Photo Essay

Portrait of the Nation as a Young Army

The varied faces on Afghanistan's front line.

By Deni Béchard

KABUL — “I have seen no conflicts, because we are brothers,” the 21-year-old cadet told me. He was Pashtun — a member of Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group — and a third-year at the country’s National Military Academy, on his way to becoming an officer. We were discussing ethnic tensions within the Afghan military.

The academy is located on Kabul’s western outskirts, in Qargha district, a valley through which many of the city’s historic invaders have passed, its hills having provided defense against invaders from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan. In the 1980s, the Soviets built a military camp there; in 2005, the academy, modeled after West Point, was established on its grounds. The cadet and I were sitting on a hill overlooking the campus. Row after row of unfinished cinder-block buildings and khaki Quonset huts stood against a backdrop of arid, deeply eroded mountains beyond which stood higher, snow-veined ranges — a reminder of how much geography has reinforced the country’s cultural divisions.

The topic of ethnicity is never far from the surface in conversations among those charged with protecting and rebuilding Afghanistan, as U.S. and international forces continue their slow withdrawal from the country. Even if the Taliban insurgency were less aggressive, unity among the various ethnic groups would be difficult: Numerous challenges stand in the way, from tribalism to contrasting cultural values, from allegiances to local warlords to competing regional economic interests.

Yet almost everyone I spoke to during May and June 2014, while embedded with the Afghan National Army (ANA), echoed the words of the young cadet I’d spoken with on the hillside: Ethnic conflicts within the military — a major threat to the army’s success — do not exist. (All requested anonymity for the purpose of protecting their families.) They expressed pride and confidence in the ANA and believed that, with some difficulty, it could protect Afghanistan.

Governing Afghanistan has always required navigating a thicket of tribal and ethnic interests, particularly the rivalry between Pashtuns and Tajiks, the country’s two major ethnic groups. Maintaining ethnic balance in the military has been a challenge for the Afghan government, even as U.S. military advisors have pushed for inclusivity in the hopes that the ANA would foster a sense of national identity by bringing together people from disparate backgrounds, much as the military has in the United States. Among Pashtuns, the military is seen as a Tajik-dominated institution — a problem that was discussed as early as 2002, when many Pashtuns in the government accused Mohammed Fahim, then the defense minister and vice president, of appointing mainly Tajik senior officers. (In 2004, after the elections, then-President Hamid Karzai did not reappoint him.) To create a military representative of Afghans and capable of winning the public’s trust, early in the development of the ANA, the Defense Ministry established target recruitment goals. They roughly correspond to the country’s ethnic makeup: 44 percent Pashtun, 25 percent Tajik, 10 percent Hazara, 8 percent Uzbek, and 13 percent other.

But in reality, the percentages have shaken out slightly differently. Enlistment of Pashtuns, among whom there is generally thought to be significantly more sympathy for the Taliban (whose members, like the Pashtuns, are largely from the country’s south and east), is at about 39 percent, while even at the National Military Academy, Tajiks remain overrepresented. And trust between the army and public at large remains a problem: The army must often work around ethnic tensions between the military and local people in order to do its job, said one U.S. military advisor to the Afghan special forces, on condition of anonymity. Generals may still prevent contingents with non-Pashtun leaders from pursuing the Taliban into Pashtun areas — for instance, he told me, out of fear that civilians who feel persecuted when soldiers from a different ethnic group search their homes and collect weapons might take their complaints to Pashtun members of government.

The academy’s cadets told me that they had received specific training that ethnicity should never be discussed — doing so is forbidden, they said — and that, as future officers, they must represent all of Afghanistan. The only cadet to describe any conflicts at the academy, a young Pashtun man from Wardak province, which abuts Kabul to the east and has a strong Taliban presence, told me that only during the recent election campaigns had students begun to get in arguments over tribal and ethnic interests. He also said that there was some favoritism in the academy toward those who had powerful family connections, but that the situation had been getting better. “Since I have arrived, I have seen conflict between ethnicities … but the people who are responsible for the academy are trying to fix it… There are very few instructors who are creating conflict. Most of them are good.”

The Kabul Military Training Center, where thousands of soldiers and police officers go for training, is composed of dozens of low concrete buildings on a relatively flat stretch of land just off Jalalabad highway, eight miles east of the capital. When I was there, I spoke with two classes of sergeants major, all of whom had spent more than five years as soldiers and had seen combat. They, too, insisted that military service brought them closer and diminished ethnic differences. Whether they were speaking candidly, however, was hard to judge. After the interviews, my interpreter, a young Pashtun man in his 20s who came regularly to the training center with members of the International Security Assistance Force, told me that the sergeants had been lying — that there were frequent ethnic conflicts at the training center and that even that day he’d seen two soldiers almost get into a fistfight as they argued over the presidential election, which was then two weeks from a tight runoff in which ethnic tension were running high. (Abdullah Abdullah, the candidate strongly favored by the Tajiks, would win the preliminary round, though Ashraf Ghani, the leading candidate for the Pashtun majority, would go on to accuse him of fraud, leading foreign media to question whether the country — and the ANA — might split along ethnic lines.)

By the end of my time embedded with the ANA, it was clear that the cadets and soldiers I had interviewed were not always being entirely forthright. Simultaneously, it didn’t seem like the world they described — different ethnic groups working and fighting side by side, relying on each other for survival against a common enemy — was a vision to be easily dismissed. Even if conflicts arose or soldiers harbored resentment, they were also always clearly aware that overcoming ethnic differences was one of their duties, and they recognized that not doing so was a danger to both the army and their careers. In a country where ethnic conflict still takes place on a regular basis, the fact that members of a powerful institution recognized the fundamental importance of overcoming it — even if they weren’t always successful at doing so — shouldn’t be taken lightly.

During my weeks speaking to the soldiers, I was impressed by the diverse faces of those working together, and at each of my stops, first at the National Military Academy, then at the Kabul Military Training Center, and finally at Camp Thunder, in Paktia province, 50 miles from the border with Pakistan, I took portraits of Afghan soldiers to capture the startling mixture of features. I wanted to put faces to those who were crossing ethnic lines to work together and who were being wounded and killed daily, as well as show the diversity of the army that was taking responsibility for the survival of Afghanistan, as the foreign militaries packed up and departed.

All photographs by Deni Béchard.

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