Is the Afghan Army in Danger of Growing Too Strong?
Yesterday: The U.S. military is focused on strengthening Afghan security forces as the key to its exit strategy. But a year after the Obama administration outlined a new strategy for Afghanistan that emphasizes the need for much greater civilian involvement, the U.S. civilian effort remains anemic, particularly in the critical areas of governance and justice.
CAMP PARSA, Afghanistan—In Khost, the Afghan army is quickly beginning to look like the only capable government entity on the scene, and Afghans recognize it as such. On the downside, about 900 of the 3,700 soldiers in the 1st Afghan Brigade, 203rd Corps, were AWOL when I visited, and because of hitches in the personnel system, many were still being paid. On the upside, Khost is the only place in Afghanistan where I've seen Afghan troops actually resupplying their own soldiers with fuel they trucked themselves over dangerous roads to a small, remote base.
The Afghan army's progress in Khost may be something of a national exception. The province has a military tradition dating back to the 1950s, when generals traveled there regularly to recruit young talent from local schools, said Candace Rondeaux, the International Crisis Group's senior analyst for Afghanistan. Khost was also the place where U.S. troops began building the first Afghan army battalion, Rondeaux said. "It has real historic import in terms of military development."
Senior Afghan military officers don't usually work late, but the night I arrived at Camp Parsa, a sprawling Afghan army base in Khost, Brig. Gen. Zahir Wardak, the Afghan brigade's second in command, was on the phone long after a typical workday ends, relaying instructions to a field commander in Sabari, a violent area where U.S. Special Forces and Afghan commandos were about to launch a mission. The new American approach that had an Afghan general up in the middle of the night talking to field commanders is called Combined Action, and it has produced some admirable results in Khost, a prosperous but contentious eastern province near the Pakistani border, where militants loyal to the father-son team of Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani have been fighting U.S. and coalition forces for years.
When the U.S. 1-40 Airborne Cavalry arrived at Camp Parsa in November to begin this intensive mentoring effort, the Afghan army operation was "a 9-to-5 deal," said Lt. Col. Rob Campbell, the 1-40 commander.
"They would just come in in the morning and get their updates. They were comfortable here on the big base, and they'd get to go to bed at night," he said. "They weren't fighting the war."
With a few plywood dividers and some hastily built desks, the Americans turned a gigantic empty warehouse on the Afghan base into a combined U.S. and Afghan Tactical Operations Center, known in military-speak as a TOC. The big room looks much like the hard-wired nerve center that can be found on any U.S. base, with amphitheater-style seating, streaming drone footage, and classified maps projected on screens up front.
Here, American officers spend their days working alongside their Afghan counterparts, building relationships and granting the Afghans unprecedented access to U.S. intelligence, air power, weapons, and high-resolution surveillance cameras. Combined Action grew out of a series of directives issued by Gen. Stanley McChrystal in a bid to improve and speed training of the Afghan army, Campbell said, but many specific initiatives at Parsa have been his idea.
Every morning at 9, Afghan officers from each of the battalions brief the Afghan brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Asrar Aqdass, and U.S. officers in the TOC using PowerPoint slides in English and Dari. Junior officers read, sometimes haltingly, from intelligence reports, damage estimates from enemy attacks, and accounts of successfully disarmed bombs or captured insurgents. When I visited, a logistics officer used charts to show scheduled deliveries of firewood and food to outlying bases. Someone else detailed the number of soldiers killed and wounded, their injuries—a broken back, a torn eardrum—and treatment status.
All this sounds fairly standard if you're not familiar with the way the Afghan army has historically done business, with the general lack of concern among senior officers for the welfare of junior officers or enlisted men, and with the impossibility, under normal circumstances, of quickly and accurately relaying battlefield conditions to senior commanders and vice versa. By most accounts, Afghan soldiers aren't afraid to fight. But their leaders are often lazy, corrupt, and almost comically removed from what's happening on the ground.
"What I inherited when I got here was an Afghan army that was largely formed, trained, and equipped to shoot, move, and communicate at the basic level, but they weren't operating properly," Campbell told me. "Gen. Asrar now has situational awareness as to what's going on. He can issue guidance, they can publish orders, he can talk to a [battalion] through a liaison officer or radio operator, not on his cell phone like he used to do. And he can do it in front of, looking at, a map … and make smarter decisions."
