Sentinels of Afghan Democracy: The Afghan National Army

By Chan, Samuel | Military Review, January-February 2009 | Go to article overview

Sentinels of Afghan Democracy: The Afghan National Army


Chan, Samuel, Military Review


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We can help train an army, we can help equip an army, we can help build facilities for the army, but only the Afghan people can breathe a soul into that army. (1)

--Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, U.S. Army

SINCE THE LAUNCH of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in 2001 and the subsequent fall of the Taliban, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has made great strides towards democracy: a written constitution, a popularly elected president, a representative parliament, a supreme court, and numerous nation-building institutions. However, many parts of the country remain restive, especially the southern and eastern provinces bordering Pakistan. Even as the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) tackles a determined and resurgent Taliban, the long-term stability of Afghanistan rests on the shoulders of its security apparatus--an integral component of which is the Afghan National Army (ANA)--in light of constant Taliban reminders that "the Americans may have all the wristwatches, but we have all the time." (2)

The numerous articles and reports written on the Afghan army tend to focus on specific aspects of the organization and paint partial, skewed, sometimes negative or sometimes overly optimistic pictures of it. Even though former NATO Supreme Commander, General James L. Jones, testified that "the Afghan National Army is the most successful pillar of our reconstruction efforts to date," it is clear that a tremendous amount of work remains to be done. (3) This article offers a holistic picture of the army's progress since its formation in November 2002. It looks at the history of national armies of the Afghan state and the Afghan army's parameters (beginning and desired end state), provides a snapshot of the current Afghan "military balance," and offers insight into the Afghan army's training and operational performance.

The Past

The Afghan National Army is not Afghanistan's first national army, one existed at the birth of the Afghan nation state in 1919. Unfortunately, its history has closely mirrored the volatile fortunes of the state. From independence to 1933, emirs and kings feared that an efficient army would attract "ambitious contenders for power to subvert sections of Afghanistan for their own political purposes" and deliberately neglected the national army. Consequently, it devolved into "little more than a collection of small infantry units and, owing to the costs of horses and the upkeep, a declining number of cavalry units." (4) The artillery pieces and ammunition were stored in Kabul as a precaution against misbehavior in tribal areas.

The neglect of the national army was to change after World War 11. Afghanistan had acted as a buffer state between British East India and the Soviet Union, but British withdrawal from South Asia disturbed the geopolitical equilibrium. Afghan rulers modernized the armed forces in order to possess a credible deterrent force against the Soviet Union, to suppress tribal revolts, and to strengthen the central government's authority. (5) The first hint of a modern national army came in 1937, when Afghanistan invited Turkey to reorganize Afghanistan's 60,000-strong conscript army. The Turks formed a command structure of divisions and brigades, augmenting each echelon headquarters with supporting staff. The officer corps was regularized to ensure professional leadership, and a military academy established to institutionalize the training and education of officers. A small air force also began to take shape. (6)

Turkey was soon followed by Germany and the United States, with the latter training Afghan army officers from 1956 to 1978. (7) The Soviets first equipped the Afghans in 1956, and trained them in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia after 1961. (8) By the early 1970s, ten times as many Afghan officers had been trained in the Soviet Union as in the United States. (9) Until the eve of the Soviet occupation in 1979, the Soviets provided more than $1 billion in military aid in tandem with $1. …

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