Special Reports



When it was originally conceived in 2002, the Afghan National Army (ANA) was mainly designed as a tool of nation-building. It was supposed to act as a melting pot of recruits coming from all provinces of Afghanistan, contributing therefore to the formation of a national identity. As such, it was also supposed to provide the central government with some leverage against regional strongmen, reluctant to take directions from Kabul and keen to protect their own turf. The ANA was not designed as a counter-insurgency force, nor as an army capable of defending the country from its neighbours. Its combat force is structured in conventional light infantry battalions, suited to take on the militias of Afghanistan’s warlords, but not so much any real guerrilla force. Moreover the ANA has not been trained in anti-aircraft or anti-tank tactics or supplied with the relevant weaponry. As long as Afghanistan was under international tutelage, an army capable of matching those of its neighbours was not considered to be necessary, and perhaps even to be a potential irritant to the Pakistani government, always concerned about the possibility of being surrounded by hostile forces.

Since then, the situation in Afghanistan has changed a fair deal. The Neo-Taliban insurgency has been gradually spreading, and from 2006 it has turned in a large scale movement. Although estimates vary, the Taliban on the whole now count something like at least 50,000 members, probably more when all the support elements (‘facilitators’) are included, and are active in 33 of 34 provinces. The mostly NATO armies engaged in the conflict on the government side are largely structured to fight conventional wars too and have high support-to-combatants ratios, usually at least 3-to-1. Not even in the event of a major ‘surge’ of foreign troops in Afghanistan would there be enough foreign combat troops to hold most of the country’s territory. As a result, the talk in the western capitals is increasingly one of ‘Afghanization’. This means that the ANA and the Afghan police are expected to shoulder a growing share of the burden of fighting the insurgency, perhaps one day even taking entirely over. Indeed, the ANA has gradually started getting involved in the fighting, as shown by its casualties. In 2003, it lost just 30 men killed in action; in 2008, it lost 370.

Even before the prospect of greater engagement in the conflict started emerging, there were doubts about the ability of the ANA to achieve its tasks. In particular its ‘national character’ was placed in doubt by the difficulty in integrating its different ethnic and factional components. In terms of the overall ethnic composition the army is relatively balanced, with an over-representation of Tajiks, a more or less fair share of Pashtuns (the largest ethnic group in the country) and an under-representation of Hazaras and Uzbeks. The officer corps, however, is predominantly Tajik, particularly the combat units. The problem is not just the ethnic balance of the officer corps, per se, but the fact that as some senior Pashtun officers allege, the majority of these Tajik officers are networked around the Chief of Staff, Gen. Bismillah Khan, who through his influence and the ability to appoint officers is the majority share holder of the army. Defence Minister Rahim Wardak, a Pashtun loyal to President Karzai, only controls a small network of former comrade-in-arms of the 1980s jihad, and cannot even remotely compete with Bismillah Khan in terms of influence. The hostility between Tajik and Pashtun networks and individuals has grown increasingly strong. Reportedly Wardak and Bismillah Khan are not on speaking terms and in official meetings the latter often shouts at the former. Back biting and distrust are common and it is likely that they might seriously affect the ability of the Ministry of Defence to successfully manage the ANA in the field, without ISAF assistance. One aspect of the failure of the army to acquire a national character is its failure to attract talents and skills. After the initial abundant recruitment of former jihadi commanders and of some former officers of the pro-Soviet army, the ANA has mainly been attracting recruits from the poorest and less educated sectors of society. The current plan to double the size of the army from the presently planned 122,000 over the next few years will inevitably compound these recruitment problems. While there is no shortage of volunteers, the quality is increasingly poor. The latest batch of recruits is 90% illiterate, a fact that bodes ill for the successful formation of capable administration and logistics, as well as for a qualitatively acceptable expansion of the officer corps.

Apart from the staffing problems mentioned above, the ANA also suffers from a lack of motivation. Some officers behave aggressively on the battlefield, but by and large the ANA is not too keen to join the fight against the insurgents. Often the beleaguered police have been refused requests for help by the ANA; in part this is also due to the tendency of the ANA to react slowly, like all conventional armies: typically it takes 2-3 days to execute an operation; while detachments assigned to hold posts away from the local HQs lack authority to take quick decisions. In general, however, the ANA has been reluctant to operate in the villages of the insurgency-affected regions, not least because a substantial majority of the rank-and-file assigned to the southern Army Corps is from the north and does not speak much Pashto, the language of the overwhelming majority of the population there. Morale is low also for a number of other reasons, such as the perceived discrimination in the evacuation of casualties: injured ISAF soldiers always have priority over ANA wounded-in-action, and the scarcity of airlift often means that wounded ANA soldiers die before receiving medical help. Yet another major factor depressing morale, is the invasive character of the ongoing mentoring effort by ISAF. Large mentoring teams operate in every battalion and their presence is often resented by ANA officers, particularly the more experienced ones, who see no reason for being mentored by people who are usually their juniors. The fact that ANA units never graduate from mentoring (some battalions have been mentored since 2003) strengthens the suspicion of the officers. The ever expanding mentoring effort is under heavy strain because the growth in the size of the army requires more and more mentors.

