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A Force in Fragments: Reconstituting the Afghan National Army
A Force in Fragments: Reconstituting the Afghan National Army
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Afghan Leaders End Political Impasse
Afghan Leaders End Political Impasse
Report 190 / Asia

A Force in Fragments: Reconstituting the Afghan National Army

Although the Afghan National Army could help stabilise the country, many challenges remain, including lack of leadership, low literacy, and poor logistics capabilities.

Executive Summary

For nearly a decade, the Afghan military has been promoted as the cornerstone of counterinsurgency in the country. Billed as a rare success story in a conflict with few bright spots, the Afghan armed forces will undoubtedly prove pivotal to stabilising Afghanistan. Yet nine years after the fall of the Taliban, there appears to be little agreement between the government of President Hamid Karzai and its international backers on what kind of army the country needs, how to build it or which elements of the insurgency the Afghan army should be fighting. Persistent structural flaws meanwhile have undermined the military’s ability to operate independently. Ethnic frictions and political factionalism among high-level players in the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the general staff have also stunted the army’s growth. As a result, the army is a frag­mented force, serving disparate interests, and far from attaining the unified national character needed to confront numerous security threats. There is a strong need to strength­en civilian input into military development, confront corruption and factionalism within the MOD and general staff and to place sustainability of the armed forces at the forefront of Afghanistan’s national security strategy.

The Afghan National Army’s (ANA) strategic role in stabilising Afghanistan should not be underestimated. History has shown that failure to build a cohesive national army has often led to the diffusion of state force among disparate actors, hastening the collapse of governments in Kabul. The push to build a unified national military in service of a civilian government has frequently clashed with the tendency to create militias in a bid to insulate the state from internal and external threats. The tension between these polar conceptions has had far reaching implications not only for internal security but also for Afghanistan’s relationships with external actors.

ANA development and deployment have dragged under these tensions as well as patchwork command structures, with little coordination between NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), U.S. forces and the MOD in the early years of army development. The lack of consensus between Kabul, Washington and Brussels has hobbled the Afghan military’s capacity to respond effectively to threats confronting the state. Failure to develop a sustainable, comprehensive long-term defence posture could risk the army’s disintegration after the withdrawal of international forces. Similarly, tensions between the Afghan military’s historical roots in Soviet-style over-centralised and top-heavy command and control structures and the more fluid organisation of Western militaries has often pitted the U.S. and NATO against the very Afghan officials they seek to influence and support.

Despite billions of dollars of international investment, army combat readiness has been undermined by weak recruitment and retention policies, inadequate logistics, insufficient training and equipment and inconsistent leadership. International support for the ANA must therefore be targeted not just toward increasing the quantity of troops but enhancing the quality of the fighting force. Given the slow pace of economic development and the likelihood of an eventual drawdown of Western resources, any assessment of the future shape of the army must also make fiscal as well as political sense. Although recent efforts to consolidate the training command structure under the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) are encouraging, the U.S. emphasis on rapid expansion of the army, in response to the growing insurgent threat, could strain NTM-A resources and outpace the capacity of Afghan leaders to manage an inherently unwieldy system.

These shortcomings, combined with the international community’s haphazard approach to demobilisation and reintegration (DR) has undermined the army’s professionalism and capacity to counter the insurgency. The proliferation of weaponry provided by Kabul’s international backers also feeds an illicit shadow economy, which further empowers patronage networks within the military. Kabul powerbrokers are distributing the spoils of increased NATO spending on army development among their constituents in the officer corps, fuelling ethnic and political factionalism within army ranks.

These developments are all the more problematic in light of current proposals to reintegrate and reconcile elements of the insurgency. Limited progress on dissolution of illegal armed groups and reintegration of insurgents has given Kabul wide berth to continue its time-honoured tactic of exploiting divisions to consolidate the government’s hold over power. Government-backed reintegration programs have emerged as little more than distribution of patronage by a few Afghan elites. With Taliban groups in control of large swathes of the country since around 2007, many Afghan military leaders believe that in the current climate of high instability, the time is not right for negotiating with the insurgents, and that to do so would be from a position of weakness and not strength. Most also strongly reject proposals to reintegrate the Taliban into the ANA.

