Futile Efforts

Written by Tahera Sajid  •  Features  •  February 2012 PDF Print E-mail

Is the Afghan National Army ready to face its biggest challenge yet? The decade long War on Terror in Afghanistan seems to be coming to a close – or at least scaling down to a limited presence of foreign forces from an active combat to a supportive role by 2014.

“We can help train an army, we can help equip an army, we can help build facilities for the army, but only the Afghan people can breathe a soul into that army.”
Lt Gen. Karl Eikenberry, former US Ambassador to Afghanistan.

Understandably, there is both hope and apprehension from not only the Afghan side but also from neighboring Pakistan. As far as the US concerned, terrorism-related pursuits have resulted in investment of enormous manpower and material resources into the Afghan quagmire. However, a strong and independent Afghanistan is crucial to the security of the region. That requires, amongst other things, a successful transition of responsibility for primary security to the Afghan National Army (ANA).

Afghanistan has a long history of interruptions in its political process due to tribal rivalries and violence, external invasion and occupation and the existence of tribal militias. The country’s history of resistance against foreign invaders and internal insurgencies rides simultaneously with crippling issues of gender discrimination and illiteracy. Only 28% of Afghans can read and write (UNICEF, 2008).  Ranked 174/178 on the global Human Development Index, the country issues severe signs of warning. Furthermore, Afghanistan’s status as a leader in illegal opium production supporting 90% of global production (UNDP, 2007) paints a bleak picture for the country’s already uncertain future.

In 2002, realizing that strengthening ANA was crucial to ushering stability in Afghanistan, US and NATO forces began training and organizing the ANA. Having achieved some major objectives of the War on Terror (WoT) and with an exit strategy scheduled for 2014, building the ANA’s capacity has assumed more importance. Over the years, NATO and US trainers have faced numerous challenges due to post-Soviet era chaos and the violence and insurgency resulting from the WoT. The challenges have intensified due to working with non-existent infrastructure, navigating traditional ethnic rivalries, addressing crippling levels of illiteracy, battling widespread drug abuse and cooperating with an ineffective central government.

Clearly, no quick solution is possible. A report titled, “It’s Starting to Look a Lot Like an Army,” published in the LA Times, quotes Colonel Leppert talking about the difficulty of the job, “We are building an airplane while the airplane is flying.” While praising the hard work of the Afghan troops, the report described how the “Afghan commanders and soldiers complain of poor pay, faulty weapons, ammunition shortages and lack of protective gear. US trainers, while praising Afghan soldiers for their bravery, complain of slovenly appearance, lack of discipline, petty theft, mistreated equipment and infiltration of the army by Taliban spies or soldiers who sell information.” Several incidents have surfaced over the years where infiltrators were caught trying to gain access to information or officers were caught for arms trafficking. The ANP has been implicated in the massacre of civilians (Matthieu Aikins, The Atlantic), and the Afghan Local Police has been accused for killing, rape, abductions and illegal raids (Human Rights Watch, Sept 2011). Incidents such as these make the job of preparing an effective and respected army even harder.

Despite the challenges and the dwindling overall perception of security, ANA is viewed positively by the general population. An Asia Foundation (2006) opinion poll reveals that 87% of Afghans still support the ANA because they see it as an alternative to other more corrupt government forces. NATO trainers applaud small successes of ANA and find it satisfying that ANA is now somewhat prepared to play a significant role in actively participating in, and sometimes leading, military operations. Collaborating with the Afghan forces allows them to increase contact with the local population while they conduct combat operations against insurgents.

The importance of forming a relationship based on trust with the local population cannot be ignored as the exit for foreign troops draws near. Liaisons are required for those who plan to remain behind in supportive roles for another decade. Over the years, the supportive and leading role of ANA has been tested with combat and small scale search or clearance operations. These small successes however, do not predict a strong ANA in the near future. It is certainly going to be a long haul.

In the post NATO/US Afghanistan, ANA’s active participation will hold significant importance for Pakistan which needs stability in its neighboring country to be able to send millions of Afghan refugees and insurgents back to their home country. With its own economic challenges growing bigger by the day, Pakistan is ill equipped to support refugees it admitted on humanitarian grounds first following the Soviet war of the 80s and later amid insurgency and violence following the WoT. The fallout from the WoT has crippled Pakistan’s security as well, despite international support and extensive internal efforts. Pakistan’s geo-strategic location offers economic dividends that it has not been able to utilize due to security concerns. Stability in Afghanistan will also keep a check on opium production flowing in to Pakistan and destroying the youth of the country.

ANA’s work in Afghanistan is not going to be easy after most of the coalition forces leave in 2014. If NATO and US make their exit without ensuring that the ANA is well equipped and trained enough to exert a positive influence over the war-weary and traumatized population, the rewards reaped from their work so far might be lost entirely and the country might slip back into chaos as militias become more organized. While addressing ANA’s internal issues is extremely important to achieving any success,  it is also important to understand that unless poor governance, corruption and human rights abuses are addressed side by side, stability in Afghanistan will remain a distant dream. Ultimately, only “the Afghan people can breathe a soul into that army.”  

Tahera Sajid is a freelance journalist and lives in Massachusetts, USA.  She is a community builder and an active advocate for interfaith relations. 

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