Since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the overthrow of the Taliban, the United States and its NATO partners have become drawn in to the project of rebuilding the Afghan state, and in particular to the creation of a modern army capable of supporting that state. The creation of such an army was, from the beginning, critical to the success of the long-term US strategy: the establishment of a stable pro-Western democracy in Afghanistan which would be both willing and able to deny a safe haven to America's enemies. From 2006, as the insurgency has intensified and the security situation deteriorated, the effort to raise, train and equip an Afghan army has assumed even more urgent dimensions, and has come to occupy a pivotal position in any future exit strategy.
Building a modern army in Afghanistan has, however, proved to be more difficult than at first envisaged. The US and its allies are now committed to training and financing the Afghan military on an unprecedented scale, its projected strength being more than twice as large as any previous Afghan army. What is more, they hope to accomplish this in the midst of a raging civil war, of a kind which would place strains on the most cohesive and well-integrated of military forces.
The current, Western-sponsored effort to establish an Afghan National Army, as part of a wider programme of institution-building, is by no means the first such attempt to reconstruct the Afghan army following its collapse under the impact of foreign invasion and civil war. Yet an analysis of previous experiences offers few grounds for optimism. Since 2002 the Afghan military and its Western mentors have encountered a range of problems familiar from the past, including problems of recruitment and troop retention, of force loyalty, cohesion and discipline, and of training and education. So intractable have these problems proved to be that the Afghan government and its Western advisers have seemed increasingly inclined to resort to a solution also familiar from the past: an ever-greater reliance on local, non-state elements, tribal groups, militias and warlords, a reliance which is inevitably at the expense of the state-building project itself, although this is rarely acknowledged.
In fact, the history of modern Afghanistan may be characterised as a repeated cycle of failed state-building. The cycle begins when a programme of centralisation and modernisation, at the heart of which is the creation of a standing army on the Western model, is initiated by the state. As the programme is implemented, it arouses increasingly strong opposition from elements, typically with a rural power-base, hostile to aspects of the proposed change or its general implications. Finally the state, still relatively weak in relation to its enemies, succumbs and the state-building project collapses, to be followed by a period of violent political conflict and anarchy. This cycle does not end with merely a return to the way things were before. On the contrary, the strength of autonomous and centrifugal forces grows as a result of every failed state-building effort. This phenomenon may be most clearly observed in the immense strengthening, in arms, money and political and diplomatic support, of tribal forces and rural militias which took place as a result of their conflict with the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan and the USSR in the 1980s while moribund tribal and militia power was once again revitalised by the strategy adopted by the USA to overthrow the Taliban after the attacks of September 2001.
The first efforts to build a modern army in Afghanistan took place in the early nineteenth century when the Afghan ruler, Amir Dust Muhammad Khan, threatened by domestic rivals and the rise of new regional powers, took tentative steps towards organising his troops on the European model, using European adventurers and renegades as a source of advice and assistance. Afghan rulers had previously relied on tribal chiefs to supply fighting men as and when required, the chiefs being rewarded with land grants, remission of taxes, and as much plunder as they could take. In the 1830s Amir Dust Muhammad, wishing to free himself from his dependence on the powerful tribal leaders, began to raise regular regiments. In adopting this novel and controversial approach, the Amir was deeply influenced by the army reform then being undertaken by neighbouring states. Afghanistan was surrounded by local rulers engaged in frenetic efforts to Europeanise their military forces. To the West, the Ottoman sultan-caliphs, figures of great prestige within the world of Sunni Islam, had already begun to build regular standing armies with the help of European mercenaries and renegades. Closer to home, so too had states bordering Afghanistan and whose rulers were direct contenders for regional power, including the shahs of Iran and Ranjit Singh in the Punjab. Sharpest of all was the example of the disciplined sepoys of the East India Company, trained in the tactics of regular warfare and the use of modern weapons.
In 1839 Dust Muhammad's fledgling experiment was interrupted. The British had come to see him as potentially pro-Russian and a threat to its expanding imperial reach. They invaded Afghanistan, deposed the amir and installed on the throne a new, more malleable, ruler, Shah Shuja. In a template for future occupations, the British pursued an agenda of imperial paternalism. Afghanistan was to become a viable and modernised buffer-state, theoretically sovereign but under the ultimate control of Britain, the inevitable opposition of the Afghan elite neutralised by the support of the urban merchants and artisans and the peasantry, won over by a paternalistic programme of reform.
