An ever weakening Afghan National Army
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News Analysis |

As casualties mounted to dramatic levels in 2017, even according to official figures that are most likely underestimated, the Afghan National Army (ANA) has for the first time begun experiencing serious problems in recruitment. The army also experienced a resurgence of ghost soldiering (soldiers who are listed as being on active duty, but who do not serve)—a problem which had been largely contained by 2010. The units most exposed in the fighting were seriously depleted and under-strength.

The withdrawal of the mentors/advisers from the ANA tactical units in 2014 exposed a range of weaknesses in logistical capabilities, planning, procurement, equipment, maintenance, and administration. The resulting paradox is an ANA that is less mobile than the insurgents, despite the fact that it remains more or less in control of the main highways of the country. Even though it has received amounts of military hardware, the ANA still mostly deploys to battle in unarmored Ford Rangers.

The tactical performance of the ANA in the midst of battle is more difficult to evaluate because reliable information is hard to come by, but sources within the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the ANA themselves concur that there is a very serious leadership problem.

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Appointments to senior positions are still heavily influenced by political interference, often resulting in the elevation of incompetent commanders. The insurgents have gained the initiative and the ANA has not been able to put together any serious efforts to reclaim it. As a result of all these factors, morale within the ANA is in decline. Reforming the ANA in the middle of an ongoing and escalating conflict is clearly a very difficult task, not least because of the political vetoes of factions, parties and powerful individuals.

ANA without mentors

Even at the MoD level the layer of advisers is a thin one, only permanently present at the top level of each department, with occasional visits paid to the next layer.

In 2014, all mentors and advisers were pulled out of ANA units. Resolute Support (RS)—the successor mission to ISAF and the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan—only advises the senior leadership of the MoD and the ANA; it does not normally deploy any adviser below corps level. Even at the MoD level, the layer of advisers is a thin one, only permanently present at the top level of each department, with occasional visits paid to the next layer. The ANA, therefore, fought through late 2014 and all of 2015 with almost no advisers within its ranks. 

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Equipment

The MoD and the ANA continue to demand heavier and more advanced equipment to confront the ongoing insurgency, as they have been doing for the last 16 years. Although their focus is on the need for a more capable air force and for more equipment of all types, they also complain of the insufficient preparation of artillerymen and the dramatic lack of mine detection equipment.

Only the Special Forces have some real, if limited, air transport capability, with 30 dedicated Mi-17s. The 52 Mi-17s available for the regular ANA and the MoD can barely cope with VIP transport, some medical evacuation and the occasional delivery of supplies. Fixed-wing air transport is limited to the small C-208s and just four C-130s.

In 2015, the Afghan Air Force (AAF) was called upon to provide close air support, logistics, and medical evacuation, stretching its resources very thin and exposing the general lack of resources and the inadequacy of much of the equipment. Only the Special Forces have some real, if limited, air transport capability, with 30 dedicated Mi-17s. The 52 Mi-17s available for the regular ANA and the MoD can barely cope with VIP transport, some medical evacuation and the occasional delivery of supplies. Fixed-wing air transport is limited to the small C-208s and just four C-130s. As a result, almost all supplies and troop movements occur by land, exposing them to ambushes and landmines.

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Political interference

Professional officers of all ethnicities and tendencies are frustrated by the persistent power of political appointees, despite a presidential decision to retire dozens of aging generals to make space for the new generation.

Despite the reformist intents of the National Unity Government (NUG), little has changed in terms of nepotism and clientelism within the MoD. Professional officers of all ethnicities and tendencies are frustrated by the persistent power of political appointees, despite a presidential decision to retire dozens of aging generals to make space for the new generation.

Rival factions within the MoD have been described in various ways: former mujahidin vs non-mujahidin, educated vs non-educated, corrupt vs non-corrupt, pro-Ghani vs pro-Abdullah, Pashtuns vs non-Pashtuns, Jami’at vs Hizb-i Islami vs Wahdat vs Junbesh.

In fact, the situation is more complicated, and conflicts do not necessarily follow strict factional lines. In any case, the protection afforded by political patrons means that the chain of command is disregarded, as described by a high-ranking MoD officer:

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“Those people who are appointed through connections or political parties, those officers don’t care about senior commanders or any generals or commanders because they have support at their back. I know people who were appointed by these political leaders and don’t hear or obey many high-ranking officials of the Afghan defense ministry.”

The rumors about an ANA on the verge of collapse are difficult to verify, but it is clear that if the Taliban are able to repeat the scenario of them capturing big cities like Kunduz, and sustain it, the prospect of state collapse (if not Taliban victory) would be around the corner for Afghanistan. The virtual collapse of 215 Corps (Helmand) during the winter of 2015/16, as a result of protracted Taliban pressure from February 2015 onward, does not bode well for the future.

While there was an expectation among foreign observers that the erosion of ANA control over the rural areas in 2014 would lead to a serious threat to cities by 2017, the fall of Kunduz and then its recapture by ANA with US and ISAF support and the direct threat on Lashkar Gah and Girishk showed that the deterioration had a much earlier impact than anticipated on the ability of the ANA to hold on to “key ground” (the cities and the highway).

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ANA is a guarantor of peace in the war torn country. It is the first and probably the last line of defense against the Taliban and now Daesh. If ANA is not overhauled and brought in-line with to the modern standards, the peace and stability in Afghanistan would remain a dream which neither it nor its neighbors can afford.

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