Leadership: The Impossible Dream In Afghanistan


October 7, 2009: Showing the Afghan security forces how to better handle basic skills like patrolling and combat tactics is being wasted because of corruption and incompetence among the military leadership. The Afghans have some of the same problems as the Iraqis, namely tribalism and a weak sense of nationalism. With four major ethnic groups (Pushtun, Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara), and dozens of powerful tribal organizations, it’s been difficult to get Afghan recruits who are willing to serve in the national interest. Ethnic and tribal loyalties are always stronger.

But European colonizers proved in the 19th century that, with good training and good NCOs and officers, you can produce combat and police units from tribal warriors that can match Western ones in effectiveness. The key problem is getting effective NCOs and officers. It’s the sergeants that supervise the troops, and keep order in the barracks, and the officers who insure that everyone is getting effective orders. Professional officers and NCOs have long been the secret to success in Western armies. But in Afghanistan, the scarcity of education, or even literacy (less than a third of the population can read), has made it difficult to find men capable of being trained for leadership positions. And many of those who are, on paper, qualified, are too prone to corruption (stealing and taking bribes.) It's not that there are not any Afghans capable of being capable and honest officers and NCOs, it's just that there aren't enough of them to run a force 80,000 police, or an army of over 100,000. 

In fact, Afghanistan has never had nothing even remotely resembling a capable, structured, loyal army. Worse, the legacy of corruption and inefficiency in the army is far worse than in Iraq. During the 1980s, when the Soviets occupied Afghanistan, there was a standing Afghan government army, but it was rampant with corruption, incompetence, desertions, and thousands of conscripts and officers who were either sympathetic to, or active members of, the anti-Communist guerrillas. The Soviets, justifiably so, regarded the Afghan forces as worthless in combat, forcing Russians to do almost all of the heavy fighting themselves. In the 1990s, civil war prevented the formation of anything like a national army, since there was no national government. All of this has been going on continuously for almost 30 years. Throw in the ever-present heroin trade, and you have a major challenge creating a professional ground force, to say nothing of a national police force.

To a certain degree, none of these problems, like corruption and incompetence, are new to the Middle East or Central Asia. The difference between places like Egypt and Afghanistan is that, despite corruption and favoritism, sometimes rampant, the Egyptian military is able to defend the country and operate as a respectable, capable force that can fight. Men obey their orders and, most of the time, know how to do their jobs. Unfortunately, in places like Afghanistan, these problems are so pervasive that in the past they have traditionally paralyzed the ability of the military to fight and win any kind of battle.   

One of the major obstacles NATO is trying to overcome is helping the Afghans create NCOs and junior officers. But this takes years, and there's no way to fast-track it. Well, actually there is, but that involves an old technique that is no longer politically correct. That involves assigning NATO officers and NCOs to Afghan units (along with translators) to run things until reliable Afghan NCOs and officers can be found and trained. That takes years.

Meanwhile NCOs must be slowly developed, by selecting recruits who have leadership and management skills, and training them, on the job, over several years. It takes 3-5 years to get a suitable recruit to the point where he can handle the job of the lowest level sergeant (in charge of 10-12 troops or policemen.) Another 3-5 years gets you an NCO that can handle a platoon (3-4 squads, which is usually led by a lieutenant, who depends on the platoon sergeant a lot.) Another five years gets you a company 1st sergeant. This NCO assists the officer commanding the company, and supervises the other twenty or so NCOs in the company. While developing these NCOs, you select the best of them to train as officers. It takes a few months of training, and a few years of service, to get a reliable lieutenant. It takes a year or two, if these guys are constantly in action, before promotion to each additional rank (captain, major, lieutenant colonel.)

This applies to soldiers as well as police. That's because the Afghan police mostly operate in rural areas, where they function as a paramilitary force, They sometimes have to deal with large groups of several dozen armed tribesmen. If negotiation fails, the police are frequently forced to fight battles. The American advisory teams are there to show, by example, how experienced NCOs operate, and how trained troops are more effective when supervised by a good NCO and led by reliable officers.

Western nations have, in major wars, had to develop NCOs a lot more quickly. This was the case in the two World Wars, and as recently as the Vietnam war. When you are conscripting a lot of troops and creating many new units, the number of experienced soldiers is spread pretty thin. So you get “shake and bake” NCOs. These are young men (and some women) who have the leadership and management skills who are first selected (using tests and their performance in basic training), and then given some training on what NCOs do and how they do it. During World War II, there were many platoon and 1st sergeants in their 20s who did quite well, after on 2-3 years in service. The advantage you had in this situation was lots of live examples of effective NCOs for the new guys to emulate. But here you were drawing people from an educated population, and didn't have to worry about tribal loyalties or corruption.

On the plus side, in Afghanistan, you had a lot of men who have been fighting for over two decades. Lots of good NCO material. But the concept of the Western NCO (a professional supervisor who is respected and well paid) is largely unknown in Afghanistan. The old Afghan army was based largely on the Soviet model, which treated most NCOs as “senior privates” and left most of the supervisory duties to officers. Most of the Afghan men with combat experience, however, were not in the army, but in tribal war parties (usually squad or platoon size). Here, many of them they gained good NCO type experience at the squad and platoon sergeant level. These men have been found and given some training for squad and platoon sergeant positions. Those that are at the platoon sergeant level, and are also literate, are being used as 1st sergeants (who have to handle some paperwork).

Another advantage the Afghans have over the Iraqis is a warrior mentality. It’s easier to make the Afghans understand that for an army to work, troops must learn how to use their weapons (and take good care of them), and stand and fight. While Iraq has produced some good soldiers, most Iraqis want nothing to do with fighting. However, with good training and NCOs, just about anyone can be turned into an effective soldier. But you need competent NCOs to create more competent NCOs. The police have a lot of inexperienced leadership. These men are more prone to corruption, as well as incompetence. The experienced paratrooper teams are going to find out how much they can change that in a year, especially for the police, but also for the army.

American and NATO commanders have come to accept that most of the Afghan police and soldiers they have recruited and trained are useless (especially the police) because of the illiteracy, tribalism and corruption. The new goal is to turn out fewer, but higher quality troops and police. This is more of a problem with the police, who have a much more complex job than the army. The police must deal with civilians, and tribal leaders, at lot. This often involves legal disputes, and the Afghan judicial system is not in very good shape either. Just getting the cops to be less corrupt and exploitative, would be a big step forward. But the concept of an "honest cop" is somewhat alien to most Afghans, as is the concept of police in general.

Another problem is cost. The current army costs about $8 billion a year, which is entirely paid for by NATO countries. That's because the Afghan GDP is less than $15 billion a year. Afghanistan is the poorest country in Eurasia, it is only rich in weapons and violence. And heroin. Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of heroin, which is the largest business in the country. But the main purpose of foreign aid in Afghanistan is to build a larger economy. That's not going to happen as long as the drug gangs, and their Taliban allies, are in business. While building a stronger economy will make the country less violent, the drug gangs and the Taliban are against economic growth. This sort of thing is the major reason why the situation in Afghanistan is described as "difficult and complex." It sure is.




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