While teaching others to create PowerPoint briefings as mind-numbing as the U.S. Army's own may not be the best use of American military power, the slides do force Afghan officers to think through their missions, each of which must have a clear objective. They force generals to consider every day how many of their men are dead or wounded and whether soldiers in an outlying base have enough supplies to survive the week.
In his office, drinking tea from a mug bearing the crossed swords of the U.S. Cavalry, Brig. Gen. Asrar told me that partnering with Campbell's battalion had transformed his brigade. Previously, only a small American mentoring team had been assigned to them. Now, in addition to a whole battalion of full-time American mentors, the U.S. presence had revealed to Asrar key events that took place in his territory but lay outside his control, such as the night raid in Sabari.
"I must answer to the chief of army staff about everything the units are doing in Khost province," Gen. Asrar told me. "Before, the Special Forces or Rangers would do a mission with the Afghan commandos, and I wouldn't be able to tell him what was going on, because I didn't know."
But Asrar wasn't just the top military commander in Khost. He was also coming to be viewed as the area's most effective leader. I had watched him a few days earlier at a security meeting with other local officials. The governor, who usually attended the meeting, was away on business, so Asrar took his chair at the head of the table. When a group of merchants from the Khost chamber of commerce filed in to complain about high taxes at the customs house, they directed their pleas at Asrar.
The men threatened a street demonstration. They paid as much tax on their imports as businessmen in Jalalabad, they said, yet the roads they traveled were unpaved and dangerous, and the customs house in Khost had no scale and no warehouse to store goods when they arrived. This was a problem of governance, but governance was absent. Asrar put his head in his hands. "We cannot make Khost an exception if this is a national law," he told the businessmen. They urged him to call the head of the local customs house. Asrar wearily picked up his cell phone and made the call.
Later, I asked Asrar about the meeting. Hadn't he been doing the governor's job?
Asrar considered the question. If it had happened, the demonstration could have posed a security threat, he said, and although people had the right to protest, he had an interest in keeping things quiet. But he acknowledged that the army is widely viewed as more honest, efficient, and dependable than the government.
"Everyone is looking at the Afghan army as the only ones who don't take money," Asrar said. "In the government, they are just taking money and putting it in their pocket, and nothing is being done. … We are not here only for security. We're busy with governance, too."
This made sense, considering who Asrar's mentors were. Thanks to the Counterinsurgency Field Manual and Gen. McChrystal's guidance, American officers in Afghanistan often act more like diplomats or aid workers than soldiers. "If we want the Afghan National Army to get out of governance, we cannot worry about governance," one American officer told me. "The generals and the colonels are focusing on governance and development, when it should be the Department of State taking the lead on that. But [the State Department] is in with the military. USAID is under the military. And who's making the ideas for this COIN fight but generals who are politicians?"
U.S. forces are creating the Afghan army in their own image: as an institution that not only fights but hosts meetings with elders, hands out humanitarian aid, and crafts a sophisticated media strategy ahead of its battles, conveniently filling gaps left by the frail and corrupt government and justice system. This may sound like a good thing, but an army is not a government. An army is not a justice system. A country run by an army is usually not that responsive to the will of its people.
"I am a little concerned about it," admitted Lt. Col. Campbell, the 1-40 commander, "because the government is not where it needs to be right now. Some of the [district subgovernors] shouldn't be subgovs. They were appointed versus being voted in, and there are large issues with them. We don't want to turn this into a military state. We certainly don't. We certainly want to let the government flourish here."
A competent army that props up a weak government must either seize control or fail by association. Afghan soldiers know this. Capt. Mohammad Rasul, a 37-year-old planning officer, served six years in the Afghan army before the Taliban came to power, and he rejoined after 2001. He has a thin, intelligent face; hair graying prematurely at the temples; and rose-tinted glasses that do not keep him from seeing his troubled country clearly.
"If all the Afghan soldiers do the right thing to connect the people to the government but there is corruption in the government, people will not support the Afghan National Army either," he told me. "We should bring change to the government. If we have administrative corruption, if we have ethnic discrimination, we cannot actually run this country. That's the end."
The Americans should work as assiduously to mentor government officials as they do soldiers, he said. Otherwise, whatever good the Afghan army does may be in vain.
"We will ask ourselves, why are we doing this?" Rasul said. "We are fighting violence and insurgency, but we have violence and insurgency in our government."