Military reform was a key element of the British plan for creating a stable Afghan government and binding it to their own interests. Their plan was a more radical version of the measures already tentatively adopted by Dust Muhammad and involved the abolition of the tribal cavalry and its replacement by regular forces under the direct control of the state and paid through the treasury, thus creating a more effective and politically reliable support base for the pro-British ruler. For the British in Kabul in 1839-40, the creation of these new and competent forces, which would enable Shuja to maintain himself in power, was a key exit strategy, permitting the immediate withdrawal of their own troops.
However, from the beginning recruits were difficult to find and the British scheme was both massively expensive and profoundly unpopular. The tribal chiefs correctly appreciated the threat to their own position and privilege represented by the regular regiments, rejected the opportunity to serve in them as salaried officers, and fought back with the help of the ulama who preached that the uniform and discipline of the new units were contrary to the teachings of Islam. Far from approaching the point at which they might safely withdraw their forces, the British were drawn ever deeper into shoring up an unpopular ruler and suppressing resistance to his government. Finally, in late 1841, the tribal chiefs put themselves at the head of an uprising which succeeded in driving the British out of Afghanistan. The success of the Afghan tribal forces, mobilised by calls to jihad against an infidel enemy and using guerrilla tactics, led to the restoration of Amir Dust Muhammad and the enhancement of the prestige of tribal military power and the ideological appeal of Islam.
The restored Amir Dust Muhammad and his successor, Amir Sher Ali, both continued to imitate the European model for their military forces. Their new regiments managed to survive but experienced severe problems. Recruitment was difficult, conditions were harsh and service unpopular. The Amirs relied on British subsidies to pay their troops, offered in the hope of shoring-up imperial control over the country once force of arms had failed, and the irregular tribal cavalry remained in practice the most effective fighting force.
In 1879-1880, a second Anglo-Afghan war followed the established pattern. Another British invasion of Afghanistan was again defeated by tribal irregulars under the leadership of their chiefs, mobilised by calls to jihad from religious leaders. In this, as in the first Anglo-Afghan war, the regular army played little or no part. The regular regiments had fallen to pieces on the outbreak of the conflict, and although the troops continued to fight, they did so by abandoning their uniforms and reverting to irregular tactics and their Afghan clothes, fighting alongside the tribes.
After another British withdrawal, another new amir, Abd al-Rahman Khan, initiated a new cycle of military reform. Adopting the same approach as his predecessors, he encountered similar problems: inadequate financial resources leading to a reliance on British subsidies, an uncertain supply of reluctant manpower, and a complete lack of trained officers.
In 1919 a new phase in Afghan top-down modernisation was inaugurated by the new king, Amanullah. Supported by a circle of modernist and nationalist intellectuals, and officers from the newly-established Military Academy, Amanullah embarked on a reform project of unprecedented scope. These reforms, however, directly threatened the position of the old religious, tribal and landed interests who resented and, where possible, resisted them.
Amanullah's army reforms, especially his enforcement of conscription, were intended to create a modern army which was efficient, cohesive, professional and disciplined, capable of maintaining internal security and, above all, loyal to the state rather than to tribe or tribal chief. He was supported in this by a Turkish Military Mission. The presence of the Turkish officers with their Kemalist background, their schemes for the rapid modernisation of the army, the enthusiastic encouragement of the most advanced Afghan nationalists, and the gradual arrival in the officer corps of young Afghan officers with some professional training, acquired either at the Military College or abroad, began to transform the leadership of the Afghan army. Yet it still remained unequal to tribal military power. By 1928 serious tribal hostility was beginning to break out and, as initial tribal successes led to the spread of the insurrection, the army quickly disintegrated.
The army very quickly became irrelevant in the struggle for power in Afghanistan. After the first few weeks, the initial tribe-state confrontation degenerated into a tribal conflict, each of the contenders for control dependent on the military support they could muster from the tribes. Finally a new ruling family, the Musahiban, emerged from the chaos, rallying enough tribal support to take control of Kabul, and proclaim one of their members the new King.
In the two decades following Amanullah's overthrow, Musahiban rule was both authoritarian and conservative and was careful to do nothing to antagonise the tribal or religious leaders, whom it actively attempted to associate with its rule. Nonetheless, urban Afghanistan was changing. Modest educational reforms produced an intelligentsia eager for reform, while an urban middle class began to demand more insistently some participation in politics. These developments were reflected within the officer corps of the army. An educated, professional officer corps came into being which shared its civilian counterparts' desire for political and social modernisation.
