The conflict between a need to maintain domestic political support for the government while also modernizing military leadership is not unique to Afghanistan.
Success in drawing down our combat forces in Afghanistan by 2014 supposedly depends on training the Afghan National Army (ANA) to assume responsibility for the country’s security. Hence the recent shift from COIN to SFA (Security Force Assistance). Even granting that our training efforts have expanded relatively recently, we have still been at this for 10 years. Why is the ANA unable to prevail over a batch of insurgents of similar cultural and economic background wearing flip-flops and toting AK-47’s? It is, of course, always easier to be an insurgent since they have the initiative in attacking. But still, it seems hard to believe that the ANA are so much less capable than the insurgents and so much more in need of training.
Are the Opposing Fighting Forces Inherently Different?
The various insurgent factions (we tend to lump them all under the Taliban brand, although only some are connected with the Quetta Shura Taliban) seem to be a rag tag bunch. That is, they are Afghans. They are minimally equipped, depend on the local population for food and shelter, and do not shoot much more accurately than the ANA. Yes, they have R&R and training facilities just across the border in Pakistan, but how sophisticated are these? Do they compare with the sort of training that British and U.S. forces offer? The financial and logistical support from Pakistan may maintain the conflict at a simmer, but does not explain why the ANA would be less capable as a fighting force.
The ANA Model
One problem is the model we have been trying to instill. The ANA is modeled on a Western army, carrying lots of equipment (even our bottled water), using M-16s that are harder to maintain than AK-47s, and requiring a complex supply/logistics/air asset/medevac support capability that the Afghans have no realistic chance of sustaining. The ANA are also being trained to plan in Western terms. It was once suggested that they be trained in the six steps of Marine Corps planning and in war-gaming. These conceptual tools seem unlikely to have much cultural resonance for the Afghans. (Afghan mission planning is reputed to consist of “We’re here; the enemy are over there. Let’s go.”) The Western training model with its reliance on written materials is also not well suited for a largely non-literate society. A fourth grade reading level is required for some Kabul-based training, and very few soldiers in the south qualify to attend. Soldiers are recruited and assigned nationwide, which means a burdensome human resource function as well as a lot of homesick or AWOL soldiers. If success in countering the insurgents depends on the ANA becoming a Western-style fighting force, we are looking at committing the projected $4.1 billion per year plus technical assistance for the indefinite future—an order of magnitude more than the insurgents are collectively spending. We would be better advised to focus on developing low-budget sustainable capability for a non-literate fighting force.
Do the Two Sides Care Equally?
The more fundamental issue may be motivation. Both ANA and Taliban come from the culture that managed to drive out the British and the Russians; Afghans of any stripe will fight tenaciously even against great odds when the outcome matters to them. It is possible that the various insurgents simply care more about their mission. They may be paid a stipend, or ideologically motivated (pro-Islam or anti-foreigner), or politically opposed to the Karzai regime, or profiting from the drug trade, or simply happy with a job close to home. (It has been reported that most Taliban are fighting within 20 km of home.) The assignment of ANA soldiers often puts them some distance from home and in battles they do not want to fight. (Witness the number of desertions of ANA headed for Marjah in 2010.) While the ANA have gained respect from the population, at least relative to the police, they do not appear to be motivated by any great cause. There is anecdotal evidence of families covering their bases with one son in the ANA and another in the Taliban. While I have seen some genuine ANA enthusiasm for defending the country against Pakistan, there is little apparent support for the Afghan government. It is hard to fight and die for the Karzai regime.
Training and mentoring are not going to overcome any of these motivational factors. Soldiers and citizens need a government they can believe in. The Karzai government is widely viewed as corrupt and incompetent and has refused to implement those portions of the 2004 Constitution calling for elected mayors and elected district, city and village councils. ANA performance may be more a symptom of Afghan governmental failure than a problem in its own right. We might see considerably better outcomes if we focused our efforts on governmental accountability. With a credible government that had the loyalty of its citizens, the ANA motivational problem might take care of itself. There might also be fewer insurgents to deal with. With local electoral accountability, those who are simply anti-Karzai, as opposed to anti-American or pro-Taliban, could compete in the political arena rather than on the battlefield.
While there should not be inherent differences in the two fighting forces, several factors work in favor of the insurgents, and ANA training seems unlikely to make much of a difference. It is even conceivable that our Western design and training programs are subtracting capability—by pushing adoption of an alien military culture and by constantly telling the Afghans that they are falling short.
We have expected the ANA to fight as we do in order to protect a government that we support and Afghan citizens do not. The U.S. Government should insist on full implementation of the Constitution and the development of accountable sub-national government. We are wasting time and resources by interpreting the ANA difficulties as merely reflecting a training problem.