A failure of state and military in Afghanistan
By Brian M Downing
A successful counter-insurgency program requires a coherent government to
implement it. Though resting on a few elementary premises, counter-insurgency
entails coordination of an unwieldy number of bureaus that are not likely to
have worked well together before. Counter-insurgency also requires reliable
army and militias as local security must be established and insurgents need to
be worn down. The Afghan state and military are both weak and ineffectual. This
means that much of the counter-insurgency has to be led and conducted by
Western forces and this presents decided problems.
The absence of a stable government in South Vietnam, from the coup that ousted
Diem in 1963 to Nguyen Van Thieu's control of
power several years later, is a case in point in the need for coherent
government. Counter-insurgency programs were mostly inept or shams to begin
with, but effective programs (such as the Force Populaire in the Central
Highlands) suffered as well, which aided the Vietcong during critical years,
when rural security deteriorated rapidly.
The Afghan state today is as chaotic as its South Vietnamese counterpart, even
though the former has not been plagued by coups like the latter. Historically,
Afghans warily regard the government in Kabul as a potential interloper, often
in the hands of foreign powers, that is best kept at arm's length. In recent
decades, Afghans have endured governments run by reformist zealots, Soviet
proxies, a warlord coalition and the Taliban - all of which violated the
principle of "mutual indifference" that author and researcher Olivier Roy has
used to describe stable state-local relationships during better times.
President Hamid Karzai became interim president in 2002 and won the position
two years later. Since then, his government has been charged with nepotism and
ties to the opium trade, but neither is considered beyond the pale in the
country. A more grievous offense was overstepping Kabul's authority in critical
Pashtun regions. In seeking to build a state, Karzai has unwittingly helped
build an insurgency among resentful tribesmen, especially in the south.
The US has not been of assistance in proper governance. It sought to maintain
ties with the local warlords that helped drive out the Taliban in 2001. And not
long after the expulsion of the Taliban, US interests and resources shifted to
the invasion of Iraq, which of course spawned a vicious insurgency that
preoccupied military and political leadership until last year.
An election has been scheduled for August of 2009 but there is little prospect
of a coherent, effective government emerging in the near future. Hatreds linger
from three decades of fighting, treachery, reprisals and collaboration, and
have coalesced with age-old lore on the nefarious natures of adjacent peoples.
Demographic composition augurs poorly for the development of political parties.
In the north and west, the Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara and other peoples have
developed parties, some of which, like Jamiat-i Islami, have long though
intermittent records. Most of the south and east, however, is tribal and sees
parties as unnecessary and invasive entities that will seek to replace
venerable elders and notables. This presents a serious obstacle to political
development as the government must deal equally with parties and tribes.
The Taliban were not ousted in 2001 by an army but by a number of irregular
forces - the Northern Alliance. In the aftermath, security was in the hands of
a patchwork of local militias, warlords, police and tribal levies. The US
Central Intelligence Agency preferred to work with the irregular forces that
had driven the Taliban out of the country; US attention was diverted by another
theater; and no one quite knew how to build a national army in such a
heterogeneous and rancorous country. Disorder reigned in many parts of the
country and the Taliban adroitly presented themselves as restorers of law and
order, as they did in the mid-1990s.
An Afghan army came into being in 2002 but it has yet to become an effective
military force, especially for counterinsurgency operations. The Ministry of
Defense was headed by Mohammed Fahim, a Tajik Northern Alliance commander who
took that position shortly after al-Qaeda assassinated Northern Alliance leader
Ahmad Shah Massoud in September of 2001.
Under Fahim's direction, the Ministry of Defense and army became Tajik fiefs
with neither military efficacy nor acceptance from the Pashtuns. Significantly,
Fahim opted to keep his Northern Alliance forces under his command (as has the
Uzbek commander Abdul Dostum). Though Fahim has been eased out of the ministry
and replaced by an urban Pashtun (Abdul Wardak), the dilemmas of army building
remain as it stirs ethnic fears throughout the country.
In many countries, a national army has played an important role in weakening
local identities and building a nation. This will not work in Afghanistan. As
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and US forces seek to build a
national army to fight the Taliban in the south, they will find themselves
deepening fissures in the country.
