20 October 2009

Training an Afghan Army

The Economist, 5 September 2009 carried a piece (McChrystal in the bull ring) on the options facing NATO commander in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal. It says, inter alia:

The general wants much closer “partnering” of Western troops with Afghan forces, from common headquarters to joint platoons. He calls for the accelerated training of Afghan forces, to nearly 220,000 soldiers and policemen by the end of next year, with the option of nearly doubling that number to 400,000 if, as is likely, security conditions do not improve.

The Economist of 17 October states outright that General McChrystal wants to expand the Afghan forces to 400,000. In short, he wants to build a genuine Afghan national army. He is not the first to attempt that, and it is worth considering an earlier attempt lest the lessons of history have to be learned all over again.

The foundation of Afghanistan as a distinct political unit occurred in 1747, a product of the collapse of the Persian Safavid Dynasty in the West and the decline of the Mughal Empire in the West. This new political unit was very multicultural and very tribal. In the period before 1747 the predominantly nomadic Pashtun had gradually moved down from the mountains to the valleys and plains, where they interacted with the ancient sedentary population, the Tajiks, who like the Pashtuns were of Indo-European stock. Other Indo-Europeans include the Nuristanis, Baluchis and Heratis, each concentrated in particular regions.

In the north, the tribal confederacy of the new Afghan state incorporated several Turkic peoples the Uzbeks, Turkmens and Qizilbash – and the Hazaras, Shi’as of mixed Turkic-Mongolian-Iranian stock.

There were many smaller ethnic groups – Arabs, Jews, Punjabis and others.

In this complex multi-ethnic society, politics was very much a matter of direct bargaining amongst clans, tribes and regional populations. It was a large geographical unit inhabited for the most part by microsocieties.

The rulers of the first two dynasties, the Sadozai (1747-1818) and the Barakzai (1826-29) were first and foremost leaders of the Durrani clan of the Pashtun tribal confederation. At times they were able to impose their will on the territory of the emerging Afghan state, but the acknowledgement of their authority by other communities was tenuous at best, and the rulers were never able to develop the necessary common legal and political frameworks transcending the traditional boundaries of the local political units. Kinship, marriage and personal loyalty were the key to Afghan politics, as they are today.

From the beginning of the nineteenth century rivals for power (of which there were many in a polygamous marriage system) increasingly sought the support of foreign powers to defeat each other, bring their Durrani clansmen under control, and bring the rest of the population under control. And as the boundaries of the Russian Empire and the British Raj began to approach each other, those great imperial powers developed their own interests in intervening in the affairs of the Afghan state.

Although intense competition for influence over Afghan affairs developed between the Russians and the British throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, and to an extent right up to the Second World War, neither side thought it beneficial to colonise Afghanistan. There were three reasons for this: total subjugation by either side would have placed the two powers in outright military confrontation, which neither wished to risk; Afghanistan was not known to have immediately exploitable resources which would have made it worthwhile; and the relative independence and warlike nature of the tribes made conditions highly unfavourable to foreign invaders.

There were two Anglo-Afghan Wars in the nineteenth century. Britain lost only one set-piece battle, but during each war the British Government under which the invasion had been initiated was replaced at general election by one that was opposed to it. Each dismissed the Viceroy who had ordered the invasion, and withdrew the Anglo-Indian forces back to India.

These experiences convinced both the British and the Russians that it would be best for Afghanistan to be a buffer state between them. The problem was that each wanted to make sure it had sufficient influence in the country to pre-empt any moves by the other. Each tried either to have a friendly government in Kabul, or to undermine the power of the Kabul Government by allying themselves with regional and tribal leaders in their respective zones of influence.

Foreign intervention and domestic disorder throughout the nineteenth century fatally undermined the capacity of even the most capable Afghan rulers to establish and maintain a national consensus. It was simply not possible to establish a modern system of government, and Afghanistan remained a patchwork of microsocieties.

There were also fundamentally important ramifications for Afghan sovereignty. In the course of the Second Anglo-Afghan War the Amir Muhammad Yaqub Khan, who had just succeeded his father Sher Ali to the throne, was forced to sign the Treaty of Gandamak, the most humiliating treaty ever signed by an Afghan ruler. Under its provisions:

- The Amir surrendered control of Afghanistan’s foreign relations to Britain

- Britain was allowed to establish a resident mission in Kabul, with European members

- Jurisdiction over the Khorram and Pishin Valleys and the Khyber Pass was passed to the British

- Britain secured certain commercial benefits

- A telegraph line was to be established between Kabul and British India.

