Forces: April 12, 2005


In Afghanistan, the new regular army is very much in flux and lacks a doctrinal focus. The senior officers are a mixed lot; some veterans of the pro-Soviet national army of the '70s and '80s, some veterans of the anti-Soviet resistance (including deserters from the old national army), some former warlords, and some veterans of the anti-Taliban resistance. 

Then there are the new US/NATO trained officers. Naturally there's some overlap among all these groups. Quite a few of these officers spent the '90s in exile. This means that to some extent, the tactics adopted by a particular division or corps may vary depending upon who's in command; the Soviet trained guys are still inclined to use Soviet tactics.

Aside from the new cadres being organized by the central government, most of the new divisions being raised are actually just warlord forces that have been co-opted by the government, often with the former warlord or some other local notable turned into a major general. Typically, what might be termed a "regional" division may have only 2,500-5,000 troops, almost all essentially light infantry with motor transport. Artillery and armor are rare, and even heavy weapons not all that common. Still, the manpower is good and usually willing to fight, and their opponents, the Taliban, angry tribesmen and bandits, are much less well equipped.

Pay is about $15-$18 a month for enlisted personnel, and $40-$100 or so for officers. Although the paymasters don't show up as regularly as they should, pay is actually getting to the troops, which is a bright spot. 

The Great Hope is the new national army. This is being trained, battalion by battalion, using NATO instructors. NATO type standards are set, and adhered to. This is rough on many of the new recruits. While the rural Afghans are all armed at an early age, and trained to use their weapons, their military training is minimal. Tribal warfare consists of a bunch of guys, led by the most charismatic among them, going off to settle some grudge or another. The fighting takes the form of raids, and pitched battles are rare. When two armed groups encounter each other, the weaker side quickly figures out their shortcomings and vacates the area. This is often followed by tribal elders intervening, and negotiations to determine who should pay who what. The elders try to keep the young men from getting involved in this violence, but the old timers no doubt remember their own reckless youth. The elders know their job is not to try and stop an angry bunch young armed men from leaving the village, but to clean up after the youngsters have come to their senses. 

When these young men encounter the NATO instructors there is a bit of culture shock. The uniforms, drills and need to salute officers is all pretty alien. But the combat training is the biggest shock of all. The young men have heard the stories of how the Americans fight, and are impressed. During the 1980s, the Russian soldiers often fled, or didnt fight back when attacked. The Americans fight, and they fight to kill. Many of the Americans lionized in Afghan war stories were Special Forces or commandoes, and the Afghans respect the kind of ruthless killing machine these troops represented. But the training they receive to emulate these war stories seems endless, exhausting and repetitive. Many Afghans drop out, discouraged, exhausted or disillusioned. The American war movies so popular in Afghanistan rarely show the reality of combat training. But most of the recruits persist. After their first few combat actions, the Afghan troops get it. The drills were important, and the strange tactics work. 

Equally important has been the training of officers and NCOs (non-commissioned officers, or sergeants). The only veteran NCOs available served in the old Russian trained army from the 1970s. There arent many of these left, and they knew only the Russian style of leadership, that didnt give NCOs much authority or responsibility. NATO NCO standards are different, with sergeants expected to lead, supervise and take responsibility. The NCO corps has to be built from scratch. Theres not enough time to develop NCOs the Western way, promoting qualified troops through the half dozen NCO ranks until you have all you need. Older men, who have the maturity and leadership skills needed, are given training on what is expected of NCOs, and then installed as mid-level and senior NCOs. Some dont work out, but enough do to provide NATO style NCOs.

Officers present similar problems. The Russian style officers treated troops like ignorant low-lifes. NATO style officers expect to deal with well training, intelligent troops. Since many of the mid-level and senior officers have to be recruited from among warlord leaders and officers trained by the Russians, you have to convince them that these exotic Western methods actually work. Most of these officers are intelligent men, and can be convinced to at least try it the NATO work. New junior officers are a different matter. They are eager to adopt the new methods, and take readily to their training. Thus, for a decade or so, there will be something of a culture gap between senior and junior officers.

American officers and NCOs are attached to each new Afghan battalion, to provide advice and additional training as needed. So far, the new battalions have performed well. The discipline and professionalism of the troops has impressed Afghan civilians. For generations, Afghans usually encountered Afghan soldiers who acted like bandits, or the usual lawless warlord gunmen. While your average Afghan is well behaved when among his own family, clan or tribe, once outside those familiar people, the troops tend to act like bandits. So Afghan civilians are pleasantly surprised when Afghan soldiers show up and dont steal or abuse the local women (or boys). 

One unknown is whether these professional Afghan soldiers will eventually fall under the control of ambitious officers who will use them in an attempt to take over the government or engage in yet another civil war. Professional soldiers are not automatically reliable defenders of democracy. Only time will tell how this angle will play out.




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