Sur­vival In­stinct

The Afghan Na­tional Army re­mains a long dis­tance away from be­ing a dis­ci­plined in­sti­tu­tion. But will it sur­vive and suc­ceed against all odds?

Southasia - - Contents - By Daud Khat­tak Daud Khat­tak is Act­ing Di­rec­tor at Mashaal Ra­dio, RFE/RLPRAGUE, Czech Repub­lic. As a se­nior jour­nal­ist, he has cov­ered the Tal­iban move­ment in Pak­istan and Afghanistan. He writes for the Chris­tian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor and Sun­day Times.

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.

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