Another consequence of the extensive and invasive mentoring effort is the growing dependency of the ANA on its mentors, both in terms of their role as ‘fixers’, in particular with regards to logistics, and of their role as ‘shadow officers’ and supervisors. It is widely believed in the ANA that promotions and demotions are largely determined by the reports that the mentors send back to their HQ (CSTC-A), a fact that tends to make ANA officers quite keen to follow whatever advice they are offered. This attitude is unlikely to contribute to the formation of capable officers. Perhaps the heaviest dependency of the ANA on its mentoring teams, derive from their role as forward air controllers, able to call in close air support from the ISAF air assets. Indeed the ANA is being trained to fight the ‘American way’ (in fact the ‘NATO way’). That is, relying on heavy firepower and in particular close air support, to win tactical engagements. The question that arises of course is how will the ANA cope if the mentoring teams were to be withdrawn. In other words, if genuine Afghanization has to happen, an ANA grown dependent on the mentoring teams is hardly the answer. The Afghan Air Corps is still in the early stages of its formation, but at no stage it will be able to provide anything even remotely resembling what the USAF can provide in Afghanistan. Indeed, it will never exceed a handful of attack helicopters and light attack planes, according to the existing plans, and even that will take several years to accomplish.

The desire to Afghanize the conflict rests mainly on the doubling in size of the Afghan security forces (ANA and police). The idea is flawed at least as far as the assumption that a mere quantitative increase would necessarily represent an improvement. In reality, if command and control and management capabilities, already weak, will not keep the pace with the expansion of the number of battalions over the next few years, the ANA might well end up weaker, not stronger.

The ANA already has major problems in retaining troops in its ranks; in part in order to contain the desertions only about a sixth of the army is deployed to the south, where the most intense fighting is going on. There the typical battalion is 50-70% under strength due to losses and absence without leave. ISAF commanders routinely complain about the insufficient numbers of ANA troops, but given the existing low morale it is feared that reducing the periods of rotation and posting higher numbers to the south might have a very negative impact.

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of Afghanization is the continuing politicization of the ANA, particularly in the context of the turmoil which followed the August 2009 presidential elections. Bismillah Khan, the chief of staff, is known to be sympathetic to Dr. Abdullah, President Karzai’s main challenger. At the time of writing (21 October 2009) it was not clear yet whether a coalition government would emerge from the Presidential elections; if not the stability of the ANA could be further compromised as most of its officers would be resentful towards President Karzai and his circle for monopolizing power. Karzai might also be tempted to try politically neutralizing the ANA by removing Bismillah Khan, an option he is known to have been considering for some time. While a purge of officers loyal to Bismillah Khan is not likely, the substitution of Bismillah with a Karzai loyalist would allow the Presidential camp to appoint loyal officers to lead the new battalions which will be formed in the future, offsetting at least in part the power of Bismillah’s network. The removal of Bismillah, who is a quite charismatic commander, could also lead to the fragmentation of his largely Tajik network, again favoring Karzai’s bid for control. As always, political appointments will tend to be at odd with military effectiveness and the already mediocre ANA could see a further degradation of its command and control capabilities.

In sum, short of a major re-direction in the effort to develop the ANA, it is unlikely that any plan to Afghanize the conflict centered around the ANA will succeed. Even if a change was decided, implementing it would be difficult. There is only very limited ability of the ISAF-participating countries to provide anything else but conventional training to the ANA. The American Special Operations Forces, which have the capability to train in counter-insurgency actions, are spread thin around the globe hunting terrorists and are not in a position to take up the task. The human resources needed to properly staff the ANA are unlikely to be attracted to the job, not just because of the relatively low salaries, but also because the risk involved and the need to deploy away from their families, discourage many. The Taliban are running a campaign to intimidate members of the Afghan security forces, which has been driving recruitment into the ANA to very low levels, at least in southern Afghanistan. Finally addressing the political rivalries which affect the ANA is not something that foreigners can do; a durable political settlement has to be found among Afghans. What the intervening US / NATO coalition in Afghanistan can do is re-direct the mentoring effort in a way more conductive to the growth of autonomous ANA capabilities and skills, but there is no sign that this is happening. The short-term fear that the ANA might suffer some tactical humiliation, overrides the desire to achieve longer-term gains in terms of command capabilities.

Comments are invited at our Blog www.geopolemics.com