Army Reaches 70,000 Mark, As Taliban Vows New
By Ron Synovitz
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
March 26, 2008
Officials in Kabul say the Afghan National Army
soon will number 70,000 combat-ready soldiers -- the
strongest the force has been since the fall of the
Taliban regime in late 2001.
The buildup has come amid urgent calls within NATO
for more combat troops to be sent to assist
counter-terror and stabilization efforts in that
country. But the Afghan government says it will be
years before Afghan forces are able to provide
security throughout the country by themselves -- and
the Taliban says it's not worried about the growth of
In early 2002, just weeks after the collapse of the
Taliban regime, the transitional government in Kabul
announced a bold schedule to build the Afghan National
Army from scratch. That schedule called for the
recruitment and training of 70,000 Afghan soldiers
before the presidential election in the fall of 2004.
But that target proved to be overly optimistic.
Until this year, desertions were so high among the
fully trained Afghan soldiers that Kabul had
difficulty maintaining a force of 30,000 troops.
Now, six years after the 70,000-soldier
announcement, the goal is finally within reach.
General Mohammad Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the
Afghan Defense Ministry, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free
Afghanistan that the recruitment, training, and
retention of Afghan soldiers during the winter has
been better than ever.
"We have succeeded to bring about enormous changes
in the quality and quantity of troops in the Afghan
National Army compared to previous years. From [about
early May], we will be able to have at least 70,000
soldiers deployed to fight against the enemy," Azimi
says. "Last year, this number was about 30,000
soldiers. And our army is very well equipped this
year. We have obtained new weapons and other military
equipment. Our air force has been reestablished. And
we have formed new commando and engineering
Taliban spokesman Qari Yusef Ahmadi, in an
exclusive telephone interview with Radio Free
Afghanistan, dismisses Azimi's remarks about the
strengthening of the Afghan National Army.
"They can't do anything," Ahmadi says. "They have
been claiming for years that they are going to have
70,000 soldiers, but our view is that these are only
paid soldiers who are temporary workers. These people
aren't able to fight against our mujahedin, who are
fighting jihad on the basis of their faith."
Ahmadi claims the Taliban is planning a series of
attacks in the coming days, called Operation
Unforgettable Lesson, that is part of a spring
"It will cover all of Afghanistan -- the big cities
and the small cities," Ahmadi warns. "We will attack
all those areas where our enemy is present. We will
use our old tactics as well as new tactics. I can't
disclose what these new tactics are because that is a
military secret, but you will see when it starts."
Ahmadi also tells Radio Free Afghanistan that
Taliban militants will focus their attacks on military
bases where foreign troops have been deployed. He says
Taliban fighters will try to refrain from carrying out
attacks in situations where there are many civilians.
"Everything will be included in this operation,"
Ahmadi says. "We will be looking at an area first and
then we will attack according to the situation in each
particular area. Suicide attacks will be included."
For his part, however, General Azimi dismisses
Ahmadi's remarks as an attempt by the Taliban to
manipulate public opinion in Afghanistan.
"Propaganda plays a significant role in military
operations, especially in guerrilla and militia
fighting," Azimi says. "It is a very strategic tactic.
When the enemy does not have the ability to defeat a
well-organized military force, they start trying to
terrify innocents. [The Taliban] now fights a
psychological battle. This is their pre-operational
The strengthening of the Afghan National Army comes
as the United States, Britain, and Canada have sought
to get other countries in the NATO alliance to send
more soldiers into the combat zones of southern and
Last week, during a visit to Kabul by U.S. Vice
President Dick Cheney, Afghan President Hamid Karzai
said that the growth of the Afghan Army will take some
pressure off of NATO. But with militant violence on
the rise, Karzai said international security forces
were still needed to help provide security throughout
"The continuation of NATO's role in Afghanistan and
the fight against terrorism -- and providing stability
for Afghanistan -- is very, very important. The Afghan
army is also doing very, very well," Karzai said. "In
my meetings with the Afghan people, I find out that
the army is more and more seen as a force that brings
stability. So as the Afghan army gets stronger and
stronger, [there will be less] pressure on
international security forces. Until then, the
cooperation between Afghanistan and the rest of the
international community is a must -- both for the war
against terrorism and for stability in Afghanistan."
Karzai also warned that Kabul would be dependent
"for a long time" on international security forces to
help train and equip Afghan government forces.
"We like an effective continuation of the two
missions that we have here. One is the fight against
terrorism. The other is the rebuilding of Afghanistan
-- and especially the rebuilding of the security
institutions; the army," Karzai said. "As it is a
gradual improvement on our side, it is also a gradual
reduction of responsibility on the shoulders of the
international community; but that is not going to be
[completed] anytime soon. Afghanistan will need for a
long time support from the international community in
the rebuilding exercises here in Afghanistan and in
the strengthening of the Afghan security
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent
Freshta Jalalzai contributed to this report from