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Afghanistan Considers Conscript Army, To Mixed Reviews

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has announced he is considering replacing Afghanistan's volunteer army with one with manned by conscripts.
Allah Nazar Akhtar entered the military as a boy and left as a man, serving in the military for 27 years and reaching the rank of general before the onset of civil war in the 1990s led to the dissolution of Afghanistan's army.

Today, President Hamid Karzai is looking for more than a few young men, and is looking at the conscript army in which the 60-year-old general cut his teeth as the model for the future.

"For many years, I have been visited by Afghan community leaders who advise me to go back to some form of conscription for the Afghan Army," Karzai said in the German city of Munich on February 7. "So the young boys from the Afghan countryside can, like before, come to training centers, get acquainted with the rest of the country, get familiarized with other young men around the country, and learn something and go back home."

Karzai announced his administration's intentions to return to a conscript military, whose demise came with the collapse of the central government in 1992, while speaking to a select group of world leaders and officials at the Munich Security Conference.

Karzai said that bringing back the draft is "philosophically one of our pursuits ahead" as the country tries to show it can stand on its own feet. If Kabul's own military and police forces -- whose combined ranks are projected to swell to 300,000 by the end of next year -- are to take over security responsibilities, major changes would appear to be in order. And conscription could go a long way toward overhauling the current 90,000-strong volunteer army, which depends almost entirely on the international community for funding, training, and equipment.

Former Afghan military officers have mixed views about the suggestion of reinstating conscription, which previously entailed every able-bodied youth serving for two years. Some consider it a step forward in building a viable Afghan Army -- a force that Kabul could eventually sustain and manage even after international assistance dries up. Others point to the weaknesses of the current government and suggest that implementing the conscription model would be neither prudent nor practical.

'Very Good Idea'

Despite efforts to diversify, the military remains dominated by young men with ties to former mujahedin factions. General Akhtar, who once headed the Afghan border security forces, tells RFE/RL that a drafted army could help remedy this by drawing on a larger pool of recruits.

"Conscription is a very good idea because it can contribute to strengthening national unity," he says. "When [ethnic] Uzbek, Hazara, Turkmen, and Tajik soldiers live and eat together, they know that they are all working for the common goal [of defending their homeland]."

Akhtar, however, says a draft will only work now if the recruits are offered adequate financial compensation, because Kabul still does not control all Afghan territory and without sufficient incentives fewer youths are likely to answer the call for national service.

Few former Afghan security officers think it's that simple.

General Abdul Wahid Taqat, a former communist-era Afghan intelligence official, tells RFE/RL that young men can only be attracted to serve in the military if they have faith in the political system and its leaders. Taqat says that years of warfare, combined with the current volunteer army's heavy reliance on soldiers and officers with ties to the anti-Soviet mujahedin, undermine the military-patriotic culture the country is trying to establish.

"The soldiers won't join voluntarily now," he says. "If they are forced to serve in the military it would create a major tragedy because they would not be serving to fulfill their patriotic duty. They will ask, 'Why am I fighting? For whom am I being killed? And whose interests am I protecting and serving?' "

Taqat suggests that Afghanistan's leaders must focus on strengthening the leadership core of their professional force. And he suggests the best way would be to recall communist-era officers, who can start performing their duties with little training.

Difficult To Motivate

Former Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali offers a similar prognosis. He tells RFE/RL that the viability and sustainability of Afghanistan's government and its control over its territory are the basic prerequisites for a conscript military to work there.

"When they see that the government is not working very well, and it is not protecting the population, and it is not doing much to fight the impunity and the corruption, I think it is very difficult for people to be motivated to serve that country unless they are forced to do so," he says.

"And forced conscription has never worked in Afghanistan. When the government does not have control over its territory, it is very difficult to motivate people to come and join the government and fight for the government. And people are on the fence in many parts of the country [today], particularly in the south."

Jalali, who served in the Afghan military for 20 years before switching over to the anti-Soviet mujahedin guerillas after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, doesn't discount that a return to a conscript army is in the country's future, however. He says it could prove to be a good change for Kabul, saying "it will reintegrate the population into one nation" while serving as a "school for civic education" for people from disparate regions and backgrounds.

Jalali, a professor at the Near East South Asia Center of Washington's National Defense University, also suggests that a draft army could attract better talent and help forge a factionalized force into a national one. But Kabul has a lot to do before it can reach that stage, he warns.

"The bottom line is the government should win the trust of the people to have an army that can fight for that government," he says. "And any army that is created to support a government which does have this response of the people is not going to work."
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.