Leadership: Blasts From The Past


July 30, 2010: This month there were two incidents in Afghanistan where Afghan troops opened fire on foreign troops. In both cases, the killers were considered trustworthy. In one incident, at a training facility in the north, the killer had been selected to be an instructor and promoted to higher rank. In the south, the killer was a Hazara, a Shia Afghan of Mongolian ancestry, who opened fire on British troops at night, then fled. The Hazara suffered much under Taliban rule in the 1990s, partly because they are Shia (a sect considered heretical by the Taliban and al Qaeda) and Hazara (a reminder of the damage the Mongols did when they conquered Afghanistan centuries ago). Thus it's a mystery why this guy, deep in Taliban country, would turn on fellow soldiers.

Seven people died in these two incidents, including one of the killers,  an Afghan soldier caught in the cross fire, two American civilian weapons instructors, two British officers in a Gurkha battalion and one Gurkha NCO. The Hazara soldier was proclaimed by the Taliban to be an agent of theirs. But the evidence the Taliban put forward was clearly faked, and no one knows where the Hazara soldier ended.

Incidents like these two are rare, but not unexpected. That's because NATO knows well that it faces massive challenges in creating a modern, dependable, loyal Afghan army. It's quite evident, and frustrating. Worse, the magnitude of the task is greater than it was in Iraq. That's because Afghanistan and Iraq have different military traditions and histories that have made it easier to build stable security forces in Iraq. While the Iraqis are beginning to consistently operate on their own and even to master some of the more complicated tasks of warfare, like air assault operations, coalition forces are still grappling to introduce some basic modern concepts to the Afghan National Army (ANA), after seven years of effort. 

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 has been. Saddam's continued existence relied on this loyalty. Despite their dismal performance during Desert Storm, the Iraqi Army had previously 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 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 heavy fighting themselves.

In the 1990s, civil war prevented the formation of anything like a national army, since the national government was but one warring faction, dependent more on tribal loyalty for its survival. All of this has been going on continuously for almost 30 years. Throw in the ever-present drug smuggling, 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, sometimes rampant, 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, know how to do their jobs. Unfortunately, in places like Afghanistan, the 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.  

One of the major obstacles NATO is trying to overcome is the lack of NCOs (sergeants). There is now a six-week Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) course for ANA soldiers, in order to better describe what their responsibilities and powers are within the various military ranks. The ANA NCO students also receive weapons training and instruction in small-unit tactics, but the main emphasis in the course is on leadership skills and battlefield decision-making. The idea is to train the Afghan sergeants to take over their units if their officers are killed or otherwise taken out in combat. All this is alien to most Afghans, whose idea of war is to follow a local leader, who, in turn, is following some big shot who has the resources to supply food and ammo. Works for tribal disputes, but not in a modern army.

The Russians introduced their system to Afghanistan in the 1960s, a type of organization that did not emphasize NCOs, and forced officers to do all the supervisory chores. Even the Russians abandoned this approach in the 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed. So NATO is forced to bring the Afghans from ancient tribal military practices, into the proven Western system that emphasizes carefully selected and trained NCOs.  It's a difficult transition. It's made more difficult by the fact that most Afghans are illiterate and many are unwilling to leave their tribal area, or village, to fight with a force of "foreigners" (anyone from another tribe, or a distant valley, is a foreigner.) NATO trainers have a screening process, which keeps nearly half the applicants out for medical, physical or psychological reasons. Afghan psychology is so alien to Western psychology experts, that the military screening for psychological problems is, at best, a work in progress.

There is progress in building a modern force for Afghanistan, but it is slow going.






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