Exemplifying the new type of officer was the politically engaged and ambitious Muhammad Daud, himself a member of the ruling Musahiban family. In 1939 Daud was given command of the Kabul Army Corps and he began to gather round him the younger, professionally-trained officers, who were increasingly impatient for radical change. With the support of the Turkish Military Mission, Daud consolidated an officer corps which shared his own state-building, centralising and secularising agenda. Although conditions of service, pay and prospects for the troops changed little, if at all, between the early 1930s and the early 1950s, the officer corps, or at any rate that of the Kabul Army Corps, changed rapidly and profoundly. In both the speed of the transformation and its confinement to Kabul and other major cities, the army was a microcosm of wider Afghan society.
By the end of the Second World War, the political order established after the overthrow of King Amanullah in 1929 was beginning to unravel. This was an era when army officers throughout the Middle East saw themselves as constituting a vanguard for modernity. The Kabul garrison was ready to support Muhammad Daud when, in a palace coup in 1953, he took over the office of prime minister. Daud turned to the Soviet Union for assistance and, within a decade, the Afghan army became largely Soviet trained and equipped. The Soviet Union made great efforts to attract the admiration of Afghan officers, who regularly visited the USSR for training, and leftist sympathies, previously unknown, began to spread rapidly within the officer corps.
During the 1960s-70s a political radicalisation took place among Afghanistan's intelligentsia and urban middle class which was shared by many Afghan army officers, who had already formed a generally positive view of the Soviet Union. By the early 1970s sympathy for the pro-Soviet People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) was strong. Indeed, PDPA recruitment had proceeded even faster among army officers than among the general population, because the officer corps now had a tradition of support for state-building policies stretching back to the 1920s, and a long record of hostility to the tribal chiefs and mullahs.
In 1963 Daud had resigned but by the early 1970s he was ready to make another bid for power, this time with the support of the growing pro-Soviet left. The PDPA had split into two wings, the more moderate Parcham, led by Babrak Karmal, and the radical Khalq, led by Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin. In July 1973 Daud launched a coup supported by key military officers and Parcham's rank and file. The king abdicated, Daud became president and formed a new government, appointing many Parchamis to high office.
The period of Daud's presidency saw support for the PDPA continue to grow, but now it was the more radical Khalq faction which predominated, especially within the army. When, in the mid-1970s, Daud began to turn against his erstwhile leftist allies, a political crisis developed which led in 1978 to the Saur Revolution. Khalqis and Parchamis in the Tank Corps and the air force carried out a successful coup and immediately handed over to the civilian PDPA leaders.
At the beginning of its period of power the PDPA was located firmly within the Afghan tradition of state-building. Although the state was still fragile in 1978, the PDPA launched an unprecedented reform drive in the rural areas. Nonetheless, counter-revolutionary outbreaks, especially in the tribal areas, followed in rapid succession, leaving the regime fractured internally between Parcham and Khalq and in an apparently terminal crisis, from which it was only rescued by the arrival of Soviet forces. The USSR was deeply reluctant to become embroiled in a struggle which recalled the bitter anti-Basmachi campaigns in Central Asia in the civil war period. Yet the Soviets hoped that, by assisting the PDPA, its army would replicate the success achieved by Cuban troops in their recent intervention in Angola, in support of the revolutionary government against forces backed by the USA and South Africa.
Afghan regimes had always met with resistance when attempting to extend their military control into the rural and tribal areas. The opposition to the PDPA, however, was of a qualitatively different character from previous episodes of hostility to a modernising government. This was due both to the deteriorating international context and to Afghanistan's new status as the cockpit of the cold war, leading to the arrival of foreign military and financial assistance. As the tribal fighters were provided with cash and weapons from abroad, so they were given ideological coherence by the arrival in their midst of Islamist radicals from the urban centres. During the 1980s, the old rural authorities of tribal khan and village elder were first reinforced, then supplanted by a new type of leadership, that of mujahidin militia commanders and warlords.
The years of political crisis and civil war which followed the formation of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan resulted in the severe disorganisation, but not the disintegration, of the Afghan army. For the first time in its history, the Afghan army did not collapse under the weight of foreign intervention and domestic upheaval. The rapid reconstitution of Afghan military capacity was a cornerstone of Soviet policy and a key exit strategy. The PDPA coup had at first severely depleted military manpower, while the very arrival of Soviet troops caused further waves of desertion. The surviving elements of the Afghan officer corps and their Soviet advisers were faced with the urgent task of preventing the collapse of the entire military structure and then rebuilding it, organisationally and politically. By the mid-1980s they had achieved a degree of relative success.
