“We can help train an army, we can help equip an army, we can help build facilities for the army, but only the Afghan people can breathe a soul into that army.” Lt Gen. Karl Eikenberry, former Commander, Combined Forces Command – Afghanistan( CFC-A)
The decade long War on Terror in Afghanistan seems to be coming to a close – or at least scaling down to a limited presence of foreign forces from active combat to a supportive role by 2014. Understandably, there is both hope and apprehension not only for the Afghanis but also the most affected neighboring country of Pakistan, and the US whose terrorism-related pursuits have resulted in its investment of enormous manpower and material resources into the Afghan quagmire. However, a strong and independent Afghanistan is crucial to the security of the region. That requires, among other things, a successful transition of responsibility for primary security to the Afghan National Army (ANA).
Afghanistan has a long history of interruptions in political process due to tribal rivalries and violence, and external invasion and occupation, and existence of tribal militias goes back much longer than the presence of the ANA. The country’s history of resistance against foreign invaders and internal insurgencies also goes side by side with other crippling issues of gender discrimination, illiteracy – only 28% of Afghans can read and write. (UNICEF, 2008) – its ranking of174/178 countries on the global Human Development Index, and its status of a leader in illegal opium production supporting 90% of global production (UNDP, 2007). All these issues do not contribute to a promising picture.
In 2002, realizing that bringing ANA back on its feet would be crucial to bringing any form of stability in the future of the country, the US and NATO began training and organizing the ANA. Now, having achieved some major objectives of the War on Terror (WoT), and with exit strategies of NATO and the US forces for 2014 in place, building ANA’s capacity has assumed more importance. Over the years, NATO and the US trainers faced numerous challenges due to post-Soviet era chaos and the violence and insurgency resulting from WoT, including working with non-existent infrastructure, navigating traditional ethnic rivalries and crippling levels of illiteracy, widespread drug abuse, and ineffective role played by the central government.
Clearly, no quick solution was possible. So, work began despite these serious inadequacies. A report titled, “It’s Starting to Look a Lot Like an Army” (LA Times, 2006) quotes Commander Leppert talking about the difficulty of the job, “We are building an airplane while the airplane is flying.” While praising the hard work of the Afghan troops, the report described how the “Afghan commanders and soldiers complain of poor pay, faulty weapons, ammunition shortages and lack of protective gear. US trainers, while praising Afghan soldiers for their bravery, complain of slovenly appearance, lack of discipline, petty theft, mistreated equipment and infiltration of the army by Taliban spies or soldiers who sell information.” Several incidents have surfaced over the years where infiltrators were caught trying to gain access to information and some officers were caught for arms trafficking. The ANP has been implicated in massacre of civilians (Matthieu Aikins, The Atlantic), and the Afghan Local Police in killings, rape, abductions and illegal raids (Human Rights Watch Sept 2011). That makes the job of preparing an effective and respected army even harder.
Despite the challenges, and while the overall perception of security has declined periodically, ANA is generally seen in a positive light by the general population. An Asia Foundation (2006) opinion poll also supports that view, stating that 87% of Afghans still support the ANA because they see it as an alternative to other more corrupt government forces. NATO trainers applaud small successes of ANA and find it satisfying that ANA is now somewhat prepared to play a significant role in actively participating in, and sometimes leading, military operations. Their participation helps NATO and US forces to carry out bigger operations. Partnering with the Afghan forces allows them to make contact with local populations while they conduct combat operations with insurgents. The importance of forming a relationship of trust with the local population through Afghan forces cannot be ignored as the exit for a major part of foreign troops draws near, while liaisons are needed for others who plan to remain behind in supportive roles for another decade. Over the years the supportive and leading role of ANA has been tested with leading combat and search/clearance operations successfully, though on a smaller scale. These successes however, do not predict a strong ANA in the near future. It is going to be a long haul.
In the post-NATO/US Afghanistan, ANA’s active participation has significant importance for Pakistan which needs that stability in its neighboring country to be able to send millions of Afghan refugees and insurgents back to their home country. With its own economic challenges growing bigger by the day, Pakistan is ill-equipped to support any longer these refugees it took in on humanitarian grounds firstly in the Soviet war of the 80s, and later amid insurgency and violence following WoT. The fallout from the WoT has crippled Pakistan’s security as well, despite international support and extensive internal efforts. Pakistan’s geo-strategic location offers economic dividends that Pakistan has not been able to utilize due to security concerns and Pakistan also needs that stability to be able to check Afghanistan’s opium production landing in Pakistan on its way to European markets, and destroying the youth of the country.
ANA’s work in Afghanistan is not going to be easy after most of the coalition forces leave in 2014. If NATO and US make their exit without ensuring that the ANA is well-equipped and trained enough to exert a positive influence over the war-weary and traumatized population, the rewards reaped from their work so far might be lost entirely and the country might slip back into chaos as militias become more organized. While addressing ANA’s internal issues is extremely important to achieving any success with them, it is also important to understand that unless poor governance, corruption and human rights abuses are addressed side by side, stability in Afghanistan will remain a distant dream. Ultimately, only “the Afghan people can breathe a soul into that army”.
Published in SouthAsia as Futile Efforts, Feb 2012