Perspectives on Pakistan
Afghan forces thrown into the deep end in the race to 2014
It’s been another brutal year of fighting in Afghanistan. While a spike in green-on-blue attacks has justifiably grabbed attention because of the cracks it has exposed within the military coalition, Afghans themselves are paying an increasingly higher price as they get pitchforked into the centre of the battle.
More than 300 Afghan soldiers and policemen are dying each month, Afghanistan’s defence ministry spokesman said earlier this month. He said the deaths had risen largely because local forces had taken over security responsibilities covering 75 percent of the population and were therefore taking higher casualties. Still, losing 10 members of the security forces each day is a worrying statistic. At this rate, Afghan national forces are going to lose nearly twice as many men in a year than the United States has lost since it invaded the country in 2001.
Are they being thrown into battle too early in their training? A Pentagon study released this week found that only one of the Afghan National Army’s (ANA) 23 brigades is able to operate independently without air or other military support from the United States and NATO partners.
There is some progress, though. A little over a year ago just one out of 582 units of the army and police together was judged to be able to operate independently. Now they have advanced to independent operations by a whole brigade, which typically mean 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers.
It’s slow, but it’s not easy even getting here. More than 95 percent of recruits in the army and police are functionally illiterate. A NATO training instructor in Kabul this summer showed me the picture books they were using to help recruits read simple words, write their name and count to a thousand in either Pashto or Dari. She said the mandate was somehow to get the strapping 20-year-olds or even older reading and writing skills of a third-grader in the Afghan system, typically an 8-year-old.
Many in the army were unable to read instructions on how to maintain a vehicle, fill out a form for the issue of equipment, or read a serial number to distinguish their weapon from another – all basic soldiering duties anywhere in the world. The policeman couldn’t read the law he was supposed to enforce.
From such beginnings and an ethnically divided nation to build a modern, all-classes mixed fighting force of 350,000 men, and that too, in the middle of a worsening war is remarkable. While the British took a whole century to build a native army in India beginning from 1757 through a mix of trial and error, the Americans are trying to fashion a new national Afghan army in a mere 11 years, Gautam Das, a former Indian army officer who has helped train Afghan officers of an earlier period, writes in The Small Wars Journal.
Das also points out a key difference in the British and American approaches to constructing the two armies drawn from different religious, ethnic and regional backgrounds. The British adapted the regiment system to the Indian army in which regiments had a fixed class composition, drawn from a particular region or ethnic group. Thus a regiment would consist of companies of Sikh soldiers or Hindu Dogra Rajputs or Muslim “Pathans” and then just so they didn’t pull in different directions these regiments would be mixed up into bigger battalions. Thus an infantry battalion would be built up of different class-based companies cooperating with each other while also keeping an eye on each other.
The American-designed ANA, in contrast, is meant to be an all-classes nationalist force with combat units reflecting Afghanistan’s ethnic mix of Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras. Indeed the ANA itself is supposed to be a unifying force bridging the ethnic divide that has made the country so vulnerable to conflict and civil wars. Quite the opposite of what the British were partly trying to do by fostering a regimental ‘esprit de corps’ and keeping any feelings of ‘Indian-ness” in check.
While the officer corps is still slightly Tajik-heavy, the ANA as a whole is a little over 40 percent Pashtun, nearly a third Tajik followed by the Hazaras, Uzbeks and the other smaller ethnic groups reflecting the broad composition of the country. Its an obvious strength, but it also a potential risk. What if soldiers of one ethnic group refuse to take part in operations for some reason or the other; perhaps they don’t want to go on an operation in a Pashtun-dominated area or there is some other cause for disaffection. Because the men are in every combat unit, rather than disaggregated into separate companies as the British Indian army did – and continues to, in great degree, to this day- it means the operational effectiveness of the whole ANA would be compromised.
So far they have held up, and are, by far, the most respected of the array of security forces that have been set up to defend the Afghan state as foreign forces leave. There are concerns over high desertion rates and the lack of training, which afflict all classes. It must also be hard to build up a spirit of camaraderie overnight between people with a fiercely different sense of their identities, but there haven’t been any reports of infighting within the combat units.