Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

How the West Contributed to the ANSF’s Dire State

Thomas Ruttig 4 min

The Independent on Sunday came out today with an article highlighting the dire state of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The article’s headline is self-explanatory: ‘After 10 years, no security unit is fit to take over from coalition in Afghanistan’. Indeed, there are grave concerns whether the ANSF can fully take over by 2014 as foreseen in the NATO’s transition strategy. But, as so often, the West’s own contributions to the ANSF weakness are not sufficiently scrutinised in the article. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig has a few additional thoughts about that side of the coin.

The Independent’s article (read ithere) is based on the ‘latest progress report on Afghanistan from the US Department of Defense’. Additionally, a number of experts are quoted – from the ICG’s Candace Rondeaux to CSIS’s Anthony Cordesman – who raise a number of important points like ethnic and tribal factionalism and weak civilian oversight; growing problems in maintaining loyalty, morale and troop cohesion; corruption; seriously delayed investment into the ANSF. Also this author contributed saying as follows: ‘The Western-led ANSF build-up is rather quantitative than qualitative, with no guarantee of sustainability. Who will pay for all these soldiers, police and militiamen when Western financial inputs decrease after 2014?’

But there is one side of the problem that has not been tackled: the West’s contribution to the ANSF’s current weaknesses. There were some contributions that need to be pointed to.

First, security sector reform did not prevent the incorporation of whole unchanged militia formations, mainly into the police (not so much into the army). This had happened in two phases: First, there was a take-over of key positions (governors, provincial and district police chiefs) in many provinces by US troops’ Afghan allies in the 2001 anti-Taleban fight, i.e. former Northern Alliance and other militias. Some commanders just returned to positions they held between 1992 and 1996 after they had kicked out the Taleban again. (The recently murdered Gen. Daud, then in Kunduz, was one example.) The central government only was able to rubber-stamp these self-appointments.

In a second wave, these top-rank commanders incorporated their sub-commanders and their fighters into the security forces. Rank and pay reform and the decrease of the number of generals (there were ‘more chieftains than Indians’) did not much to prevent this from happening. This resulted in a ‘privatisation’ of the ANP: For years, ANP commanders – when shifted from one position to another one – took along ‘their’ men, ‘their’ weapons, office equipment and cars. This has never been fundamentally changed because – amongst other reasons – Afghan appointment politics is mainly determined by factional arithmetic rather than merit-based.

Furthermore, building up legitimate ANSF loyal to the Afghan government is continuing to be marred by parallel processes, like the formation of ever more acromymed militias, the latest of which is the ALP. This further circumvents and undermines – rather than concentrates on – effective institution building for the post-2014 time.

Secondly, the ANA has been reshaped in the image of the US forces, from its recruitment principles to armament. The latter was partly driven by economic interests: Russian weapons used by the Afghan forces so far were to be replaced by US-made arms and equipment. That did not take into account that the less high-tech and low-maintenance Russian weapons probably fit better with the Afghan environment.

Regarding recruitment, what have been conscripted forces for decades (this included the police) was turned into a ‘professional army’ by US advisors. This happened against the expressed opinion of the President and the Defence Minister who – as most Afghans do – traditionally see their security forces as a ‘school of unity’ for the nation, mixing people from different geographical and ethnic backgrounds into the same units* – another shining example what all the talk about ‘Afghan-led’ processes are worth. Now, the only ‘incentive’ is the salary, and there is a widespread tendency that people who join the police or the army drop out again when they find out that their pay is not really what they expected and that the risk to be killed is too high. (The school-of-the-nation idea has already been undermined by the Soviet-sponsored PDPA regime that had created ethnicity-based units for the first time in the mid-1980s, in particular for the Hazaras**.)

This, in turn, influences motivation. As Yama Torabi from Integrity Watch, one of the few Afghans interviewed for the Independent article, points when asking: ‘How many Afghan generals, lieutenants, and officers have you seen falling in battles over the past 10 years? We lose soldiers but not officers. What would motivate those soldiers to defend a territory against the Taliban?’

Apart from that, I am not sure whether there really is no single Afghan unit capable of fighting on their own. To me, that very much looks like Western arrogance. First, NATO standards, like in planning etc, definitely cannot be applied. Afghan forces also do not have their own air support. Over-advising and over-mentoring might be another factor, taking away initiative and responsibility from Afghans. (The Soviets knew a lot about this.) Left alone, maybe, Afghan officers and soldiers would fight much better. They know the terrain (human and geographical) much better than their Western allies and I am not sure whether this has ever been used sufficiently. And after all, the Western forces have also not been overly successful against the insurgents either.

(*) In everyday life, Afghans often still call the policemen ‘soldiers’, a reminiscence to the days when conscripts were drawn and then divided between the army and the police (then called tsarenduy). Meanwhile, a new conscription law for the ANA has been prepared by the Wolesi Jirga Defence committee and signed and approved by fifty MPs, a strong sign of support to the return to the status quo ante, at least with the army.

(**) On the other hand, the Hazaras – also ‘traditionally’ – had been kept out from high-ranking state and armed forces positions since the kings’ times. In that sense, it was partly also an act of emancipation.