Where the Afghan government might once have had limited potential to be a legitimate guarantor of a broad negotiated peace, the Karzai regime’s unrestrained pursuit of power and wealth has bankrupted its credibility. Under these conditions, reconciliation and reintegration, as currently conceived by Kabul and the U.S.-led coalition, does not represent a route to a permanent peaceful settlement of the conflict. Nor is it an exit strategy. Rather, it is an invitation for the country to descend further into the turmoil that led the Taliban to give succour to al-Qaeda and other violent extremists in the first place. The current debate on reconciliation with the Taliban also threatens to widen factionalism within the army.

Greater civilian control of and input into the Afghan military is imperative. The Afghan government must be encouraged to strengthen its Office of National Security Council (ONSC) and to forge more dynamic institutional links between its members, the defence ministry and parliament. Failure to increase civilian input in shaping the army will heighten Afghanistan’s historic dependence on external actors and make it a permanent pawn of regional and international power games.

Kabul/Brussels, 12 May 2010

Abdullah Abdullah, left, and President Ashraf Ghani signing a power-sharing deal in Kabul, Afghanistan, on 17 May 2020. Screenshot of video recording by the Presidential Palace of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan - ARG
Q&A / Asia

Afghan Leaders End Political Impasse

On 17 May, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his chief political rival Abdullah Abdullah signed a power-sharing agreement intended to resolve a dispute over last September’s election. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Andrew Watkins examines the deal and its portent for stalled peace talks.

Why was the Ghani-Abdullah agreement needed and what does it achieve?

President Ashraf Ghani and former Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, as well as their respective allies, had been locked in a dispute over the results of Afghanistan’s presidential election held on 28 September 2019. While preliminary numbers suggested that Ghani held a firm lead, official results were delayed for months as electoral bodies conducted recounts and, later, audits. Final results that gave Ghani just over 50 per cent, which would narrowly avoid a run-off against Abdullah, were abruptly announced in February, before the electoral complaints process was completed. Abdullah and his supporters declared the results invalid and announced their intent to establish a “parallel government”. This wrangling culminated in two simultaneous inauguration ceremonies in Kabul on 9 March, but by then foreign governments had shown overwhelming – if measured – support for President Ghani, and Abdullah refrained from further escalatory steps. Since then, both sides have engaged in intensive negotiations on power sharing, punctuated by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 23 March visit to Kabul, immediately after which he threatened to cut $1 billion in U.S. aid if an “inclusive government” was not formed.

Ambiguities in the agreement suggest the potential for heated debate over its implementation.

The power-sharing agreement names Abdullah as the ostensible head of peace process efforts for the government and the array of unelected powerbrokers. His role appears to entail management and oversight of several pre-existing and newly created bodies for negotiating with the Taliban and for politically overseeing the negotiators. The agreement also includes a number of compromises in government formation and reform: Abdullah’s camp will select half the cabinet, provincial governors will be appointed by a jointly agreed-upon formula involving both Ghani and Abdullah, and the government is supposed to prioritise electoral reforms and local elections. Notably, the ethnic Uzbek leader and former first vice president, Rashid Dostum, who stands credibly accused of multiple human rights violations, will be awarded the military rank of marshal and a seat on the National Security Council.

Aspects of the deal remain opaque. The terms of a leaked draft of the agreement detail the protocol for and authorities of key figures, as well as funding for bodies yet to be established. But the duties of Abdullah’s newly christened High Council for National Reconciliation are only vaguely defined. Such ambiguities suggest the potential for heated debate over the deal’s implementation.

Will the agreement advance the struggling peace process?

Resolving the deadlock in Kabul was likely necessary before the stalled Afghan peace process could progress, but in itself the deal is not sufficient to move things forward. A number of other challenges remain to be resolved before intra-Afghan negotiations – which were supposed to commence on 10 March, per the 29 February U.S.-Taliban agreement – might begin. Some of these have made uneven progress, like the agreement’s provisions for the Afghan government to release up to 5,000 jailed Taliban fighters, and even then only after initial resistance from Kabul, which was not a party to the deal. The Taliban has steadily escalated violence against Afghan security forces. A number of brutal terror attacks, the perpetrators of which are unconfirmed, have rocked the country. The uptick in violence soured the atmosphere for peace talks while the Ghani-Abdullah compromise was hashed out.  

Even setting aside obstacles to getting to the talks with the Taliban, key powerbrokers in Kabul and across Afghanistan hold a wide range of views on those talks and the stance of the negotiating team that Abdullah now oversees. Forging consensus among them will be no small challenge. Even if the power-sharing agreement is upheld by both Ghani and Abdullah, nothing prevents further discussion of or changes to the structures, negotiating team or other personalities involved in the peace process. In principle, the new agreement could help energise the peace process by clarifying negotiating leadership on Kabul’s side and providing a framework for Afghan political elites, civil society and other community leaders to reach and maintain consensus. But it does not guarantee that consensus – neither on the modalities of working through the peace process nor on the positions to be negotiated in a political settlement. The deal simply erects a more organised forum for elites to begin debating among themselves.

