Special Reports

The Afghan Army:

Is it Fit for Purpose?



The transition from NATO to Afghan leadership in the security sector officially started in July 2011, with a few locations being handed over to Afghan control. It was a muted beginning of the transition: all the locations transitioned to the Afghans were comparatively quiet and safe ones. It is well known that ISAF's outgoing commander, Gen. Petraeus, was very tepid towards the transition, although he would not openly elaborate on his motives. It is also known that Afghan president Karzai, President Obama and the European governments were more supportive of a transition as fast as possible. At the centre of the debate on the viability of transition in the medium and long run is the question of whether the Afghan security forces are really ready to take the lead and eventually to fight it out on their own. In particular, it is the Afghan army that will be the cornerstone of efforts to Afghanise the conflict. If the Afghan army cannot do the job, transition is not going to be the road to success.

Achievements and failures
When Gen. Caldwell, the head of the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan, took over the job of training Afghan Army and Police, he portrayed what had been done by his predecessors in a very negative light; even the basic training course, which accounted for almost all of the American training effort, had major flaws and was producing privates of very low quality. Caldwell set out to reform the basic training effort and start tackling the issue of forming the army's leadership. While basic training improved qualitatively and expanded quantitatively, leadership formation was still in its infant stage by mid-2011. It is obvious that forming a military leadership is a much more complex task than putting together a basic training effort. It is also a task that takes much longer (several years) to start bearing fruit. That the Americans only started dealing with the problem eight years into their involvement with training the Afghan National Army casts serious doubts over their long term planning. The formation of a new leadership for the Afghan army is made all the more difficult by the limited ability of the Ministry of Defence to attract educated Afghans; the overwhelming majority of the recruits are illiterate and very few high school graduates join the army, not to speak of university graduates. Arguably, this is one more reason why the problem should have been paid attention earlier.

Since the Afghan army has already been fighting a war for some years, a new leadership should by now be emerging from the ranks; involvement in the conflict should by now have weeded out the incompetent officers and refined the skills of the competent ones. Unfortunately this has actually happened only a small scale, for two main reasons. The first reason is that ISAF has been very protective of its Afghan partners, rarely allowing them to fight without the support of a NATO unit and almost never without being accompanied by a unit of NATO mentors, who often take over as the commanding officers when the Afghan counterpart is judged not to be up to the task. Although ISAF has by now a fairly good idea of who are the competent Afghan officers and who are not, the practice of sheltering the Afghan Army from the risk of tactical defeat has made it very difficult to argue for the removal of ineffective commanders. This leads us to the second reason why the officer corps has not been growing professionally as much as it should have done: political nepotism.

Many officers enjoy political protection and indeed that's the reason why they were appointed in the first place. Such protection comes from one of different political networks within the army, of which the two main ones are linked to former army chief of staff Bismillah Khan and to Minister of Defence Rahim Wardak. The competition between the two networks makes it difficult for meritocracy to take hold. Things in this regard might in fact have got worse, because Bismillah Khan had a preference for battle tested tactical commanders, which his replacement Karimi has not.

A very rough estimate of the quality of the Afghan officer corps, coming from ISAF mentors, would place the number of at least relatively competent officers at about half of the total. There are, however, problems with this half too. They have little or no experience of working together. Without the support of ISAF; very few senior officers can plan relatively large scale operations. Battalion level officers are inevitably even worse in planning. By and large the army is not trained to fight in small units. Although the Americans are now forming many logistical units, the quality of the staff leaves much to be desired: it is difficult to conceive a logistical system run mostly by illiterate people.

In July 2010 the army tried to carry out an offensive operation on its own, without any support from ISAF. The operation was launched from Mehterlam, Laghman province, and was battalion size. It was about capturing a village from the Taliban, but ended in complete failure after the raiding party landing behind enemy lines and the main force as well, were both ambushed. The battalion carrying out the operation was one of the best in the army. This incident highlights how the army as it is, might not be able to cope with the opposition even under the best circumstances: a pre-planned operation against an objective of the army's own choice.

The political dimension
Moreover, the army is going through a delicate political phase. The appointment of Karimi as Chief of Staff in 2010, to replace veteran Bismillah Khan, has left many in the army unhappy. Bismillah Khan had a wide network of former comrades in arms and other proteges and was seen as a leader with strong field experience, gathered in the civil wars of the 1990s. Karimi, by contrast, is a military bureaucrat who has no battle experience and many officers have little respect for him. The ethnic tension between Tajiks, largely aligned with Bismillah, and Pashtuns, whom Karimi is trying to mobilise behind himself, complicates the picture. Karimi and Minister Wardak, another Pashtun, have replaced several Army Corps commanders and there is no Tajik now left among them, but doing the same with battalions and brigades is not possible without affecting the capabilities of the army in a major way. Many in Kabul believe that Karimi was also appointed to appease the Pakistanis, once Karzai started negotiating a political deal with them in 2010. Karimi lived for around one year under Pakistani protection in Pakistan, after fleeing the Taliban regime. Being seen as a Pakistani protege, however, does not help Karimi endear himself with the middle ranks of the Afghan army.

The key questions facing the Afghan army during the forthcoming transition are therefore two. One is whether militarily it is up to the task of holding out against the armed opposition of the Taliban, which will likely be emboldened by the gradual withdrawal of western troops. The morale of the army, moreover, is likely to suffer, at least initially. The second question is whether the army can survive as a unified entity in the wake of a withdrawal. In the early stages of the transition, with the number of western troops declining but remaining substantial, this might not be much of a problem, but it is likely to emerge later on if existing rivalries and splits are not sorted out.

What happens then if the Afghan army cannot hold on to at least the main roads and the towns, or fragments internally? A complete disintegration of the army is not likely, but it could split into blocks. The bulk of the combat officers are Tajiks and mostly have a political background in the anti-Taliban alliance of the 1990s; they are likely to rejoin the militias still existing in northern Afghanistan and hold the Taliban at bay there, in what at that point would become a civil war.

The Americans are aware of the flaws of the Afghan army and the American military actually argues that any withdrawal should be as slow as possible because the army (as well as the police) still needs much time to grow. The time wasted in 2001-7 is now showing its repercussions. Politically, however, a slow withdrawal is unlikely to be tenable; in the US Congress there is even little patience for providing Afghan army and police with the level of funding, judged necessary by the US military. A civil war following the US withdrawal, therefore, is more than a possibility.