´A Force in Fragments: Reconstituting the Afghan National Army´, crisisgroup

A Force in Fragments: Reconstituting the Afghan National Army

Asia Report N°190 12 May 2010



For nearly a decade, the Afghan military has been promoted as the cornerstone of counterinsurgency in the country. Billed as a rare success story in a conflict with few bright spots, the Afghan armed forces will undoubtedly prove pivotal to stabilising Afghanistan. Yet nine years after the fall of the Taliban, there appears to be little agreement between the government of President Hamid Karzai and its international backers on what kind of army the country needs, how to build it or which elements of the insurgency the Afghan army should be fighting. Persistent structural flaws meanwhile have undermined the military’s ability to operate independently. Ethnic frictions and political factionalism among high-level players in the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the general staff have also stunted the army’s growth. As a result, the army is a frag­mented force, serving disparate interests, and far from attaining the unified national character needed to confront numerous security threats. There is a strong need to strength­en civilian input into military development, confront corruption and factionalism within the MOD and general staff and to place sustainability of the armed forces at the forefront of Afghanistan’s national security strategy.

The Afghan National Army’s (ANA) strategic role in stabilising Afghanistan should not be underestimated. History has shown that failure to build a cohesive national army has often led to the diffusion of state force among disparate actors, hastening the collapse of governments in Kabul. The push to build a unified national military in service of a civilian government has frequently clashed with the tendency to create militias in a bid to insulate the state from internal and external threats. The tension between these polar conceptions has had far reaching implications not only for internal security but also for Afghanistan’s relationships with external actors.

ANA development and deployment have dragged under these tensions as well as patchwork command structures, with little coordination between NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), U.S. forces and the MOD in the early years of army development. The lack of consensus between Kabul, Washington and Brussels has hobbled the Afghan military’s capacity to respond effectively to threats confronting the state. Failure to develop a sustainable, comprehensive long-term defence posture could risk the army’s disintegration after the withdrawal of international forces. Similarly, tensions between the Afghan military’s historical roots in Soviet-style over-centralised and top-heavy command and control structures and the more fluid organisation of Western militaries has often pitted the U.S. and NATO against the very Afghan officials they seek to influence and support.

Despite billions of dollars of international investment, army combat readiness has been undermined by weak recruitment and retention policies, inadequate logistics, insufficient training and equipment and inconsistent leadership. International support for the ANA must therefore be targeted not just toward increasing the quantity of troops but enhancing the quality of the fighting force. Given the slow pace of economic development and the likelihood of an eventual drawdown of Western resources, any assessment of the future shape of the army must also make fiscal as well as political sense. Although recent efforts to consolidate the training command structure under the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) are encouraging, the U.S. emphasis on rapid expansion of the army, in response to the growing insurgent threat, could strain NTM-A resources and outpace the capacity of Afghan leaders to manage an inherently unwieldy system.

These shortcomings, combined with the international community’s haphazard approach to demobilisation and reintegration (DR) has undermined the army’s professionalism and capacity to counter the insurgency. The proliferation of weaponry provided by Kabul’s international backers also feeds an illicit shadow economy, which further empowers patronage networks within the military. Kabul powerbrokers are distributing the spoils of increased NATO spending on army development among their constituents in the officer corps, fuelling ethnic and political factionalism within army ranks.

These developments are all the more problematic in light of current proposals to reintegrate and reconcile elements of the insurgency. Limited progress on dissolution of illegal armed groups and reintegration of insurgents has given Kabul wide berth to continue its time-honoured tactic of exploiting divisions to consolidate the government’s hold over power. Government-backed reintegration programs have emerged as little more than distribution of patronage by a few Afghan elites. With Taliban groups in control of large swathes of the country since around 2007, many Afghan military leaders believe that in the current climate of high instability, the time is not right for negotiating with the insurgents, and that to do so would be from a position of weakness and not strength. Most also strongly reject proposals to reintegrate the Taliban into the ANA.

Where the Afghan government might once have had limited potential to be a legitimate guarantor of a broad negotiated peace, the Karzai regime’s unrestrained pursuit of power and wealth has bankrupted its credibility. Under these conditions, reconciliation and reintegration, as currently conceived by Kabul and the U.S.-led coalition, does not represent a route to a permanent peaceful settlement of the conflict. Nor is it an exit strategy. Rather, it is an invitation for the country to descend further into the turmoil that led the Taliban to give succour to al-Qaeda and other violent extremists in the first place. The current debate on reconciliation with the Taliban also threatens to widen factionalism within the army.

Greater civilian control of and input into the Afghan military is imperative. The Afghan government must be encouraged to strengthen its Office of National Security Council (ONSC) and to forge more dynamic institutional links between its members, the defence ministry and parliament. Failure to increase civilian input in shaping the army will heighten Afghanistan’s historic dependence on external actors and make it a permanent pawn of regional and international power games.


