Forces: The Afghan Army And The Missing Sergeants

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July 9, 2009: Coalition forces continue to face massive challenges in creating a modern, dependable, loyal Afghan army. It's also becoming evident, and frustrating, that the magnitude of the task is greater than it was in Iraq. That's because Afghanistan and Iraq have different military traditions and histories that have made it easier to build stable security forces in Iraq. While the Iraqis are beginning to consistently operate on their own and even to master some of the more complicated tasks of warfare, like air assault operations, coalition forces are still grappling to introduce some basic modern concepts to the Afghan National Army (ANA), after seven years of effort.  

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 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 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 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 drug smuggling, 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 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 Azerbaijan, 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 institute a new rank structure. The British are the primary brains behind this mentoring and structuring process, since the British Army is famous for its encouragement of junior leaders and rigid rank structures. The British are providing a six-week Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) course to ANA soldiers in order to better outline what their responsibilities and powers are within their given ranks. The ANA soldiers 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 are running into, and trying desperately to fix, 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. Some 79,000 troops have been recruited so far for the ANA with the end goal being a standing strength of 122,000. Unfortunately, if a well-defined rank structured cannot be implemented, those thousands of troops will be without the essential ingredient of effective leadership. 

 


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