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By Michael J Williams
NATO has tried various strategies since 2001 to stabilise Afghanistan, including counterinsurgency operations (COIN) as well as significant development and rule of law programmes. Now all hope for security in Afghanistan seems to rest with the Afghan National Army (ANA), which is seen by many Western policy-makers as the only viable 'exit strategy' for NATO forces.
The ANA is not the sole security force in Afghanistan and it is not omnipresent. Large sections of the north and west of Afghanistan, for example, are more reliant on the Afghan National Police (ANP) and Afghan Local Police (ALP) for security than the ANA. Furthermore, the endemic corruption of the Afghan government is reason to question that the assumption that the civilian leadership in Kabul can continue to support and fund the military. Indeed, corruption amongst civilian leaders might prompt the ANA to stage a coup and seize power at some point down the road. Despite these issues, however, it is worth noting that NATO has made significant progress in developing a professional armed force over the last two years.
The development of the ANA got off to a slow start. By the end of 2002 the British trained battalion of six hundred men was already down to 200. By the end of 2006 the ANA had swelled to 30,128 relatively well equipped regulars. Massive NATO efforts and redevelopment of the training programmes after 2008 led to the creation of the current ANA with about 195,000 troops. Formal ANA training is conducted at three locations and British support for the 'Sandhurst in the Sand' is important to the continued professionalisation of the officer corps - a difficult task given the lack of qualified candidates.
Many of the traditional problems in developing a centralised Afghan army that have plagued Afghanistan since the 1800's have resurfaced in current efforts to build the ANA. Recruitment has been relatively robust, but the quality of the recruits is often rather low. The volunteers are brave, but must lack a formal education due to the 1995-2005 collapse of the state. The National Traning Mission - Afghanistan (NTM-A) has worked with local tribal and religious leaders to recruit soldiers. A fair number of elders have assisted NATO in recruiting young men under the rubric of Afghan nationalism and rebuilding Afghanistan. This support is extremely important to securing new recruits - opposition from the local community would defeat recruitment efforts.
Based on interviews I conducted with senior officials in Afghanistan, the current overall attrition rate according to NTM-A is 27% for the ANA; the norm should be 17%. The Afghan National Air Force (ANAF) attrition rate is much lower at 9%. All the forces are exceeding their retention and re-enlistment goals with the ANA having a reenlistment rate of 63% and the ANAF a very robust 80% reenlistment rate. According to NTM-A the primary reasons soldiers desert or do not re-enlist include homesickness, poor leadership, and family pressure. While the overall trend in the ANA has been improvement, understaffing is still an issue, as is desertion and training.
The most pressing challenges facing NATO's military trainers in 2013 as the alliance moves to a post-NATO Afghanistan in 2015 are threefold: ANA operational effectiveness, cooption of the armed forces by patrimonial networks and maintenance of the civil-military balance.
The ANA's operational effectiveness is uncertain. During joint operations, ANA forces are in the lead, but NATO is always close by to bail out the ANA if trouble develops. The NATO troops in country therefore create a moral hazard. Does the ANA call in NATO help because they need it, or do they call it in because it is easier than doing the fighting themselves? We won't have an answer to this question until the ANA stands on its own after 2014. NGOs and the UN in Northern Afghanistan, however, told me their area of operations contracted last year when German forces handed over responsibility for the eastern and westernmost portions of ISAF Regional Command-North (RC-North) to the ANA. NATO is thus focusing on continued combat training, as well as the development of the Afghan National Air Force, so that within a few years the ANAF will be able to provide close air support to the ANA - currently NATO provides all close air support.
The patrimonial nature of Afghan politics and its traditional 'limited access order' makes infiltration of the ANA by such networks of concern. Patrimonial networks seek to secure loyalty within the ANA for personal agendas. Problematically, the US reinforced this problem by paying warlords to help 'secure' Afghanistan, therefore strengthening the forces against state centralisation rather than weakening them. NATO must be careful to weed out such influence so that after 2014 the ANA does not collapse into factionalism.
The other major concern is not ANA disintegration, but the ANA's domestic strength - maintaining a balance between the armed forces and civilian government is challenging. The military as an institution developed faster than the civilian institutions. The ANA is relatively efficient, well organised and operates along a chain of command. The danger is that, like the military in Pakistan, the ANA will be tempted to intervene directly in governance. This is especially of concern given the levels of corruption within the civilian government; such corruption is a traditional factor leading to a military coup. The ANA has been trained to reflect NATO's 'gold standard' civil-military balance - hopefully this training prevails, but that remains to be seen. If not, rather than stabilising Afghanistan, the ANA may end up destabilising it.
Many of the current challenges hinge on the ability of Kabul's civilians to continue support and development of the ANA. It is not clear that the ANA is independently strong enough to survive in the highly corrupt and inept conditions plaguing the civilian government. No coherent and organised military has existed in Afghanistan since 1991.
Given the challenges in Afghanistan, NATO's National Training Mission should be applauded for establishing a rather professional and effective force. That does not mean, however, that NATO can reduce current efforts - if anything, NATO must double down over the next 18 months to improve the ANA as much as possible. At the same time NATO must apply considerably more pressure to the civilian government to root out corruption - not one major corruption case has yet to come to trial. And the integrity of the police must become an issue of more primary importance. Otherwise the progress within the ANA will most likely be for want.
Dr Michael John Williams is Reader in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London. This article is based on field research carried out in Afghanistan on civil-military relations that will be published at length later this year.