To the Government and President of Afghanistan:

1. Reshape the management of the ANA and MOD by strengthening legal and administrative frameworks to depoliticise the military, including:

a) implementing policies and administrative procedures with the aim of delegating authority to the field, giving greater operational control to the chief of army staff, and corps, battalion and company commanders;

b) conducting a thorough review of MOD and ANA general staff leadership with the goal of reducing factional tensions; and

c) ordering a full review of military justice codes and procedures, in consultation with parliamentary committees on defence, internal security and justice.

2. Prioritise oversight and accountability within the ANA and MOD by:

a) making appointments of the MOD inspector general and deputy inspector general subject to parliamentary approval, with time-limited terms. Criteria for nomination and appointment should emphasise higher education including graduation from university or the military academy and proven administrative experience;

b) authorising the MOD inspector general’s office to issue orders requiring respondents to produce material, information, files, and/or evidence deemed relevant to a particular audit or inquiry while imposing stiff penalties for non-compliance; and

c) enhancing and enforcing penalties for embezzlement, misuse of equipment and dereliction of duty.


3. Institute regular and broad national review of defence policies by:

a) ensuring professionalism and proper vetting of members of the ONSC by requiring council leaders to hold university degrees; requiring parliamentary approval for appointments for both the National Security Adviser and the Deputy National Security Adviser; and enforcing prohibitions against nepotism;

b) authorising the ONSC to issue orders requiring respondents of any government agency to produce material or information deemed relevant to its work, which should include publishing regular national threat assessment reports and national security strategy policy papers; and

c) creating special, term-limited parliamentary liaisons for the upper and lower house of parliament, tasked with transmitting legislative positions on defence policy to the ONSC and regularly reporting back to the defence, internal affairs and justice committees of both houses.

4. Suspend reintegration and reconciliation programs until benchmarks for implementation can be established and agreed in consultation with civil society and all three branches of government, the executive, legislature and judiciary, which should include:

a) repealing the amnesty law and establishing a transitional justice mechanism to ensure that potential candidates for reintegration and reconciliation can be held accountable for past actions;

b) creating rigorous vetting and verification mechanisms to ensure that participants adhere to guidelines formulated in consultation with the ministry of justice, the ministry of defence and civil society organisations; and

c) an intra-ministry assessment of the broad political and economic impact of potential reintegration and reconciliation programs at the local, provincial and national levels.

To the Ministry of Defence:

5. Streamline administrative structures and clarify lines of authority by defining departmental and staff roles and responsibilities, creating job descriptions and linking appointments, promotions and benefits to merit.

6. Tighten controls on allocation of resources, particularly weaponry and fuel. Enforce rules regarding the misappropriation of military resources and implement tighter inventory procedures and tracking mechanisms for the storage, transfer and repair of weaponry and other materiel.

7. Adopt and implement a comprehensive pension plan to facilitate opportunities for promotion and advancement.

8. Institute and enforce more vigorous review of contracting and procurement procedures to discourage nepotism and corruption.

9. Support military investigators, prosecutors and defence attorneys by ensuring that all are accorded full and proper access to evidence, including transport to and from investigative sites, access to documents and/or individuals related to a particular inquiry.

To the Parliament:

10. Parliament must play a more proactive role in responding to the country’s defence needs by:

a) urgently enacting pending legislation to standardise ANA personnel management;

b) guaranteeing the welfare of ANA personnel during and after their term of service;

c) enhancing the role of the ANA general staff and field commanders in appointments, promotion and disciplinary measures, including termination of duty; and

d) consulting regularly with the ONSC on legislative issues pertaining to national security and defence.

To NATO and the U.S.:

11.  Increase investment in MOD reform and building the ONSC’s capacity by:

a) assigning additional civilian advisers to MOD and regional field counterparts on the general staff, with particular emphasis on advisers with expertise in accounting, procurement, logistics, supply and engineering; and

b) prioritise training for ONSC leaders and for leaders of interagency working groups assigned under the ONSC.

12. Consider expansion of the NATO Trust Fund to increase funding for the army’s infrastructure development and the financing of army pensions, while assessing the financial sustainability of the ANA, including necessary funding for pensions and benefits, particularly for the rank and file.

13. Conduct a broad review of the training curriculum with a view to eliminating illiteracy among new recruits as well as implementing remedial reading courses for enlisted soldiers and increasing the army’s logistical capacity.

14. Outline benchmarks for transition to full Afghan control of the military, including the adoption of appropriate status of forces agreements.

Kabul/Brussels, 12 May 2010