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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
Crisis Group Welcomes the Afghanistan Ceasefire
Crisis Group Welcomes the Afghanistan Ceasefire
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

Afghan security personnel stand guard ahead of the Eid al-Adha Muslim festival in Ghazni on 31 August, 2017. AFP/Zakeria Hashimi
Statement / Asia

Crisis Group Welcomes the Afghanistan Ceasefire

International Crisis Group welcomes pledges by the Afghan government and the Taliban insurgency that both sides will respect a ceasefire over the Eid al Fitr holiday. If implemented, such a truce would be unprecedented and could represent a concrete step toward peace talks.

The Afghan government and leaders of the Taliban insurgency have announced a temporary ceasefire during the forthcoming Eid al Fitr holiday. The government will halt offensive operations from 12 to 20 June and the Taliban will do the same from 15 to 18 June. The Afghan government’s ceasefire excludes foreign militant groups, notably the local Islamic State branch. For its part, the Taliban says its ceasefire will not extend to U.S.-led NATO forces, though the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan has said the U.S. will respect the truce.

Crisis Group welcomes, and applauds both sides for, this unprecedented step. There are sceptics both inside President Ashraf Ghani’s government and among the Taliban who question the truce. Its implementation could prove difficult. Nonetheless, the announcement of a ceasefire is a bold decision by both parties and could represent a step toward a peace process.

Since the Taliban’s ouster from Kabul in 2001 and its emergence as an insurgent force over subsequent years, neither it nor the Afghan government has declared such an extensive halt to offensive operations. Fighting has usually slowed during past Eid holidays, but has never stopped altogether. In recent years, the Taliban leadership has instructed fighters to minimise violence during Eid to allow for religious celebrations; its media arm has tended to avoid publicising attacks during the holiday given popular sentiment that it ought to be a time of peace. This week’s ceasefire could thus be viewed as an expansion of the usual Eid détente.

Still, the Afghan government’s and the Taliban leadership’s formal ceasefire declarations are without parallel. President Ghani’s overture met with widespread international support. Crisis Group’s soundings of insurgent sentiment suggest the Taliban did not take lightly the decision about how to respond. Some leaders worried that a positive response would play badly among field commanders and rank and file, many of whom feel the Taliban is on the front foot and should not offer concessions. Conversely, other leaders reportedly fretted about the implications of not offering reciprocal steps. That the Taliban had remained silent after Ghani’s offer of peace talks in February 2018 increased pressure on the movement to respond positively this time.

Much is at stake, and not only because the ceasefire comes amid a fighting season that appeared set to lead to the country’s most violent year since 2001. The coming days will be critical. Commanders on both sides profit enormously from the war economy, and many fighters hold personal grudges against their opponents. Whether – and to what extent – various factions on the ground will comply with the truce remains to be seen. A significant number will likely be tempted to break it.

This week could prove an important trust-building exercise that contributes to future peace-making.

But if the respective leaderships can enforce the ceasefire, this week could prove an important trust-building exercise that contributes to future peace-making. The Taliban has engaged in persistent combat since its formal birth in 1994; getting off that war footing, even briefly, would represent a departure. Perhaps as important, the ceasefire provides an opportunity for the Taliban leadership to prove that it can control insurgent commanders and units across the country, thus cementing its role as the main partner in future negotiations. Taliban leaders also have promised to release prisoners and allow families safe passage to visit relatives on opposite sides of the battle lines. Delivering on those pledges would be an important and welcome signal.

Afghans, thirsty for peace after generations of war, largely have cheered the ceasefire, albeit as a small first step. Indeed, the announcement of the truce prompted celebration, particularly in the capital Kabul and on social media. Over recent months, hundreds of Afghan youths have mounted street demonstrations accusing both the government and the Taliban of lacking the willpower to make peace. They deserve this moment of hope, and, more than that, they deserve to see both sides finally take on the challenge of breaking a decades-long cycle of violence.