Creation of national army hits ethnic roadblocks

Afghanistan faces major hurdles in its attempts to form a national army.

    Members of the Afghan army
    stand to attention at a
    graduation ceremony in Kabul

    Recruiting an ethnically diverse national army to reflect Afghanistan’s patchwork society is proving no mean feat. A lack of funding, and lukewarm cooperation from the defence ministry are all hindering the creation of an Afghan national army, say experts.


    The United States estimates the Afghan National Army (ANA) of 70,000 will cost $350 million a year to train, equip and operate. So far 3,000 trained soldiers have graduated from the US-French military training programme, a substantially lower number than what Washington had expected by 2003.


    Afghanistan’s Defence Minister General Mohammad Fahim, an ethnic Tajik, has liberally populated the upper echelons of the budding national army with Tajiks, alienating other ethnicities including Pashtuns.


    In February Fahim appointed 38 generals. Among these, 37 were Tajiks and one Uzbek. Washington has urged the defence minister to re-shuffle the leadership. Fahim has said he would comply.



    Conflicts will likely arise between remnants of the Northern Alliance, which helped US forces in 2001 to topple the Taliban, and ethnic Pashtuns over who will command national troops, warned Dr. Alexei Malashenko, a senior researcher at the Carnegie Moscow Centre. 


    “The creation of a national army in Afghanistan may create more political tensions,” said Malashenko, adding squabbles would arise among regional strongmen to hold leadership positions.



    Experts have described as highly optimistic US plans to prepare, supply and operate an army within two years. But observers warn that at this rate it could take more than 10 years to reach their goal.


    “The United States needs to enhance its support for the process,” said Mark Sedra, an expert on Afghanistan at the Bonn International Centre for Conversion.

    Washington needs to step up its financial support and provide more instructors.


    Washington took on the role of creating Kabul’s national army at the April 2002 Geneva Donor Security Conference which brought together countries looking to reform Afghanistan’s security sector.


    Washington has allocated $50 million to train and equip 18,000 soldiers over 18 months.


    Earlier this year, Afghan generals and representatives of foreign military forces attended a conference in Kabul to discuss how to rebuild the national army. By next summer it should have some 9,000 to 12,000 men, just a fraction of the 70,000 goal, according to US Lieutenant General Dan McNeill, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan.


    McNeill was quoted as saying it had been a “tough road” due to ingrained ethnic and regional differences and suspicions.


    In November 2002 US President George W. Bush promised to provide Kabul with a team of US military advisors to help rebuild the beleaguered Afghan national army, train soldiers and provide surplus weapons. The army's existing arsenal consists mainly of  archaic Soviet weapons.


    Some observers say another factor delaying an Afghan army from getting up on its feet is the reluctance of regional power brokers to dissolve their armies and encourage troops to join the national force. The most prominent commanders are General Fahim, former Herat governor Ismael Khan and Rashid Dostum. 


    Fahim has been quoted as saying that a United Nations programme is necessary to provide livelihoods for decomissioned troops.


    The obstacles are daunting. For every trained soldier there are at least 100 armed men in regional ethnic militias. An estimated  40% of trained forces desert after graduating. Low pay, poor living conditions, and confusion regarding the length of service only leads to more graduates to return home following basic training.


    Added to this, US money continues to fund regional strongmen who have signed up to fight al-Qaeda. Last year reports confirmed that Washington was training anti al-Qaeda units, drawn from militias and unanswerable to Kabul. These units were being paid three times the wages received by troops in the national army.


    Washington faces a catch-22 situation. It needs to maintain ties with regional strongmen to flush out elements of al-Qaeda and Taliban yet by doing so, it weakens the authority of the central government in Kabul.


    “The US was augmenting the military strength of warlords who opposed Kabul,” said Sedra. The United Nations has also cautioned that the Central Asian nation’s inability to get the national army back on its feet threatens security and stability.


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