The survival of the army after the traumatic first months of the Saur revolution, and its subsequent reconstruction by the PDPA and their Soviet advisers, was a tribute to the unprecedented success of decades of state-building activity. From as early as the 1920s, a majority of Afghan officers had identified themselves with a programme of modernisation articulated first by Muhmmad Daud and then by the PDPA. Even after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the army, especially its officer corps, remained committed to the broad objectives of Afghan state-building. After the departure of the Soviet troops, morale was raised by the new freedom from the taint of foreign support and many army officers were eager to carry on the fight against the mujahidin and their backers in the USA, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Indeed, fear of the consequences of a mujahidin victory was an important factor in shoring up urban support for the President, Mohammad Najibullah, until the fall of his regime in 1992.
Yet the army of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan continued to experience a range of problems familiar from the past, and eventually the hostile rural-tribal environment weakened and finally overwhelmed both the regime and its army.
The army of the PDPA was still, as Afghan armies had always been, dependent on foreign assistance. Despite the ideological rhetoric of the PDPA, the gulf between the officer corps and the rank and file - in outlook, background and day to day conditions - remained vast. Among the rank and file, military service was unpopular and desertion - individual and collective, and especially when troops faced active service - was common. Yet, although the ordinary conscript's integration was still fragile and easily abandoned, desertions from elite units where PDPA allegiance was stronger were much rarer, and were especially low from the air force, while officers in general showed little inclination to desert.
Another difficulty from which the Afghan army had suffered over many decades was that of a lack of cohesion and the persistence of divided loyalties. Under the PDPA old fissures, of tribe, class and religious sect, continued while new sources of disunity, ethnic and political, arose. Meanwhile, the deeply politicized officer corps was riven by factionalism between Parchamis and Khalqis. The persistence of tribal loyalties within the army, political and ethnic factionalism, and religious sympathies for the mujahidin not only undermined military cohesion but also made the army peculiarly vulnerable to infiltration.
Notwithstanding these difficulties, the Afghan army held together during the 1980s. Since their earliest formation, regular army units had rarely succeeded in defeating tribal irregulars, whose guerrilla tactics exploited to the full Afghanistan's terrain and its underdevelopment. In the 1980s too, the military confrontation between the Afghan and Soviet regular troops and the tribal-Islamist opposition was largely inconclusive. Although they were well-armed, the mujahidin, due partly to the limitations of their military capability and partly to their political disunity, were never able to defeat the PDPA regime. Equally, the government was unable to impose a decisive defeat on the mujahidin.
Given this military deadlock, the PDPA, aware from quite an early stage that no purely military solution was possible, began to make military, political and ideological concessions to the tribes. At first slowly, and then much faster from the mid-1980s under the leadership of Muhammad Najibullah, the balance between the state and the unstable coalition of its enemies in the countryside - tribal chiefs, Islamist radicals, militia commanders and warlords - began to alter.
In the military field this changing balance was best exemplified by government encouragement of, and eventually reliance on, pro-government tribal militias. As the militia system waxed, so the army, to some extent, waned. After the Soviet withdrawal, Najibullah appeared to be consolidating his position, but the militias, on which he was now dependent, were increasingly powerful and autonomous. With Gorbachev's decision to end all financial aid, the militias and their warlords abandoned any shreds of loyalty to Najibullah and made a bid for power on their own account. In 1992 a collection of warlords, in a temporary and unnatural show of unity, marched on Kabul and took the city.
After 1992 not only the government of Najibullah, but the Afghan state itself collapsed and the army disintegrated. Armed groups led by warlords proliferated throughout the countryside taking advantage of the opportunities for profit presented by the absence of state and army. The US provision of cash and weapons in massive quantities to the mujahidin in the 1980s had now produced a novel situation: the emergence of an entrepreneurial approach to the war, a vested interest not in winning, but in simply ensuring the maintenance of the conflict, and the continuation of opportunities for accumulating wealth and local political power. In 1996 a new ultra-fundamentalist grouping, which became known as the Taliban, drove the warlords from Kabul. Largely of rural and refugee origin, the Taliban did not locate themselves within a state-building tradition. Although they established a rudimentary form of order, their only mechanisms for government were an ad hoc network of local councils and tribal militias.
