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Tough Job Ahead for Under-Resourced Afghan Forces

Some commentators say the army needs more than Kalashnikovs to deal with an increasingly confident Taleban.
By Abdol Wahed Faramarz
  • Future army officers at Afghanistan’s military academy in Kabul. (Photo: ISAF)
    Future army officers at Afghanistan’s military academy in Kabul. (Photo: ISAF)

With Afghan forces now taking the lead on security, some analysts have grave doubts that they are in any shape to take on what looks like a rising tide of Taleban attacks.

NATO formally handed over responsibility for military operations at a ceremony in the capital Kabul on June 18, attended by President Hamid Karzai and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh-Rasmussen.

The ongoing threat posed by insurgent groups was brought home earlier the same day when three people died in a roadside bomb attack in Kabul that was apparently intended to kill leading politician Mohammad Mohaqeq, who was driving by in a convoy of vehicles at the time.

On June 25, insurgents mounted an attack on the presidential palace and the nearby CIA headquarters. All the attackers were killed, as were three security guards, after a prolonged exchange of fire.

The handover represents the fifth and final phase in the “security transition” process that began in 2011. Fogh-Rasmussen said NATO forces would now step back but would continue to play a training and advisory role. 

At the ceremony, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who heads the commission in charge of the security transition, gave an upbeat assessment of progress, saying, “At present, security all across Afghanistan is controlled by the national police, army and intelligence service. Security in various regions has improved once the international forces have withdrawn” 

Others disagree. Shukria Barakzai, who sits on the Afghan parliament’s defence committee, said the changover was premature and should instead have been phased over a period of eight to ten years to ensure that the national armed forces were completely ready to cope on their own. 

“The Taleban today are different from what they were six or seven years ago. They are stronger and better integrated, with good combat capability. They have also become very strong in the political arena – the recent opening of their political office [in Qatar] being the best example of this,” she said. 

“The Afghan armed forces should therefore be equipped with modern equipment to counter the Taleban, but they aren’t. I believe that in the current environment, handing over responsibility for security will have negative consequences. The major challenge facing the Afghan security forces is their lack of essential battlefield equipment.” 

Defence analyst Abdul Wahed Taqat said recent incursions by the Pakistani military provided evidence that Afghan troops were not in a position to defend the country. (See Afghan Taleban Fighters Turn on Pakistan on skirmishes between Afghan and Pakistani units.) 

“The foreigners have handed over security responsibility to empty-handed [troops]. Afghan forces are equipped with the most basic of weapons – Kalashnikovs,” Taqat said. 

General Sher Mohammad Karimi, chief of staff of the Afghan National Army, ANA, acknowledged that the Taleban were putting up a stronger fight, emboldened by the prospect of a NATO troop withdrawal next year.

“To date, their tactics have involved guerrilla warfare, and massed frontal attacks and confrontation are a new method for them,” he said.

Despite this, he said, “In practice, Afghan security forces have defeated them on every front, which is an indication of our forces’ capacity and the enemy’s weakness.” 

A former general turned defence expert, Nurulhaq Olumi, said western assistance had strengthened the army only up to a certain limited level. 

“We need heavy weaponry, artillery and armoured vehicles in order to defend Afghan soil and resist threats to our borders,” he said. 

As well as heavy weapons, the Afghan military is short of combat aircraft and hi-tech radar and surveillance equipment. On a recent trip to India, President Karzai asked officials to supply arms to Afghanistan. 

Military intelligence is seen as another weak point; this week’s attack on the presidential palace suggested there was no advance warning.

“This is the most important area for countries embroiled in civil conflict, but not enough attention has been paid to it in Afghanistan,” General Khodaidad, a former counternarcotics minister, said. “The [intelligence] agencies don’t have great capacity.” 

Defence ministry spokesman General Zaher Azimi denies that the ground forces are ill-equipped. 

“The Afghan armed forces possess the equipment they need,” he said. “There are some problems with the air force, but the defence ministry is trying to [resolve this]. We recently purchased some new aircraft from Russia.” 

The total number of armed forces now stands at close to 350,000, but analysts say it is not sheer numbers that count. As well as training and armament, there are questions about basic morale. 

As western governments helped build the ANA from scratch, efforts were made to disband old militias and ensure that units in the new force were recruited from diverse regions and ethnicities.

Commentators like General Khodaidad claim this has not been successful. 

“This is a factional, regionalised army, with ties to specific groups and individuals. It’s hard to call it a national army at all,” Khodaidad said. “This will mean these forces are not going to be capable of fighting [together] in the longer term.” 

Defence ministry spokesman Azimi said talk of a divided army was just “propaganda”. 

Barakzai said the military was also hampered by the lack of a coherent political vision about what to do with the Taleban. 

As the fighting continues unabated, the government has been pursuing negotiations with insurgent groups through its High Peace Council. And in an apparently parallel process, the Taleban have set up a mission in Qatar for talks with the Americans. The recent opening of this office, complete with all the trappings of the embassy of an alternative government, angered Karzai and caused a public rift with Washington. 

“The presidency’s failure to clearly define who is friend and who is foe has sown a sense of uncertainty among the security forces in the field. They are making sacrifices on a daily basis, yet Afghanistan’s rulers call the armed insurgents their ‘discontented brothers’,” she said. “The soldier becomes hesitant about fighting.” 

Abdol Wahed Faramarz is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kabul.

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