“Afghanistan’s armies past and present”: An update
Stephanie Cronin |
On 28 September 2015 the Afghan National Army suffered a devastating defeat when it was driven out of Kunduz, a strategically located provincial capital in the north of the country, by Taliban fighters. This was a major landmark in the ongoing insurgency and, following months of military stalemate in the area, may have been undertaken by the Taliban for propaganda as much as military reasons. It was indeed the first occasion since 2001 that the Taliban had been able to take control of a large city and it created an immediate political crisis for the Afghan authorities. The Taliban had captured the city despite being outnumbered, about five hundred Taliban confronting seven thousand army and pro-government militia, and a consensus quickly emerged that the defeat was due to the collapse of the ANA, and the failures of its political and military leaderships, rather than to the effectiveness of the Taliban. After fifteen days of fighting, the Afghan army was able to declare itself once more in control of Kunduz, but this was only as a result of the central role played by US air strikes and Special Operations ground forces. Even as the battle to retake Kunduz was raging, Members of Parliament in Kabul attributed responsibility for the catastrophe to the new national unity government headed jointly by Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah and called on them to resign.
The Afghan army’s inability to hold Kunduz, or to retake it without the assistance of American air support and Special Forces, symbolized the reality behind the much vaunted transition from foreign to Afghan control of the counter-insurgency campaign. The election of Barack Obama as US president in 2008, combined with growing war-weariness particularly in the US and the UK, had led to the formulation of an exit strategy. This was to begin with a “surge”, designed to deal a strategic blow to the Taliban after which the Afghan army would consolidate its control, would then, from 2011, proceed to a transition to full formal Afghan control, concluding with a phased withdrawal of US and other NATO forces by the end of 2014. The transition proceeded at a pace determined by US domestic political considerations rather than the Afghan army’s military preparedness and, in December 2014, the NATO ISAF mission was duly declared over.
The success of this strategy hinged decisively on the Afghan army’s competence in meeting its new responsibilities. Yet problems familiar from the past remained unresolved. Fiscal and human resources remained inadequate. Projected troop levels for the Afghan army were constantly revised upwards, yet recruitment was difficult and recruits of poor quality. Many were barely or not at all literate, rates of re-enlistment were low, and ethnic tensions were exacerbated by squabbling among the elite during and after the 2014 elections. The new US-sponsored national unity government found particular difficulty in agreeing on an appointment to the post of defence minister. Recruitment consistently lagged behind the numbers projected for the force and, in February 2016, it was announced that the eligibility age would be raised to forty years. Although enlistment was officially inadequate, actual troop numbers were even lower, many “ghost” soldiers remaining on the payroll, their pay retained by senior officers and officials, symptomatic of the widespread and demoralizing corruption in both military and civilian institutions. Troop levels also suffered attrition as a result of the increasing intensity of the insurgency which was reflected in increased casualty figures, the army experiencing record casualties in 2015. Actual strength was doubtful and, in any case, in practice probably only around half of formally existing Afghan army units were able to mount effective counter insurgency operations
During the transition period, both Afghans and international observers had voiced growing doubts about the ability of the Afghan army to fulfil its new and onerous responsibilities. By 2015 the United Nations estimated the insurgency to be at its most widespread since 2001, concluding that almost half of the country was assessed as either high or extreme risk. Furthermore, new dangers had appeared with the extension of the influence of Islamic State in Afghanistan. Even in the cities, including Kabul, security was decreasing. By 2016 the Afghan government, its army and its international mentors appeared to be at a loss as to how to deal with the situation. Old strategies, tried and failed, were disinterred, most notably the organization of “friendly” tribal militias. Afghan security forces continued to absorb epic quantities of money while the Afghan state became totally dependent on foreign aid, the country’s economy contracting under the impact of insurgent and counter-insurgent violence. Most crucially, it became clear that the Afghan army’s formal assumption of leadership in military/security operations masked a continuing reliance on NATO, especially US, assistance and support. Although the NATO ISAF mission had ended in December 2014, it was, in January 2015, immediately succeeded by the NATO Resolute Support Mission to train, advise and assist Afghan security forces and institutions. The RSM consisted of 17,000 personnel, including 9,800 Americans, who were during 2015-6 increasingly drawn once again into active counter-insurgency operations, often to rescue beleaguered Afghan forces. By early 2016 US plans for withdrawal were again in disarray, some US commanders reported as saying that the Afghan army would not be able to stand alone for many years, perhaps decades.Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.
Related Policy Papers
Afghanistan’s armies, past and present
Stephanie Cronin |