Difficult Prospects For Building A Viable Afghan
October 1, 2009
By Abubakar Siddique
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
In the 1960s, Sher Mohammad Karimi became the first
Afghan to graduate from Britain's prestigious Royal
Military Academy Sandhurst.
Following further military training and education
from the top U.S. and European institutions, Karimi's
credentials can stand with those of any military
But the biography of the lieutenant-general -- who
today heads the operations department at the Afghan
Defense Ministry and plays a significant role in the
effort to rebuild the Afghan National Army (ANA) --
varies greatly from those of his Western counterparts.
After the 1978 communist coup in Afghanistan,
Karimi was arrested and incarcerated because of his
Western education. Unlike many of his communist
colleagues and the majority of the Afghan officer
corps, he had never received training in the Soviet
Karimi was eventually forced into exile in
neighboring Pakistan, where he lived until the demise
of the Taliban regime in 2001.
"Indeed the national army is progressing well. We
now have a National Army and it is being built
further. But we all are very impatient and trying to
build everything in one day. We cannot build
everything overnight," Karimi told RFE/RL.
"We have a very weak economy and we have been at
war for the past 30 years, and it still continues, he
said. We are now moving forward with international
help, and over the past eight years we built the
military from zero to having 95,000 soldiers now."
General Karimi was responding to recent media
reports questioning whether a greater push to train
Afghan forces could be a realistic alternative to
increasing the number of Western troops fighting to
establish security in Afghanistan.
Critics have expressed doubts as to whether Afghan
military and security forces can at this stage play a
serious role in stabilizing Afghanistan, and in turn
help pave the way for an eventual exit strategy for
Reports suggesting that 90 percent of Afghan
soldiers cannot read or write have added to the
skepticism, as have the high number of desertions
among Afghan forces reluctant to serve in volatile
southern provinces plagued by an increasingly violent
The technical capability of Afghanistan's military
is also a negative factor. Afghan units lack
sufficient helicopters, tanks, artillery and other
critical components to become a self-reliant
sustainable force, leaving them to rely heavily on
international troops for support during field
Despite such misgivings, the creation of a
disciplined Afghan security force is nevertheless
considered by many -- including some European allies
in the Afghan war effort -- to be the best and most
realistic option for the long term.
The United States, the United Kingdom, France, and
Germany have played the lead roles in training,
mentoring, and arming the new military.
On September 30, President Barack Obama convened a
meeting of his so-called war council made up of key
members of the U.S. national security infrastructure,
including top diplomats, generals, and national
In discussing U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, the
White House gathering considered a recent request from
the top U.S. and NATO commander for as many as 40,000
The request from General Stanley McChrystal
followed a three-month review of the security
situation in Afghanistan that concluded that the U.S.
mission will end in failure unless more troops are
Aside from fighting, the additional forces would be
instrumental in helping develop the Afghan army and
police forces, whose envisaged numbers have grown
rapidly as the security situation has deteriorated.
In 2001, the Afghan military was conceived to be
70,000 strong. Current plans aim at having a 134,000
strong Afghan army by 2011. Two years beyond that
mark, by 2013, the Afghan army is to boast 240,000
personnel and the Afghan police 160,000 the
necessary levels, experts argue, for those forces to
Modern Afghan Army?
Carol Dysinger, associate professor at the Tisch
School of the Arts at New York University, has made
numerous trips to Afghanistan over the past four years
to gather material for the upcoming film "Camp
Victory: Afghanistan," which documents the effort to
train the Afghan military.
Dysinger tells RFE/RL that based on her
observations of the relationship between Afghans and
their mentors from the U.S. National Guard, she
believes that those who doubt the potential of the
Afghan military are ignorant of the independent
"nature of the man who will staff the Afghan army
officer corps," and of the qualities of Afghan
The Afghan officers and soldiers Dysinger spoke to
told her: 'We need material support, we need the
training and the mentoring, and we want to have our
own army,' she said. "As one young man said to me,
'the country is ours, the fight is ours [and] the dust
Afghanistan historically relied heavily on its
tribes for protecting its territory and fighting
outsiders, and only created a robust military in the
Civilian Afghan communist leaders took advantage of
the military's reliance on Soviet training and weapons
when coups and counter-coups were launched in late
1970s and 1980s.
The politicization of the military paved the way
for its disintegration after Kabul fell in 1992 to
anti-Soviet mujahedin guerillas, who were subsequently
defeated by the Taliban.
Understanding such dynamics could be critical to
understanding the challenges involved in creating the
new Afghan military.
Former communist-era Afghan military General
Amarullah Aman says that what really matters is the
quality of the Afghan forces; their organization,
discipline, and morale.
"In our military there is now no [system for]
reward and punishment, Aman said. We have not seen
any officer being punished for desertion or
disciplined for being defeated in battle."
Aman relates an often repeated list of concerns,
adding that "no officer has been put on trial for
selling arms and ammunition. But such incidents
continue to happen all the time."
Like many former military officers who stood to
return to their positions after the fall of the
Taliban, Aman was decommissioned under a UN-sponsored
He says that the Afghan military is dominated by
cadres from past warring factions who sometimes see
the creation of a professional military as going
against their personal interests.
Apart from the domestic Afghan political
complications, Western analysts often highlight the
cost of creating a large new Afghan military. They
point to the annual revenue that Afghanistan currently
generates on its own, which amounts to about $600
The question is whether once completely on its own,
the country would be able to sustain a large military
and security force whose operating costs could amount
to billions annually.
General Karimi disagrees, arguing that building an
Afghan army would be cheaper for Western countries
than sending more troops. In addition, he says, it
would lessen domestic opposition to the Afghan mission
within allied countries, where governments face
growing public opposition to their involvement as
military casualties mount.
Karimi notes, however, that restoring sustainable
peace in Afghanistan will require much more than
merely building Afghan security forces.
"Since 2003 and 2004 we have been shouting loudly
and saying that fighting alone will not bring peace,
Karimi said. We need to bring about reconstruction
for people and rebuild and create a sound
administration, so that security measures can move
parallel to reconstruction," he says.
"We need to win people's hearts and minds because,
as one of our proverb goes, 'You cannot build
communities by force,'" he said.