Briefing Book

How to Whip the Afghan Army Into Shape

Much of President Barack Obama's strategy rests on the creation of a new, more competent Afghan military. Here's what he'll need to know to get the job done.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

In his Nov. 28 speech at West Point laying out his military strategy for Afghanistan, U.S. President Barack Obama explained that success hinges on developing Afghan security forces that can control the country on their own. Tasked with the responsibility of figuring out how to develop them is Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, newly arrived in Kabul. According to the New York Times, Caldwell intends to devote unprecedented time and effort to improving the quality of Afghanistan’s security force leadership, rather than merely concentrating on increasing the quantity of troops. This is an overdue change that promises real improvements.

In Afghanistan, poorly led soldiers and policemen have often proved useless or worse. For the past eight years, the lack of leadership in Afghan police and militia units has resulted in egregious abuses of power that have helped convince thousands of Pashtun tribal elders to support the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Those abuses have too seldom offset forceful action against insurgents. Increasing the number of Afghan troops, which some analysts believe must be the top priority, will not solve any of these problems without sound leadership. As U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry has aptly pointed out, "Ten good police are better than 100 corrupt police, and 10 corrupt police can do more damage to our success than one Taliban extremist."

In developing the Afghan National Security Forces, the U.S. and Afghan governments must combine short-term fixes with long-term development.  It is a project that will take longer than American policymakers would like, no matter how many resources they allocate to it. It will also require smart use of U.S. resources.

Of the potential remedies for inferior Afghan leadership, the replacement of bad Afghan commanders with better ones is an obvious choice, but not an easy one. Numerous commanders in the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) hold their positions because they have friends or relatives in the upper echelons of President Hamid Karzai’s government and those patrons have been known to demonstrate resolve and guile in protecting their protégés.

A case in point is Brig. Gen. Shams, former commander of the 2nd Brigade, 201st Corps. Shams had far too little experience for a brigade commander and owed his position to political connections. Devoting more of his time to socializing in Jalalabad than to leading his brigade, he failed to organize any brigade-level operations, and corruption ran rampant within his unit. American advisors eventually appealed to higher levels of the Afghan government for help, but high-level Afghan leaders blocked action against Shams for many months. In the end, thankfully, U.S. persistence induced Karzai’s office to authorize the brigade commander’s relief.

We are fortunate that the most relevant cabinet officers — Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Mohammed Hanif Atmar — are committed to meritocracy and that both have just been reappointed to the cabinet. They have worked hard to remove poor commanders. Wardak has been around since 2004, whereas Atmar was appointed only last fall, which helps explain why the commanders of the Afghan National Army are considerably better than those of the Afghan National Police. But Karzai’s office is still interfering in personnel matters to such an extent that even the cabinet ministers cannot rid their ministries of the president’s friends, relatives, and political supporters.

While continuing to encourage the process of removing incompetent and corrupt officers, the U.S. and Afghan governments must also invest heavily in developing more good ones. By all accounts, the Afghan officer corps does not have enough capable officers to lead the security forces already in existence, let alone an expanded force. A U.S. Defense Department Inspector General’s report published in September states, "The ANA has historically been and continues to be critically short of trained and qualified junior officers and NCOs, personnel essential to providing sound unit leadership." And the fraction of officers qualified for duty is much lower in the ANP than the ANA.

Past experiences in countries such as Vietnam, El Salvador, and Iraq suggest that developing adequate mid level commanders takes at least 10 years and requires excellent recruitment programs and training standards. This is above all a task for the Afghan government — but the United States will play a crucial supporting role.

In the short term, the United States and its NATO allies must provide direction for and inspiration to the numerous Afghan units lacking decent leaders. One way is to allocate large numbers of U.S. advisors to embed with the ANA and ANP, from the highest offices to the lowest individual units. In prior counterinsurgencies, the United States sent one American for every 50 or 100 host-nation troops. The NATO training mission has recently been assigning one NATO advisor for every three or four Afghans, and this approach is working well. It is permitting the advisors to provide more guidance to the Afghans and to spot more often the abuses of power that have wracked the Afghan forces.

The attachment of so many foreign troops to Afghan units is reminiscent of the Vietnam-era combined action platoons, one of the most successful counterinsurgency initiatives in recent history. Although the success of the Combined Action Program has often been attributed to its focus on population security and civil affairs, the real cause was superior leadership. Composed of a squad of U.S. Marines and a platoon of South Vietnamese militiamen, the combined action platoons outperformed ordinary South Vietnamese militia units primarily because they had better leaders. On paper, the South Vietnamese militia commanders were equal partners with the Marine commanders. In practice, a Marine officer or NCO almost always held command. As one study of the program explains, "The major variable affecting the performance of military operations is the leadership ability of the Marine squad leader. This man is the key to the entire operation, and on his capabilities all else hinges." In some Afghan National Police units with weak commanders, U.S. advisors are already performing at least a portion of leadership duties, whether by telling the Afghan commanders what to do or by issuing orders to the Afghan policemen directly.

Until now, Afghanistan’s allies have sent too few advisors to permit accompaniment of Afghan forces down to the platoon or squad levels as well. The recent Defense Department Inspector General’s report found advisor shortfalls in excess of 50 percent. The United States’ NATO partners cannot be counted upon to fill the gap, so the United States will have to provide most of the resources. Furthermore, for the past eight years, many of the NATO personnel assigned to work with Afghans have not possessed the right skills — lacking expertise in guerrilla warfare, civil affairs, intelligence, or other important counterinsurgency activities. At present, the United States is in the process of taking action to correct these deficiencies, most importantly by deploying an entire active-duty Army brigade combat team to fill advisory billets.

Another method that can bolster the Afghan forces is partnering, which lies at the heart of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategy for the escalation. Partnering can take different forms, and these forms can vary widely in effectiveness. One model, often used in recent years, partners U.S. and Afghan units that operate from different bases. Typically, the U.S. soldiers and Afghans leave their bases, meet up to conduct operations for a day or two, and then go back to their bases. This approach allows the U.S. forces to live at forward operating bases that are easy to supply, easy to defend, and replete with creature comforts. But it gives the U.S. troops too little contact with the Afghan forces and the Afghan people. Afghan forces left unattended are more likely to mistreat the population and come under attack from insurgents. And Afghan people left unattended are more likely to abet the insurgents and ignore counterinsurgent requests for help. Because of these shortcomings, some U.S. forces are now moving off the larger bases and collocating with Afghan forces near the population. This approach succeeded under good U.S. commanders in Iraq and has shown promise in Afghanistan.

Afghan forces’ reliance on Americans for leadership tasks will have a number of negative consequences in the near term. Some Afghan commanders will sit back and let the Americans do their work for them. Some U.S. commanders will relegate their Afghan partners to unimportant tasks because of doubts about their competence or loyalty. Consequently, the development of Afghanistan’s leaders will be slowed. But it is better than the alternative: the disintegration and defection of Afghan security units. The magnitude of these problems can, moreover, be reduced by U.S. commanders if they insist that Afghan leaders gradually take on more responsibilities and if they invest time and effort to help the Afghans become better leaders.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola