August 13, 2009:
The Afghan Army has 93,000 troops. They added 26,000 last year, and are on their way to adding 28,000 this year. They have 82 infantry battalions operational, with another fifty being put together. Only 28 of those battalions are trained to the point where they can be sent out on their own. Another 32 can operate together with a more capable unit, while the remaining battalions have to be closely supervised in a combat zone. The elite of this force are seven commando battalions, trained by U.S. Army Special Forces, and able to work with foreign commandos on complex operations. American and NATO military trainers are working hard, as they have been since 2002, to develop Afghans who can lead and supervise combat troops. Most Afghans make great warriors, but they grew up with that. A modern army is a more complex, and lethal, beast. Turning warriors into soldiers is difficult.
Coalition forces continue to face massive challenges in creating a modern, dependable, and 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 struggling 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 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 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 create NCOs and junior officers. 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. 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. Meanwhile, the foreign trainers must also cope with the fact that most military age Afghans are illiterate. Thus there is a literacy program for soldiers, especially those who seem willing to stay. 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.
Current plans call for expanding the army to 134,000. This is much more than Afghanistan can afford. Even a force of 50,000 soldiers would be more than the country can afford from taxation. Afghans army is dependent on foreign aid to pay and equip the troops. Historically, the Afghan army was the kings 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.