Western advisors to the Afghan Army are appalled at the high desertion rate (about a quarter of the force each year by their estimates). In the U.S. Army the rate is .3 percent. Afghan commanders say the rate is actually less than ten percent but that is based on the Afghan attitude towards what constitutes desertion. Afghan commanders accept that if many of their men want to walk away, that’s the Afghan custom. Commanders understand that a soldier may leave for a few months to take care of some business back home and then return. That’s all right by Afghan standards because family is paramount. Moreover, some soldiers run into problems dealing with all the strangers (men from other tribes or ethnic groups) they encounter in the Army. To an Afghan, a “foreigner” can be someone from the next valley over who belongs to a different tribe. To Afghans, walking away from a job in the army (as a soldier) is no big thing. This drives Westerners crazy as it demonstrates a lack of is civic spirit and discipline. The latter is considered essential for a modern military force. Most Afghans are still thinking terms of a tribal or warlord militia, in other words a bunch of armed men freely joining together to kick some ass. This sort of arrangement used to be common in the West several centuries ago. But as record keeping and local government became more efficient, the “contract” you agreed to on joining an army made it mandatory to stay for a certain amount of time or pay a sum of money to leave early. Most Afghans can’t quite wrap their heads around that kind of thinking, at least not yet.
The major problem in Afghanistan is that police, soldiers, and other government employees tend to put their tribe or clan above everything. While the attitude that “family is most important” exists in the West, it does so alongside beliefs in civic responsibility (to the nation, state, town) and loyalty to employer (especially if it’s military or police). Afghans just assume that tribe and family come first above everything else and are perplexed when foreigners don’t appreciate that. All this is casting doubt on the value of trying to create a police force and army in Afghanistan, something the U.S. has spent over $27 billion on in the last decade.
The biggest problems have been recruiting and training officers. Most of the Afghans who would make good officers are either trying to emigrate or have safer and better paying jobs in the commercial or government sector. For those who are capable and big risk takers there are opportunities to become very rich in the drug (opium and heroin) business. As a result, most army and police units are poorly led. Corruption is common, as it is everywhere else in the country.
U.S. and NATO trainers have succeeded at introducing some useful reforms. Many innovative concepts had been tried but most failed to motivate Afghans to become first rate officers and soldiers. Some efforts worked very well. For example, the pay of soldiers has been made competitive with what the drug gangs and the Taliban pay. Experienced trainers have long been calling for pay to be kept competitive with what the enemy offers. That's because it's an Afghan tradition for young men to follow leaders who can provide for them. Often these are traditional tribal leaders but anyone who has the cash can attract an armed following this way. That's how the drug gangs and the Taliban operate. These pay increases began showing up three years ago and when, in the last two years, drug gang losses cut income for the Taliban, the army actually became the first choice of young men looking for a good paying job. Plus, the army has benefits (like some medical care) that actually work. But for men capable enough to be officers the drug gangs offered much higher pay and bonuses.
Another change was even more innovative. Recruits undergoing training must now learn how to read and write before they can undergo weapons training. Only about a third of the Afghan Army recruits are literate. The illiterate ones felt that handling a gun was more important than learning how to read. The new policy provided some attitude adjustment, along with an incentive to become literate, or at least literate enough to be effective soldiers. The U.S. developed a special literacy course for Afghan troops which could be completed quickly. All these literacy efforts sometimes backfire and increase the desertion rate by causing newly literate Afghans to take better paying civilian jobs. But those recruits who stay will be better qualified to complete, and use, their training.
Added to the higher pay and literacy was the introduction of a banking system, using cell phones, for the troops. This approach requires some basic literacy and thus provides another incentive for recruits to be, if not literate, a little less illiterate. This makes them more effective soldiers and better able to communicate with each other and their superiors, as well as quicker to learn new skills.
The army has been more effective. Afghan troops are doing more fighting and now suffer more casualties than foreign troops. Afghan troops are also causing fewer civilian casualties. Opinion polls among Afghans have 70 percent of them grading the Afghan Army as "capable." NATO advisors now rate most Afghan infantry battalions as combat ready but only about 30 of them can operate on their own. There simply aren't enough trained and experienced officers and NCOs in the Afghan units.
It will be years before Afghanistan has an army and national police force as effective as, say, Iraq. The Iraqi Army and security forces under Saddam Hussein, although corrupt and abusive, were far more stable and loyal to the government than any Afghan military force ever. Saddam's continued existence relied on it. Despite their dismal performance during Desert Storm, the Iraqi Army had successfully fought an eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s, purchased high-tech gear from the Soviet Union, and had still managed to retain some semblance of an effective standing army, even after their disastrous ejection from Kuwait in 1991. The Iraqi Army had a well-defined, albeit Soviet-style, structure and clearly defined branches of service. All of this has made it possible, despite major problems, for the U.S. to build up the new and more effective security forces in Iraq.
Afghanistan, on the other hand, has had nothing even remotely resembling a capable, structured, loyal army and the legacy of corruption and inefficiency in the army is far worse than in Iraq. During the 1980s, when the Soviets occupied Afghanistan, there was a standing Afghan government army but it was rampant with corruption, incompetence, desertions, and thousands of conscripts and officers who were either sympathetic to or active members of the anti-Communist guerrillas. The Soviets, justifiably so, generally regarded the Afghan forces as worthless in combat, forcing Russians to do almost all of the fighting themselves. In the 1990s, civil war prevented the formation of anything like a national army, since there was no national government. All of this has been going on continuously for almost 30 years. Throw in the ever-present heroin trade and you have a major challenge creating a professional ground force, to say nothing of a national police force.
To a certain degree, none of these problems, like corruption and incompetence, are new to the Middle East or Central Asia. The difference between places like Egypt and Afghanistan is that, despite corruption and favoritism, the military is able to defend the country and operate as a respectable, capable force that can fight. Men obey their orders and most of the time they know how to do their jobs. Unfortunately, in places like Afghanistan and Somalia these problems are so pervasive that in the past they have traditionally paralyzed the ability of the military to fight and win any kind of battle.
Afghans don't like to live away from their families and tribes. Some think they can but later find that they can't. Even with better screening of recruits, and more generous home leave, the annual desertion rate is still high. A fundamental problem is lack of faith in government. Tribal and clan leaders are still considered a safer bet than some government bureaucrat.
Afghan officials are asking for $10 billion a year in foreign aid after 2014 (when most foreign troops will be gone). With this money Afghan officials say they will be able to maintain the security forces and keep the government going. But foreign aid donor nations are demanding that strict controls be placed on how the money is spent. Afghan officials oppose the controls, which offend their dignity and make the money more difficult to steal. What's the point of taking a senior government job, and risking assassination, if you can't get rich? But the donor countries want to avoid a media disaster when Afghan officials are found getting rich, while Afghans starve. That is happening right now, with many Afghans suffering severe food shortages (because of drought) and foreign donors having a hard time preventing the food and other aid from being stolen by the government employees responsible for distributing it.
Whatever happens, the experience with thousands of foreign military trainers over the last decade has left Afghanistan with an even larger number of men trained in the techniques of modern warfare. These Afghans know what a sergeant and an officer is and what they are supposed to do. They know something of modern infantry tactics and logistics. As a result, the might of foreign armies is no longer as much of a mystery. There is still a lot of traditional corruption and nepotism in the military and police. But there is also progress, something rarely seen in this part of the world.