A national army comprising Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek and other groups cannot be
deployed into the Pashtun south without raising fears among the Pashtun that
they are being vanquished by foreigners - a fear that was in evidence in the
1980s when Kabul built a multi-ethnic force to fight the mujahideen. Should the
US and NATO build a predominantly Pashtun army, even if only used in the south,
the other groups in the north will become alarmed and perhaps even prepare for
The Afghan army has been trained to fight as light infantry, not as a
counter-insurgency force. This should not be surprising as it was trained by
armies with that understanding of war. The army might be effective in combat
sweeps designed to drive Taliban fighters from a region, but the deployment of
a battalion or so of troops will raise fears of outside powers and bring
destruction, which often leads to antagonism with locals and sympathy for
insurgents - the "accidental guerrilla" phenomenon noted by author and
counter-insurgency expert David Kilcullen.
The army must learn other skills and put them into practice in contested areas.
It must establish ties with locals, deliver aid and services to them, and
coordinate intelligence and local fighters. These are difficult and often even
non-military skills - none of which follows readily from infantry training,
whether at Bagram or Benning.
An army in a country with frail political institutions can be dangerous for
political development. As the late American political scientist Samuel
Huntington long argued, armies are prone to intervene in politics when
political development is weak. An Afghan precedent took place in 1990, amid the
political turmoil following the Soviet exit. The army, with the support of
Pakistani and Saudi intelligence directorates and in conjunction with a Hizb-i
Islami commander, attempted a coup that was thwarted at least in part by US
diplomatic pressure. Memory of the coup is unlikely far from mind.
The Soviet experience with the Afghan army might be instructive today. Advisors
did not get along well with officers of the Afghan army, indeed mutual contempt
seems to have been routine. The mujahideen were able to obtain intelligence and
weaponry from their countrymen serving Kabul. Soldiers resented service outside
their home districts, which made for problematic desertion rates. The Soviets
learned that Afghan units were prone to establish truces with mujahideen forces
- a state of affairs recently uncovered between the Afghan army and insurgents.
A country riven by ethnic and tribal conflict will have an array of militias,
adherents to strongmen, and tribal levies. The tribal social organization in
southern and eastern Afghanistan is centered on war. The mastery of violence is
a source of identity and pride.
Local military organizations historically have not worked well with the
national army. Preferring to remain in their districts, soldiers choose service
in local militaries. The army sees local militaries as limiting their
recruitment and draining military resources better allocated, in their view, to
them. Attempts over the years to amalgamate militias and army have met with
Local militaries can be particularly useful in counter-insurgency warfare.
Local forces know the terrain, where insurgent patrols are and where their
bivouacs are. Often locals even have a good idea who the insurgents are. Local
forces can use village social networks (qawms) to establish an insider
with the insurgent band and entice one, two, and in time more, to quit.
Indeed, local militias, inasmuch as they are able to present themselves as an
acceptable middle ground between the government army and the insurgents,
provide an honorable way for insurgents to quit the insurgency without overtly
siding with the former enemy.
It is essential to have a coordinating agency in the localities, to establish
information channels among police, intelligence and militias - none of whom is
accustomed or disposed to share information - and to establish reaction forces
in the event the Taliban are able to attack a village outpost in strength.
Without the assurance of a rapid response force, many locals will not fight a
Local forces can also be problems for counter-insurgency operations. They are
prone to fight only on their terms, establish independent truces with the
enemy, and often look upon an attack on a nearby village with various degrees
of indifference. Three decades of warfare have left many young men with
soldierly swagger and condescension for farmers and herdsmen.
Local forces are known to shake down merchants and farmers. Many see themselves
as laws unto themselves, above the mundane civilians around them. Unless firmly
tied to a tribal authority, they can degenerate into a new generation of
warlords, regardless of instructions from the US and NATO. And of course this
lawlessness is hopelessly antithetical to counter-insurgency programs.
The absence of a coherent government and the unlikelihood of one developing in
the next few years make the Kabul government incapable of directing a
counter-insurgency program. Building a national army will be a very difficult
undertaking, as will be coordinating local militias and establishing reliable
The burden of waging counter-insurgency, then, will fall on US and NATO forces,
probably more on the US if only because in the aftermath of the Sunni Awakening
in Iraq it feels it has mastered the principles of counter-insurgency. At best,
the Kabul can be a prominent but feckless partner - one that is in fact more of
a client. The true relationship will be apparent to all and will underscore the
perception among many Afghans that Western forces have overstayed their welcome
and become the latest foreigners to seek to occupy Afghanistan.
Brian M Downing is the author of several works of political and military
history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and
The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to
Vietnam. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.