After the attacks of September 11 2001, the US made the decision to overthrow the Taliban by mobilising anti-Taliban militias and warlords. The new government of Hamid Karzai was, in the absence of any national army, at first entirely dependent on these anti-Taliban militias but, together with its international sponsors, it rapidly drew up proposals for rebuilding the army. Yet this renewed effort has once again failed to overcome the problems familiar from the past and endemic to a re-tribalised society. At first the US had envisaged a small, cheap, volunteer army for Afghanistan. As the security situation deteriorated, these plans were thrown out and the projected numerical strength of the army was repeatedly revised upwards. These expanded projections raised serious difficulties of fiscal sustainability and recruitment. The costs of maintaining, training and equipping a force of this size rose to massive levels and the prospects of ever meeting these costs out of Afghan revenues receded accordingly. As force numbers rose, the quality of recruits declined from its already low level and illiteracy and drug use were widespread. Rates of absence without leave and desertion varied wildly, but reached very high levels when troops were faced with combat operations. Afghan generals and defence officials renewed their proposals for the reintroduction of conscription, in the hope of recruiting the better-educated and less desperate, but this was rejected by the US. Both recruitment and retention were hit hard by the higher salaries offered by private security companies and insurgent groups eager to recruit trained Afghan soldiers. The corps continues to be divided by ethnic, political and personal rivalries. Corruption is widespread and abuse of human rights common. Although Afghan National Army (ANA) participation in operations has been important in propaganda terms, its actual military role and effectiveness is very much in doubt. Since 2006 the army has been directly targeted by insurgents and has had some difficulty even in protecting itself.
In the context of these ongoing and unresolved difficulties, the US, although making a commitment to increase the Afghan army, at the same time began openly and actively to empower local militia groups. Both the PDPA-Soviet experience and the record of NATO thus far suggest that the second of these strategies will inevitably be at the expense of the first. Until 2008, NATO army commanders had officially opposed any deliberate policy of employing and strengthening tribal militias for fear of creating rivals to the army and the state. From 2008 onwards, the US, attempting to replicate the apparent success of a similar orientation towards the tribes in Iraq, increasingly leaned towards a policy of building on existing tribal structures and arming local tribal forces in order to compensate for the slow and uncertain progress made in rebuilding the ANA. This policy, known as the Community Defence Initiative, appeared in tandem with a broader approach of seeking an accommodation with the Taliban. From top to bottom, the Afghan army appeared to be unhappy with the utilisation of militias, seeing it as a return to the failed strategies of the Soviet Union during the 1980s, while the Community Defence Initiative was also strongly reminiscent of the National Reconciliation policy of the Najibullah era.
The predicament in which the Afghan army currently finds itself reproduces, in many respects, past Afghan state-building dilemmas. The creation of an effective military force remains crucial to the viability of the regime which, however, lacks the necessary fiscal, material and human resources to maintain it. It consequently finds itself reliant on foreign support, a reliance which appears to increase its power but actually reduces its legitimacy. For the US and NATO, standing up an Afghan army remains a key exit strategy, reminiscent of the exit strategies of past foreign occupations, both British and Soviet.
The difficulties experienced by successive Afghan governments, whether royal or republican, left or right-wing, foreign-backed or independent, in building an army have been remarkably similar and have their origin in the fragility of the broader state-building effort. State-building came later to Afghanistan and remained weaker than in any comparable country within the region. Particularly damaging has been the persistence and strength of tribal power and the strategies adopted towards it by the state. In contrast to neighbouring Iran, the Afghan state made no decisive break with its tribal past but continued to waver in its tribal policy, successive rulers understanding the threat to their supremacy represented by khans and chiefs, yet too weak to act against them.
In this context, even the PDPA fell back on the deployment of tribal militias. No Afghan government has yet been able to construct an army capable of guaranteeing its sovereignty against foreign invasion or domestic change. Similarly, no Afghan government, finding itself in difficulties, has yet been able to resist the temptation of harnessing tribal military power. Some did so willingly, some, reluctantly. Inevitably, in the long run the result has been the same: a further weakening of the state, the enhancement of tribal political culture and its ideological hegemony and a strengthening of autonomous and centrifugal local powers, sometimes to the point where they were able destroy altogether the government which originally mobilised them. There is no evidence that the current US/NATO strategy will have a different outcome.
Subsequent to publication, a version this paper later appeared in Stephanie Cronin's book: Armies and state-building in the modern Middle East : Politics, Nationalism and Military Reform (London : I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2014.)
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Fred Halliday, 'War and revolution in Afghanistan', New Left Review, 119 (1980), pp. 20-41.
Antonio Giustozzi, War, Politics and Society in Afghanistan, 1978-1992 (Washington, 1999).
Antonio Giustozzi, 'The Afghan National Army', The RUSI Journal, 154 (2009), pp. 36-42.
Ali A. Jalali, 'Rebuilding Afghanistan's National Army', Parameters, US Army War College Quarterly, Autumn 2002, pp. 72-86.
Barnett R. Rubin, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan (London, 2005).
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