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Difficult Prospects For Building A Viable Afghan Army

An Afghan soldier keeps watch at a checkpoint in Kandahar.
An Afghan soldier keeps watch at a checkpoint in Kandahar.
In the 1960s, Sher Mohammad Karimi became the first Afghan to graduate from Britain's prestigious Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

Following further military training and education from the top U.S. and European institutions, Karimi's credentials can stand with those of any military professional.

But the biography of the lieutenant-general -- who today heads the operations department at the Afghan Defense Ministry and plays a significant role in the effort to rebuild the Afghan National Army (ANA) -- varies greatly from those of his Western counterparts.

After the 1978 communist coup in Afghanistan, Karimi was arrested and incarcerated because of his Western education. Unlike many of his communist colleagues and the majority of the Afghan officer corps, he had never received training in the Soviet Union.

Karimi was eventually forced into exile in neighboring Pakistan, where he lived until the demise of the Taliban regime in 2001.

"Indeed the national army is progressing well. We now have a National Army and it is being built further. But we all are very impatient and trying to build everything in one day. We cannot build everything overnight," Karimi told RFE/RL.

"We have a very weak economy and we have been at war for the past 30 years, and it still continues,” he said. “We are now moving forward with international help, and over the past eight years we built the military from zero to having 95,000 soldiers now."

General Karimi was responding to recent media reports questioning whether a greater push to train Afghan forces could be a realistic alternative to increasing the number of Western troops fighting to establish security in Afghanistan.

Critics have expressed doubts as to whether Afghan military and security forces can at this stage play a serious role in stabilizing Afghanistan, and in turn help pave the way for an eventual exit strategy for international forces.

Mixed Success

Reports suggesting that 90 percent of Afghan soldiers cannot read or write have added to the skepticism, as have the high number of desertions among Afghan forces reluctant to serve in volatile southern provinces plagued by an increasingly violent Taliban insurgency.

The technical capability of Afghanistan's military is also a negative factor. Afghan units lack sufficient helicopters, tanks, artillery and other critical components to become a self-reliant sustainable force, leaving them to rely heavily on international troops for support during field missions.

Despite such misgivings, the creation of a disciplined Afghan security force is nevertheless considered by many -- including some European allies in the Afghan war effort -- to be the best and most realistic option for the long term.

The United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany have played the lead roles in training, mentoring, and arming the new military.

On September 30, President Barack Obama convened a meeting of his so-called war council made up of key members of the U.S. national security infrastructure, including top diplomats, generals, and national security advisers.

In discussing U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, the White House gathering considered a recent request from the top U.S. and NATO commander for as many as 40,000 additional troops.

The request from General Stanley McChrystal followed a three-month review of the security situation in Afghanistan that concluded that the U.S. mission will end in failure unless more troops are sent.

Aside from fighting, the additional forces would be instrumental in helping develop the Afghan army and police forces, whose envisaged numbers have grown rapidly as the security situation has deteriorated.

In 2001, the Afghan military was conceived to be 70,000 strong. Current plans aim at having a 134,000 strong Afghan army by 2011. Two years beyond that mark, by 2013, the Afghan army is to boast 240,000 personnel and the Afghan police 160,000 – the necessary levels, experts argue, for those forces to be effective.

Modern Afghan Army?

Carol Dysinger, associate professor at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, has made numerous trips to Afghanistan over the past four years to gather material for the upcoming film "Camp Victory: Afghanistan," which documents the effort to train the Afghan military.

Dysinger tells RFE/RL that based on her observations of the relationship between Afghans and their mentors from the U.S. National Guard, she believes that those who doubt the potential of the Afghan military are ignorant of the independent "nature of the man who will staff the Afghan army officer corps," and of the qualities of Afghan soldiers.

The Afghan officers and soldiers Dysinger spoke to told her: “'We need material support, we need the training and the mentoring, and we want to have our own army,'” she said. "As one young man said to me, 'the country is ours, the fight is ours [and] the dust is ours.'"

Afghanistan historically relied heavily on its tribes for protecting its territory and fighting outsiders, and only created a robust military in the early 1970s.

Civilian Afghan communist leaders took advantage of the military's reliance on Soviet training and weapons when coups and counter-coups were launched in late 1970s and 1980s.

The politicization of the military paved the way for its disintegration after Kabul fell in 1992 to anti-Soviet mujahedin guerillas, who were subsequently defeated by the Taliban.

Understanding such dynamics could be critical to understanding the challenges involved in creating the new Afghan military.

Former communist-era Afghan military General Amarullah Aman says that what really matters is the quality of the Afghan forces; their organization, discipline, and morale.

"In our military there is now no [system for] reward and punishment,” Aman said. “We have not seen any officer being punished for desertion or disciplined for being defeated in battle."

Aman relates an often repeated list of concerns, adding that "no officer has been put on trial for selling arms and ammunition. But such incidents continue to happen all the time."

Like many former military officers who stood to return to their positions after the fall of the Taliban, Aman was decommissioned under a UN-sponsored program.

He says that the Afghan military is dominated by cadres from past warring factions who sometimes see the creation of a professional military as going against their personal interests.

Cost Concerns

Apart from the domestic Afghan political complications, Western analysts often highlight the cost of creating a large new Afghan military. They point to the annual revenue that Afghanistan currently generates on its own, which amounts to about $600 million.

The question is whether once completely on its own, the country would be able to sustain a large military and security force whose operating costs could amount to billions annually.

General Karimi disagrees, arguing that building an Afghan army would be cheaper for Western countries than sending more troops. In addition, he says, it would lessen domestic opposition to the Afghan mission within allied countries, where governments face growing public opposition to their involvement as military casualties mount.

Karimi notes, however, that restoring sustainable peace in Afghanistan will require much more than merely building Afghan security forces.

"Since 2003 and 2004 we have been shouting loudly and saying that fighting alone will not bring peace,” Karimi said. “We need to bring about reconstruction for people and rebuild and create a sound administration, so that security measures can move parallel to reconstruction," he says.

"We need to win people's hearts and minds because, as one of our proverb goes, 'You cannot build communities by force,'" he said.
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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.