The massacre of the British mission in 1879 set the stage for another British invasion of Afghanistan, which culminated in the British recognising a new Afghan ruler, Abdur Rahman, who accepted the provisions of the Treaty of Gandamak, with the modification that the British residents were all to be Indian Muslims.

Abdur Rahman turned out to be a very capable ruler, and also a very ruthless one. He identified the ethno-tribal homogeneity of Afghanistan and the Anglo-Russian competition as the principal source of Afghanistan’s problems. He saw Islam as the common chord which would enable him to consolidate his rule, centralise power and create national unity.

At the same time he made extensive use of brutal force. He built a disciplined national army and embarked on a campaign of “internal imperialism”, conquering most areas of the country that were either insubordinate or effectively independent, and placing his mostly Pashtun followers in key military and administrative positions. As with every previous ruler, Pashtun superiority was at the core of Abdur Rahman’s system of rule. This led to great oppression in the non-Pashtun areas to the north of the Hindu Kush.

Abdur Rahman reconquered the Uzbek-populated lands which had been independent Khanates until they were conquered by Ahmad Shah between 1750 and 1752. They had rebelled by 1756 and subsequently regained their independence. Dost Mohammad attacked them in the mid 1850s, and Abdur Rahman finally brought them under complete control, using methods just short of genocide. In Bamiyan, the region where in 2001 the Taliban blew up the magnificent sixth century Bamiyan Buddhas, the Hazara population was thoroughly ethnically cleansed to make way for Taraki Pashtuns. Abdur Rahman kept Afghanistan together, but he did so by terror, intensifying the ethnic polarisation of the country.

Abdur Rahman died of natural causes in 1901 and his successors Habibullah Khan (ruled 1901-1919) and Habibullah’s son Amanullah Khan (1919-1929) ushered in both independence and modernisation. Habibullah opened independence talks with British India in 1918. The British were resistant to the idea of full Afghan independence and opted for procrastination and delay. Upon his accession to the throne, Amanullah decided that the best way to secure unconditional independence was through a military confrontation. In April 1919 he declared a jihad against Britain and launched the Afghan War of Independence, or Third Anglo-Afghan War. The war lasted a month, an armistice was proclaimed on 3 June 1919, and after a lot of haggling about just how independent Afghanistan was to be, a new Treaty was signed on 22 November 1922.

Having achieved the goal of independence, Amanullah was in a position to press on with the modernisation program. In 1924 he established a military draft system in which all males were called up for two years’ full time service from age 21. The aim was to create a professional force which could participate in the modernisation program in peacetime, and fulfil an effective law enforcement and deterrent-defensive role.

The military reform turned out to be a disaster. In a poor country with an inadequate tax base, the troops were ill-kept and ill-fed, and the sanitary conditions of the cantonments were very poor. The rich could bribe their way out of their service and stay home, so the program really only applied to the poor. The soldiers weren’t paid enough to support themselves and had either to get permission to undertake private work to supplement their incomes, or desert and return home, in which case the officers normally went on drawing the absent conscripts’ military pay and pocketed it. It didn’t bother the Turkish training officers – they were happy to keep their heads down and enjoy their expat allowances.

The failure of the military modernisation was disastrous in another sense. In the absence of the national political unity which was a function of the tribal situation and the multi-ethnicity of the society, a strong, professional and independent army seemed essential to enable the introduction of the other changes that the modernisation program would demand. Indeed, when Amanullah visited Turkey in 1928 he received advice to this effect from Atatürk, based on Atatürk’s own experiences. He said to Amanullah:

Do not engage yourself in reforms threatening the interests of the nobility and of the clergy unless and until you have a strong army.

Fast forward to the present, in which at the time of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 we entered a civil war between the predominantly Pashtun nationalist Taliban, and the predominantly non-Pashtun (Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek) Northern Alliance, backed by Uzbekistan and to a limited extent by Tajikistan, and consider the question of a 200,000-strong, or maybe 400,000-strong Afghan national army. In the circumstances of today this is going to be an internal security force rather than a national defence force. Amanullah wanted it to be both, but in the circumstances of the1920s he had the newly-minted Bolshevik Russia to worry about, plus a British India that had only accepted Afghan independence through gritted teeth.

The questions that occur to me are:

(1) Who is going to pay a living wage to a standing army of this size?

