The Afghan National Army remains a long distance away from being a disciplined institution. But will it survive and succeed against all odds?
As the international community warms up for a full transfer of security to the Afghan authorities, one serious question that arises is about the level of readiness of the Afghan National Army (ANA) to shoulder the burden, in the face of both internal and external challenges confronting Afghanistan.
Sharing a border with Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia, Afghanistan does not face any threat of aggression, at least apparently, from any of its neighbors. However, the Taliban, al-qaeda, warlords and their armed groups, drug traffickers and the ethnic composition of the ANA are the real challenges before the nascent force, which is expected to take the lead role on the combat front after 2014.
The future of the ANA also hinges on the much-hyped reconciliation process recently initiated in Doha. According to some reports, certain Taliban leaders and their families have been airlifted from Pakistan to engage in direct talks with the US, while the Obama administration is contemplating the release of some Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay as a first step to attain headway in the parleys.
The success of the peace talks with the Taliban, the future of which is still hanging in the balance and which may take months if not years to succeed, might help the international community in quickly shifting the security responsibility to the ANA and increasing the confidence level of Afghan forces.
However, any outright failure would not only leave the international community with a troubled situation on the transfer of full responsibility to Afghan authorities but will also affect the morale and confidence of the ANA, which will suddenly find itself in direct confrontation with the Taliban without any active support from its NATO counterparts.
Taliban on the other hand, despite suffering huge losses in 2011 due to night raids led by US/NATO forces, are still strong enough to pose serious security challenges to the ANA. As suggested by intelligence reports, the Taliban are preparing themselves for gaining control of some provinces after 2014 – the year when foreign troops will withdraw from Afghanistan.
In an exclusive interview with Southasia, Afghan analyst Ahmad Takal stated that the ANA carries some sort of respect in majority areas and the Afghan people trust them more than the police and the tribal militias. “They are able to ward off the Taliban from capturing provinces and cities if the NATO/US continued their supportive role.”
However, Takal believes that withdrawing support and shifting the security responsibility all at once to the ANA would be a difficult job; one that they would not be able to perform efficiently, particularly in areas where the Taliban enjoy support from the local population. Hassles for NATO:
Consisting of 31 Kandaks or Battalions, the current strength of the ANA is around 180,000, which will be mounted to 240,000 by 2014.
Although the quality of training of the ANA has considerably increased and improved over the past two years as compared to the 2003-2007 period, the poor literacy rate among soldiers, loyalty to warlords, desertions, absentees and the imbalance ethnic composition are some of the challenges still faced by NATO trainers.
General Karl Eikenberry, the then Chief of the Office of Military Coordination Afghanistan, in his guidelines in 2003 had suggested that the ANA
should have 38 percent Pashtuns, 25 percent Tajiks, 19 percent Hazara and eight percent Uzbeks. However, recent reports suggest that the Tajiks are nearly 41 percent of the Afghan army, which may lead to trouble, particularly in the majority Pashtun zones in the south and east of the country.
Equipping a 240,000 nascent army with all necessary equipment and vehicles, besides providing them salaries and constructing proper infrastructure to support their training will require huge sums of money from the international community for a longer period than expected.
The Guardian highlights a World Bank report, released nearly a month before the last year’s Bonn Conference on Afghanistan, which draws a bleak picture of the Afghan economy when the international community leaves the country. The report says that the army and police force will impose heavy costs on the country’s economy leaving foreign donors to foot an annual $7.2 billion bill for at least the next decade. The report even suggests that an increase in government revenues will not generate enough resources to pay for the 352,000 security force currently being trained and equipped. Post transition scenario:
Although NATO officers and the U.S. publicly praise Afghan officers and soldiers, the real test will be the post transition period when US and NATO forces will assume an advisory role and let their Afghan counterparts take the lead in combat operations.
An encouraging sign is that the Afghans, mostly in the northern and western zones, and to a larger extent in the Pashtun dominated southern and eastern parts of the country, trust and respect the ANA more than the Afghan National Police (ANP). The ANP is perceived to be riddled with corruption and unable to safeguard the population against the Taliban or other outlaws operating in their areas.
It is this trust that helps increase the confidence and morale of the Afghan soldiers and officers. At the same time however, a vast majority of the recruits enlist in the ANA only to get comparatively better salaries and are willing to desert the mission as soon as they get a better job or remain absent without leave thus hampering efforts to make the Afghan army a truly disciplined institution.
Apart from facing the Taliban operating from their hideouts in Pakistan and the southern and eastern regions of Afghanistan, the existence of warlords and drug traffickers are the other key challenges before the post-transition Afghan army.
In the same token, a large number of ANA recruits are former commanders or foot soldiers of warlords who ruled their respective parts of the country in the pre-taliban Afghanistan. Despite Un-backed programs, like DIAG and DDR put in place to disarm powerful men and private militias, warlords have retained their strength and due to the ossified ethnic biases, a vast number of ANA recruits show loyalty to the same warlords.
As is obvious from the ground situation, the Taliban insurgency is not going to fade away overnight and security problems will continue to exist even if the Taliban agree on some sort of negotiated settlement, which does not seem to be the case. The ANA has a long and difficult road ahead, particularly after the US/NATO withdrawal.
Any prolonged fighting against the battle-hardened Taliban without foreign backing is likely to hit the ANA morale, which is still a nascent force struggling to become a truly disciplined institution. The ultimate result will be ethnic divisions and desertions that may harm the decade-long efforts of the international community.
The last and most important point, for both the Afghan government and its international backers, is the need for financial support for a longer period to continue the training and recruitment level of the army. Alongside, the ANA need to get an unhindered supply of air support, armors and vehicles without which they will not be able to keep ground in the face of the emboldened Taliban.