in an operational environment. The paper concludes by reexamining the development of the strategy and implementation of the SSR effort in Afghanistan. By 2002 it was clear that SSR was an important focus, and it was recognized to be essential for the successful development of economic and governance institutions in Afghanistan.

The paper uses the four major elements of the security sector as outlined by D. Hendrickson and A. Karkoszka to focus on seven key objectives. To narrow the scope of the paper, the author details the role of four typical actors involved in SSR: donor nations; recipient state of Afghanistan; multilateral participants such as the United Nations (UN), SSR experts, and nongovernmental organizations; and regional security cooperation entities such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The paper provides an insider’s view of the preparation accomplished by the leadership team prior to entering Afghanistan, and then it provides a critical assessment of the SSR activities that were conducted. The paper incorporates an assessment by General Eikenberry in which he assesses the implementation of the SSR Strategy in 2002-03.

The author concludes with several lessons learned in communication, staffing, interagency issues, leadership, and implementation, noting several rules of thumb and best practices.

Captain Howk recommends that SSR be the single, primary duty for a senior leader so that it does not decline in scope and emphasis, and that planners determine the refined mission objectives and goals for such a position should it be reinstated. He further recommends that the United States create an SSR coordinator on the National Security Council to integrate and synchronize all agencies and departments. Finally, he recommends that we consider former UN Secretary General Lakhdar Brahimi’s advice that lead nations remain patient. Afghanistan must be mentored and given every opportunity to succeed.