Want to Fix the Afghan Army? Take a Lesson From Some Dead Germans.
Currently, a lack of effective leadership of Afghan National Army (ANA) units is cited by the US, NATO, and the Government of Afghanistan (GIROA) as a critical weakness of the Afghan National Defense Forces (ANDSF), and threatens to derail President Ghani’s “Four-Year Roadmap” to create a secure and stable Afghanistan. Corruption, tribalism, and nepotism are rife within the leadership of the ANA and many of its aging generals seem mired in the Soviet doctrine that they were taught as young officers.
Ghani, under the advice of the Commander of Resolute Support, General John Nicholson, is determined to improve the level of leadership within the ANA by sacking or forcing into retirement large numbers of general officers. The intent of these moves is to make space in the upper echelons of command to allow younger officers to move into positions of influence where their superior education and more modern outlook will improve the effectiveness of the formations they lead.
The problem with this approach is that the removal of senior Afghan officers creates several unintended consequences. Forcibly retiring a generation of officers that hold their position due to political considerations weakens the National Unity Government (NUG), and makes enemies out of not only the affected generals, but also their political and tribal allies who support them. The lack of job security within the ANA may also contribute to the scourge of corruption as Afghan officers at various levels seek to monetize their position before it is too late. Resources skimmed from their current position serve as a source of security against an uncertain future.
The conflict between a need to maintain domestic political support for the government while also modernizing military leadership is not unique to Afghanistan, and other states have managed this effort with varying levels of success. The example of the Prussian general staff system during the period of German unification in the 19th century is a particularly successful model that may be appropriate for the challenges currently faced by Afghanistan. The concept of pairing younger educated officers from the general staff with older political power-brokers could improve the leadership of the ANA without alienating power-brokers from the GIROA.
Germany (19th Century) and Afghanistan (21st Century) Have a Lot in Common (No, Really)
It would be easy to overlook the parallels between modern Afghanistan and Germany in the 19th century. The modern perception of Germans as ordered, disciplined and homogenous is in many ways the result of a cultural revolution led by the Prussian general staff in the mid-19th Century.
Prior to the unification of Germany in 1871, what we now know as Germany was a patchwork of kingdoms, principalities, and independent cities with their own ethnic, linguistic, and historical traditions that fought for survival or dominance against their rivals. Like in Afghanistan, alliances were fluid as independent factions allied with neighboring powers (France, Austria, Sweden, and later Prussia) which sparred with each other for the expansion of their spheres of influence. Religious differences between Roman Catholics and various Protestant denominations added another layer of complexity to the shifting and often violent politics of pre-unification Germany, much as the Sunni-Shia conflict has affected Afghanistan. While Afghanistan experienced over twenty years of destructive civil war, Germany experienced hundreds of years of disunity and a level of brutality in warfare—such as during the Thirty-Years war—comparable to the horrors experienced by Afghans.
The comparison of the two carries on to the current situation in Afghanistan and the unification period of Germany in the second half of the 19th century. As Prussia worked to unify the German states under the leadership of Prussian Foreign Minister Otto von Bismarck, it had to appease traditional leaders from other German states such as Wurtemburg and Bavaria, as well as Junkers who were the power behind the Prussian King. During warfare, command positions were doled out to nobles to maintain the political coalition between different factions.
The armies produced by this political process had significant problems, as was highlighted in the beginning of the 19th century by the humiliating defeat of Prussia and its allies by Napoleon in 1806, and later by leadership problems displayed during the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian wars in 1866 and 1870. The German nobility benefited from a fearsome warrior-culture, but proved unable to adapt to modern warfare. A younger generation of German officers—highly educated and selected on merit—were capable and understood the needs of the modern battlefield. However, placing them in command positions would mean disempowering the nobility who were the political basis of German unification.
