Afghanistan’s Incompetent Army

Dire leadership, poor education and corruption: the Afghan army is performing poorly

By Cameron Chippindale

When NATO formally ended its combat operations in Afghanistan on December 28th 2014, few observers were deluded enough to have high hopes for the independent performance of the Afghan National Army (ANA). This pessimism was shared by the U.S military which began to prepare for this day as early as in November 2012. For all those involved in the NATO operation, the prospect of a Taliban dominated post-withdrawal Afghanistan was a tormenting spectre of humiliation and blame. This is what prompted America to pump some $65 billion into Afghanistan’s military in the run-up to her withdrawal. Britain also provided billions.

For these two major contributors to the war effort, the events happening on the ground in Afghanistan today constitute a living nightmare. The miserable performance of the ANA has allowed for an Iraq-like resurrection of the extremist threat. In Helmand province, where hundreds of British troops lost their lives, the Taliban is back and looking strong. In the North of the country, a battle rages for the city of Kunduz. As it stands, 33 districts across 16 of Afghanistan’s provinces are under Taliban control. Around 30% of districts are being contested with the militants and virtually nowhere can be described as “secure”. How can an army that is equipped, trained and funded by up to 90% by some of the most powerful countries in the world be performing so badly?

One source of the ANA’s failures is its appalling leadership. The Afghans virtually never assumed responsibility in joint operations with NATO troops. Afghan soldiers were forever reluctant to take any initiative, and simply waited for instructions from NATO personnel. Without the comfort of their foreign counterparts, the Afghans did not know what to do and this holds into the present day. With the vast majority of NATO men gone, those who hold positions of responsibility simply do not know what to do. Regardless of how many weapons they have, the ANA still consists of men who frequently refused to go into battle without NATO soldiers by their side issuing orders.

The ANA also relied so heavily on American intelligence that even those Afghan troops who did want to show initiative persistently didn’t have the means to do so. American intelligence was not effectively distributed, meaning that ANA soldiers could only realistically tag along with NATO men who had a better idea of what the enemy was up to. When the mad rush to beef up the ANA began, insufficient resources were dedicated for cultivating responsibility and inventiveness in the higher parts of the chain of command. The few experienced Afghan battalion and brigade commanders that do exist are now so old that they often dye their beards just to look young and prevent their troops from losing faith in their abilities. The best way the ANA could overcome this leadership curse is by getting out into the field and confronting the Taliban. Learning by doing is a tried and tested method and until ANA commanders muster the guts to give it a go the army will remain critically unoriginal and inactive.

A second major problem with the ANA is the appalling level of education of most of its soldiers. A large proportion of ANA recruits are from the poorest elements of Afghan society. Had it not been for the global recession and the increased difficulty in attaining work permits, many of these men would have gone to do manual jobs in the rich Arab states—probably for better pay too.

The poor backgrounds of many recruits means that tens of thousands of soldiers are illiterate and this is despite the millions of dollars spent on literacy classes since the NATO invasion. This paralyses vital aspects of military operations. Illiterate soldiers cannot prepare and read reports on enemy activity nor can they send off requests for further ammunition and fuel supplies. It also forces the ANA to verbally disseminate huge amounts of instructions which is exhaustingly inefficient. For those troops who did attend NATO literacy classes, the most successful came out with an ability to count, write their name, recognise basic words and speak third grade English. This was the limit of the education provided and hardly allows for efficient field operations.

A lack of education perhaps contributes to the bizarre amount of drug use in the ANA which can only be described as endemic. The Special Investigator General for Afghan Reconstruction reported that at least 50% of ANA men used drugs which must be detrimental to their productivity and performance in combat. Poor socio-economic backgrounds also mean that many men face temptations to steal supplies from the army to give to their families back home. One major issue is fuel theft with some thieves even threatening to shoot American personnel who caught them in the act.

It is the nature of third world armies that large numbers of recruits will be drawn from the poorest in society. Without profound reforms in education and anti-poverty measures in Afghanistan, the ANA will therefore continue to be plagued by these problems. To make such demands on Afghanistan given its current state would be absolutely ridiculous and so this, more than anything, reveals the futility of so much of what NATO countries did to build up the ANA.

Finally, there is corruption. Corruption is the singularly most devastating scourge on the Afghan army. The channels through which Western countries pumped their money into the ANA were inadequately secured against top officials (both political and military) taking cuts for themselves. An enriching tactic particularly popular amongst ANA commanders is the overstating of men under their command. Such men, known as “ghost soldiers”, are soldiers who have deserted, retired or defected yet have not been removed from the army’s payroll. Their paycheques are sent to their commanders who simply pocket the money. This practice not only means that millions of dollars are wasted every year but it also makes preparation of ANA operations difficult because the troop numbers on paper are so inaccurate.

So much money gets siphoned away that the ANA still deploys a huge proportion of its men in cheap Ford pick-up trucks. Equipment and fuel shortages are also debilitating even though the ANA should theoretically be one of the best funded and equipped army’s in the world. When the ANA tried to address its boot shortage in 2016 the funds that manged to survive the plunder were just about sufficient to purchase poor quality boots from Chinese suppliers most of which ended up being too large for the soldiers. This fiasco is symptomatic of an army whose funds are systematically drained away by greedy and irresponsible officials.

These three factors then, dire leadership, poor education and a crippling level of corruption, help to explain the dismal performance of Afghanistan’s army following NATO’s withdrawal. Western countries continue to flood the ANA with cash and equipment which either gets stolen or which the Afghans cannot even effectively use. The ANA is hindered by some deep structural problems which could take years to solve. Corruption is something that can and desperately needs to be tackled now. Once this is done, returns from spending will increase and the ANA can get back on its feet. One thing is for certain however, and that is that the Taliban are not going anywhere anytime soon.