President Ghani and Abdullah have been in a power-sharing government since 2014. Is this new arrangement any different?

This arrangement differs in several key respects from the National Unity Government (NUG) formed in 2014 after the previous presidential election debacle, also involving Ghani and Abdullah. It also contains points of ambiguity and a number of contradictory elements. The most significant difference between the 2014 compromise, which created the extra-constitutional chief executive officer position for Abdullah, and the new agreement is that Abdullah will not have any executive authority beyond heading peace efforts. This may relieve some of the tension inherent in the NUG’s split executive control. When it comes to matters of protocol, however, Abdullah will now rate as the “second figure of the country, after the president” – somewhat muddying the status of Afghanistan’s two vice presidents.

The deal erects a more organised forum for elites to begin debating among themselves.

The deal includes a key point of contention that has eroded relations between the two leaders over the last five years: the 50-50 split of responsibility for naming ministerial-level appointees. Not all ministries are created equal, as some are more powerful than others and some are better suited for awarding patronage. But the agreement does not specify which ministries will be allotted to which camp and, in the past month, President Ghani has already appointed a number of acting ministers to key posts. There is even less certainty when it comes to selecting provincial governors, which is ordinarily the president’s constitutional prerogative. The text of the agreement refers obliquely to a formula for naming people to these posts. Several foreign diplomats privy to the mediation told Crisis Group that the appointment of governors remained a sticking point right up to the agreement’s signing.

In reality, the 2014 unity government evolved significantly over time. The presidency’s firm constitutional authority, uncertainty regarding the chief executive’s mandate, and the leaders’ personal styles translated into President Ghani consolidating much more than the 50 per cent of executive authority he was supposed to command under the 2014 deal. This history suggests that this latest agreement may also develop into a different political reality than what is now on paper. Indeed, it remains an open question to what extent a high-stakes peace process, one with the potential to dramatically reshape the country’s political and social order, will be left for Abdullah to determine and implement.

Will this agreement fully resolve political wrangling in Kabul?

Almost certainly not, for several reasons.
The agreement does little to address the conditions that led to the dispute in the first place, notably Afghanistan’s recent record of repeatedly flawed and contested elections. Future polls are practically guaranteed to remain an arena of fierce contestation. Electoral reforms are mentioned in the new deal, but were also included in the NUG’s agenda, only to be shelved or stalled. Nor does the Ghani-Abdullah agreement do much to address the centralised political system that makes presidential elections especially fraught, particularly given that other ethnicities feel that the largest ethnic group, Pashtuns, to which Ghani belongs, have long dominated that system. Several Kabul interlocutors told Crisis Group that the provision creating a new advisory council, or High Council of State, comprises opposition leaders in order to mollify Ghani’s opponents. But a consultative body is unlikely to wholly appease these figures or do much to dilute executive power, especially given President Ghani’s widely reputed unconsultative style.

The deal has overcome, at least for now, a political crisis with potentially catastrophic consequences.

Even if the agreement does not resolve the issues underpinning the election dispute, it was sorely needed. It has overcome, at least for now, a political crisis with potentially catastrophic consequences: the impasse not only contributed to slowing the peace process, but the escalation of rhetoric and political theatre risked the unity of the country’s security forces and distracted decision-makers from the national response to COVID-19.

One development offers a sliver of hope: unlike in the electoral crisis of 2014, which grew so tense that armed groups began assembling outside of Kabul, and which ultimately required intensive U.S. arbitration, Afghan political figures, including female leaders of civil society, played outsized roles in mediating the dispute. This mediation did progress under a shadow of intensifying U.S. pressure, but it was nonetheless a new benchmark in domestic conflict resolution in an unsettling time.

The deal’s merit lies in what it might help Afghanistan’s government avoid: confusion and dysfunction at every level of government, erosion of public trust in institutions, and even the potential for state fracture along political allegiances. These risks grew as negotiations continued and the agreement itself will not automatically wave them away. With the war returning to the high levels of violence typical of recent warmer-weather seasons, the effects of the pandemic spreading countrywide, and signs of U.S. patience with Afghanistan’s political disputes and slow-moving peace process wearing thin, it is essential that all parties to this agreement implement it in good faith.