The Prussian Solution
The Prussians solved this issue by pairing energetic young officers as the deputies of the old nobility. Under the leadership of Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, the Prussian military created a corps of officers trained to work on the general staff, and then assigned them to down to tactical headquarters. Many authorities were given to general staff officers assigned to units, somewhat diminishing the scope of the traditional commanders. However, they were also taught to be subordinate and helpful to their commander. In return for sharing power with a young technocratic prodigy of von Moltke, the commander would be freed from having to worry about the tedious details of staff work and planning.
These general staff officers were taught to be dedicated to the success of their commander, but also fostered communication across the army through the network of general staff officers, and provided a way for the general staff at the national level to monitor the performance of its formations. The most famous example of the success of this system was the partnership of Hindenburg (an esteemed elder member of the nobility) and Ludendorf (a brilliant, yet hot-headed general staff officer). The victory of this pair in the Tannenberg campaign, and their contributions throughout the rest of the First World War, made them German national heroes and cultural icons that represented the merging of the traditional with the modern.
Could Afghanistan Take a Page From Some Dead Germans?
The current state of leadership in the ANA is abysmal, and the national leadership is attempting to address this problem by removing army leaders. Unfortunately, there are unintended consequences of removing these leaders. These firings alienate factions of the government’s power base, and weakens support for the current NUG. Providing highly capable officers to serve as deputies to the older commanders would certainly improve the capabilities of the ANA. Great care would have to be taken to ease the introduction of these “helpers” to prideful senior officers, but this should not be beyond the realm of what leadership from the national level (with allied advising) can accomplish.
The hardest challenge in carrying out this approach would be the selection and education of the general staff officers themselves. While the ANA does have a general staff, what they lack is the educational output of the Prussian military “aufklaren” that occurred after the Prussian disaster in 1806. The Afghans lack personalities such as Scharnhörst, Gneissau, Clausewitz, and Moltke who built a corps of effective disciples that were able to steer the tradition-bound and heterogeneous German forces into modernity.
The Afghans do not have the luxury to build this kind of institution over the course of a generation, because they are dealing with an insurgency and they need this capability now. They may not have a corps of pioneering young officers ready at hand, but there are already a handful of young officers (many of them trained in the United States) with the acumen to accomplish this mission. A careful selection of candidates with some training on the role expected of them could provide the Afghan force with some level of this capability. Ideally, at the corps level this would be the deputy commanding general or the chief of staff (both carry a rank of brigadier general in the Afghan system). If this is not possible, then moving down one position to the corps office chief position (a colonel) could still improve staff coordination, but would not carry the level of authority needed to make a significant difference in the combat performance of the corps.
Wherever this officer is placed, his relationship with the commander will be critical to the success of this system. Selected officers should be personally mentored by Resolute Support advisors, and it would be helpful if they would study the historical example of the German general staff officers. The directive given by von Schlieffen to his general staff officers would be a recipe for the success of Afghan officers placed in this position: “Work relentlessly. Accomplish much. Remain in the background. Be more than you seem.”
Even if the officers available to assist plodding and ineffective corps and division commanders are not to the level of a Ludendorf, at least they would provide some level of improved leadership for the formations under them. Additionally, they would provide a channel for information and concerns directly from the tactical units to the general staff itself. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the current political state in Afghanistan, using this system would provide a way to improve leadership competency in the force without alienating political actors within an already tenuous National Unity Government.
The stability of the Afghan government, and the success of the international mission in Afghanistan is tied directly to the effectiveness of the ANA. Efforts to this point to improve the leadership ability of Afghan commanders have seen little progress. The current drive to improve the Afghan special operations forces and air force reflects this lack of progress, and is necessitated by the failure of ANA conventional forces to make progress against the enemy. The ANA has received massive amounts of military materiel and funding—certainly more than their opponents—but their capacity sits dormant because of incompetent leadership. Expanding the Afghan special operations and air capabilities should certainly help the overall effectiveness of the GIROA fight against insurgency, but these gains would pale in comparison to what could be accomplished by the ANA under competent leadership.