The Afghan tax base would hardly be up to it. Can we really imagine that the NATO countries that are currently involved in Afghanistan will have the attention span to sustain the cost of this, plus equipment and training costs, for the number of years that will be required?

(2) What will be the ethnic composition of this standing national army? Will it attempt to be blind to ethnicity, and if so how, or will there be an effort to achieve some sort of ethnic “balance” and if so, how?

(3) If it seeks to be blind to ethnicity, what policies will there be regarding the languages to be used?

There are two official languages in Afghanistan. Pashto, spoken as their first language by about 35% of the population, is an Indo-European language which is primarily spoken in the east, south and southwest. It is defined in the constitution as an official and national language. The second is Dari, a term which refers to the dialects of the Persian language that are spoken in Afghanistan. It is reportedly spoken by about 50% of the population. As well as being another official language, it serves as a lingua franca.

There are about thirty other languages spoken, including Turkic languages and Arabic, i.e., non Indo-European languages that bear no relationship to the predominant Persian derived languages. The Hazaras who comprise about 15% of the population seem to be of Mongol origin and speak a unique dialect of the Persian language, with many Mongolian and Turkish elements.

In the first training of the new Afghan National Army undertaken at Fort Bragg from May 2002, training was undertaken in Pashto, Tajik and Arabic, in recognition of the ethnic diversity of the students. At least that is the theory of it; reportedly recruits who only spoke Pashto had difficulty because training was conducted through interpreters who only spoke Dari. And one wonders where this leaves the Turkic speakers such as the Uzbeks of northern Afghanistan.

(4) Will there be policies about the ethnicity of the units to be deployed into particular areas? Given the brutal persecution of the Shi’a Hazaras by the Sunni Pashtun Taliban, would we be happy to deploy into the Hazara areas units that were predominantly Pashtun?

(5) How willing would Sunnis anywhere in Afghanistan be to accept the deployment of units that were predominantly Shi’a Hazaras, whom they regard as heretics?

(6) More generally, how do we avoid the effective Afghan National Army that we are trying to create becoming the instrument of the re-establishment of Afghanistan as a Pashtun empire?

I think that what General McChrystal is trying to do is the only course that offers any hope. But to the extent that he succeeds in creating an effective 400,000 man national army in Afghanistan, he will be creating a force that would be a very dangerous weapon in the wrong hands.

In the right hands it could realise the dreams of the 1920s Young Afghans to use the army as an instrument of modernisation and national unity modelled on what Atatürk achieved in Turkey. In the wrong hands, it could become a very efficient new instrument of national oppression.


The principal source for the history of Afghanistan cited above is Amin Saikal, Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival, I.B. Taurus, London, 2004.

1 comment:

Benjamin Ausghan said...

As an Afghan Aussie, I truly enjoyed your blog. It captures a vivid snapshot of Afghanistan, its composition, historical challenges and current challenges.

Challenges indicated in your essay no doubt have been identified and analysed by the coalition governments involved in Afghanistan. Meaning they well know this in advance, that having a large army (as you say) "In the wrong hands, it could become a very efficient new instrument of national oppression"

From the beginning of so called "War On Terror" each nation involved in the war in Afghanistan spent Billions of dollars. For instance, Australia has spent over six billion in the past 11 years on the war in Afghanistan. Had the Australian government had a clear vision and policy in Afghanistan they would have allocated at least 10% of the six billion dollar on the capacity building in Afghanistan to produce Afghan trainers. In other words, $600 million should have been spent to first class Afghan trainers with the high skills, standards and military moral. This $600 million would have yielded more than 6000 elite Afghan trainers. Consequently, not only we did not have to expose our soldiers to train general Afghan army but the 6000 strong trainers could have become the backbone of the Afghan defence force with we could have relied upon.

Furthermore, this formula of investing 10% of total expenditure could have been replicated by other nations involved in the war in Afghanistan. In your blog you clearly indicate the primary reason for failing to modernise the AFghan army as the lack of funding and capacity to implement the change.I suggest that the foreign intervention that went on for over 10 years now should not stop abruptly. Rather, the resources should be gradually shifted from direct foreign military engagement in the battlefield to the building the Afghan capacity. Based on my personal observation and experience, lack of education and having the talent to lead and manage the country has been the primary source of failure in the Afghan history.

It is also worth mentioning, the current process of abrupt withdrawal in 2014 will return Taliban back to power which will cause the other sects of the community to fight against them. In simple terms, Afghanistan will experience another round of civil war which will be way way more deadlier and destructive than the previous wars.