Afghanistan Considers Conscript Army, To Mixed
February 9, 2010
By Abubakar Siddique
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Allah Nazar Akhtar entered the military as a boy
and left as a man, serving in the military for 27
years and reaching the rank of general before the
onset of civil war in the 1990s led to the dissolution
of Afghanistan's army.
Today, President Hamid Karzai is looking for more
than a few young men, and is looking at the conscript
army in which the 60-year-old general cut his teeth as
the model for the future.
"For many years, I have been visited by Afghan
community leaders who advise me to go back to some
form of conscription for the Afghan Army," Karzai said
in the German city of Munich on February 7. "So the
young boys from the Afghan countryside can, like
before, come to training centers, get acquainted with
the rest of the country, get familiarized with other
young men around the country, and learn something and
go back home."
Karzai announced his administration's intentions to
return to a conscript military, whose demise came with
the collapse of the central government in 1992, while
speaking to a select group of world leaders and
officials at the Munich Security Conference.
Karzai said that bringing back the draft is
"philosophically one of our pursuits ahead" as the
country tries to show it can stand on its own feet. If
Kabul's own military and police forces -- whose
combined ranks are projected to swell to 300,000 by
the end of next year -- are to take over security
responsibilities, major changes would appear to be in
order. And conscription could go a long way toward
overhauling the current 90,000-strong volunteer army,
which depends almost entirely on the international
community for funding, training, and equipment.
Former Afghan military officers have mixed views
about the suggestion of reinstating conscription,
which previously entailed every able-bodied youth
serving for two years. Some consider it a step forward
in building a viable Afghan Army -- a force that Kabul
could eventually sustain and manage even after
international assistance dries up. Others point to the
weaknesses of the current government and suggest that
implementing the conscription model would be neither
prudent nor practical.
'Very Good Idea'
Despite efforts to diversify, the military remains
dominated by young men with ties to former mujahedin
factions. General Akhtar, who once headed the Afghan
border security forces, tells RFE/RL that a drafted
army could help remedy this by drawing on a larger
pool of recruits.
"Conscription is a very good idea because it can
contribute to strengthening national unity," he says.
"When [ethnic] Uzbek, Hazara, Turkmen, and Tajik
soldiers live and eat together, they know that they
are all working for the common goal [of defending
Akhtar, however, says a draft will only work now if
the recruits are offered adequate financial
compensation, because Kabul still does not control all
Afghan territory and without sufficient incentives
fewer youths are likely to answer the call for
Few former Afghan security officers think it's that
General Abdul Wahid Taqat, a former communist-era
Afghan intelligence official, tells RFE/RL that young
men can only be attracted to serve in the military if
they have faith in the political system and its
leaders. Taqat says that years of warfare, combined
with the current volunteer army's heavy reliance on
soldiers and officers with ties to the anti-Soviet
mujahedin, undermine the military-patriotic culture
the country is trying to establish.
"The soldiers won't join voluntarily now," he says.
"If they are forced to serve in the military it would
create a major tragedy because they would not be
serving to fulfill their patriotic duty. They will
ask, 'Why am I fighting? For whom am I being killed?
And whose interests am I protecting and serving?' "
Taqat suggests that Afghanistan's leaders must
focus on strengthening the leadership core of their
professional force. And he suggests the best way would
be to recall communist-era officers, who can start
performing their duties with little training.
Difficult To Motivate
Former Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali
offers a similar prognosis. He tells RFE/RL that the
viability and sustainability of Afghanistan's
government and its control over its territory are the
basic prerequisites for a conscript military to work
"When they see that the government is not working
very well, and it is not protecting the population,
and it is not doing much to fight the impunity and the
corruption, I think it is very difficult for people to
be motivated to serve that country unless they are
forced to do so," he says.
"And forced conscription has never worked in
Afghanistan. When the government does not have control
over its territory, it is very difficult to motivate
people to come and join the government and fight for
the government. And people are on the fence in many
parts of the country [today], particularly in the
Jalali, who served in the Afghan military for 20
years before switching over to the anti-Soviet
mujahedin guerillas after the Soviets invaded
Afghanistan in 1979, doesn't discount that a return to
a conscript army is in the country's future, however.
He says it could prove to be a good change for Kabul,
saying "it will reintegrate the population into one
nation" while serving as a "school for civic
education" for people from disparate regions and
Jalali, a professor at the Near East South Asia
Center of Washington's National Defense University,
also suggests that a draft army could attract better
talent and help forge a factionalized force into a
national one. But Kabul has a lot to do before it can
reach that stage, he warns.
"The bottom line is the government should win the
trust of the people to have an army that can fight for
that government," he says. "And any army that is
created to support a government which does have this
response of the people is not going to work."