After a decade of trial and error, U.S. and NATO trainers have succeeded at introducing successful reforms to the Afghan National Army (ANA). Many innovative concepts had been tried, but most failed to motivate Afghans to become first rate soldiers. Several efforts worked very well. First, the pay of soldiers has been more than doubled, to make it competitive with what the drug gangs and the Taliban pay. Experienced trainers have long been calling for pay to be kept competitive with what the enemy offers. That's because it's an Afghan tradition for young men to follow leaders who can provide for them. Often these are traditional tribal leaders, but anyone who has the cash can attract an armed following this way. That's how the drug gangs and the Taliban operate. These pay increases began showing up two years ago, and when, in the last year, drug gang losses cut income for the Taliban, the army actually became the first choice of young men looking for a good paying job. Plus, the army has benefits (like some medical care) that actually work.
The second change was even more innovative. Recruits undergoing training must now learn how to read and write, before they can undergo weapons training. Only about a third of the Afghan Army recruits are literate. The illiterate ones felt that handling a gun was more important than learning how to read. The new policy provided some attitude adjustment, along with an incentive to become literate, or at least literate enough to be effective soldiers. The U.S. developed a special literacy course for Afghan troops, which could be completed quickly. All these literacy efforts sometimes backfire, and increase the desertion rate by causing newly literate Afghans to take better paying civilian jobs. But those recruits who stay will be better qualified to complete, and use, their training.
Added to the higher pay and literacy was the introduction of a banking, using cell phones, system for the troops. This approach requires some basic literacy, and thus provides another incentive for recruits to be, if not literate, a little less illiterate. This makes them more effective soldiers, better able to communicate with each other and their superiors, as well as quicker to learn new skills.
The army has been more effective. Afghan troops are doing more fighting (suffering 50 percent more dead last year, than foreign troops). Currently, the Afghan Army has about the same number of troops as the foreign forces. Afghan troops are also causing fewer civilian casualties. Recent opinion polls among Afghans have 70 percent of them grading the Afghan Army as "capable," compared to 59 percent last year. NATO advisors now rate about 70 percent of Afghan infantry battalions as combat ready, nearly double the rate of a few years ago.
Still, it will be years before Afghanistan has an army and national police force as effective as, say, Iraq. The Iraqi Army and security forces under Saddam Hussein, although corrupt and abusive, were far more stable and loyal to the government than any Afghan military force ever. Saddam's continued existence relied on it. Despite their dismal performance during Desert Storm, the Iraqi Army had previously successfully fought an eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s, purchased high-tech gear from the Soviet Union, and had still managed to retain some semblance of an effective standing army, even after their disastrous ejection from Kuwait in 1991. The Iraqi Army had a well-defined, albeit Soviet-style, structure, and clearly defined branches of service. All of this has made it possible, despite major problems, for the U.S. to build up the new, and more effective, security forces in Iraq.
Afghanistan, on the other hand, has had nothing even remotely resembling a capable, structured, loyal army, and 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, generally regarded the Afghan forces as worthless in combat, forcing Russians to do almost all of the 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, the 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 and Somalia, 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. No army can be effective without competent and reliable sergeants. The British created a six-week Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) course in order to better outline what their responsibilities and powers are within their given ranks. These NCO candidates receive the usual curriculum of weapons training and small-unit tactics, but the main emphasis in the course is on leadership skills and battlefield decision-making. The idea is to train the Afghan sergeants to take over their units if their officers are killed or otherwise taken out in combat. The problem that the Brits ran into, and have had a hard time fixing, is that the Afghan Army has little to no rank structure after the level of private. There is no separation of junior and senior sergeants and thus a confusing or absent chain of command.
The British advisors are hurriedly trying to fix the situation and emphasize the importance of the NCO. Officers are often simply the best NCOs, who have been promoted to a junior officer rank. This depletes the supply of good sergeants, and the new officers needed specialized training as well. NATO has set up officer training schools, and is sending higher ranking officers to military schools in the West.
Desertion is still a big problem, even with a national unemployment rate of nearly 50 percent. Afghans don't like to live away from their families and tribes. Some think they can, and find they can't. Even with better screening of recruits, and more generous home leave, the annual desertion rate is still over ten percent.
Two years ago, the army had 97,000 troops, but that has now been expanded to 150,000. The police went from 94,000 to 160,000. This is much more than Afghanistan can afford. Even a force of 50,000 soldiers would be more than the country can pay for from taxing their own puny economy. The current Afghan army is dependent on foreign aid to pay and equip the troops. Historically, the Afghan army was the small king's bodyguard, with national defense taken care of by an appeal to the tribes, to provide militias. That sort of works. But the fact that there's nothing worth conquering in Afghanistan is what really keeps foreign troops out.
Whatever happens, the experience with thousands of foreign military trainers over the last seven years has left Afghanistan with an even larger number of men trained in the techniques of modern warfare. These Afghans know what a sergeant and an officer is, and is supposed to do. They know something of modern infantry tactics, and logistics. As a result, the might of foreign armies is no longer as much of a mystery. There is still a lot of traditional corruption and nepotism in the military and police. But there is also progress, something rarely seen in this part of the world.