Will Afghanistan's Military Ever Be Fit to Fight?

The U.S. has spent $26 billion building up the Afghan army. But it is still poorly trained and rife with internal rivalries. Will it ever be fit to fight?

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Massimo Berruti / Agence VU / Aurora Photos

Afghan soldiers undergo training in Kabul

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As the Afghans see U.S. officers arriving, they abandon their ambush positions and fall into line. NATO officers lament that recruitment among the ethnic Pashtuns of the south is poor — only 3% — because of sympathy for or fear of the Taliban. The inability to draw in Pashtuns, with their tribal links, language and cultural sensitivity, is seen as the army's greatest weakness. Because of this, most Pashtun tribesmen look upon the ANA warily, as foreign invaders. I ask how many of the 125 men are southern Pashtuns. Only two raise their hands. A 19-year-old from Zabul province, who asks not to be identified for fear of retribution, says, "Even my parents don't know. They think I have a job in Kabul. Otherwise, it would mean trouble for them with the Taliban." He always slips out of his uniform into the traditional shalwar kameez before riding the bus down to Zabul. The Taliban have set up roadblocks and have been known to drag soldiers out of the vehicles and shoot them. "If the army sends me anywhere near my home, I'll be very worried," he says, nervously chewing his mustache. A commander steps into the conversation to talk about the soldiers' bravery. "An army post was surrounded by the Taliban, and the soldiers held them off for four hours until they ran out of ammo," he says. I asked what happened next. He shrugs and replies, "The Taliban beheaded them."

A Force Divided
The Afghan army's biggest threat may come not from the Taliban but from the ethnic and personal feuds raging within the ranks. The Defense Ministry is hardly the loyal prop to President Hamid Karzai that Washington strategists envision. The two top military leaders, Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and army chief Bismillah Khan, have a rivalry stretching back to the 1980s and the Soviet war. Wardak, a suave general's son and a Pashtun, was a "Gucci mujahid," as one CIA agent put it, who seldom crossed into Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. In contrast, Khan was a Tajik village boy from the Pansheer Valley who rose up the rebel ranks through his fighting prowess and natural leadership. Such was the disdain that Khan and his fellow Tajik mujahedin had for Wardak that, according to a former Karzai aide, all the Defense Minister's advisers were arrested when they flew back to Afghanistan from exile in the spring of 2002. Their enmity has turned the Defense Ministry into a chessboard, as each tries to block the promotions of the other's allies while backing their own men.

Their rivalry also extends into other spheres. Wardak, a fluent English speaker, is reportedly close to the Pentagon and to Pakistan, while Khan and his Tajik clansmen are reaching out to Iran, India and Russia. Khan is also closely allied with Karzai's main political opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, who is resistant to the beleaguered President's recent attempts to reconcile with the Taliban.

Diplomats and some Afghan officials say Karzai's peace overture to the Taliban could widen the ethnic cracks that already exist inside the army. The Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks, who all suffered under the Taliban's brutal rule of Pashtun supremacy, oppose reconciliation. Khan is said to have six key brigade commanders loyal to him, while one brigade and nine battalions are linked to Uzbek and Hazara warlords. Wardak has only one brigade behind him, according to analyst Giustozzi. Karzai, say some of his aides, is suspicious of Wardak, worrying that Washington may see the minister as his successor.

Putting rivals Wardak and Khan at the helm of the ANA, says a former Karzai adviser, was "a shotgun wedding forced by the Americans." To depoliticize the army, the adviser adds, Karzai must sack both men. But the President is hamstrung because some of his NATO partners are backing Wardak while others prefer Khan.

If Karzai allows the dysfunction within the army to persist, from top to bottom, it would undermine everything Caldwell and other NATO commanders are doing to stand up the ANA. For their part, NATO generals shy away from discussing the divisions within the Defense Ministry, saying their job is only to get the ANA combat-ready. For the Afghan recruits at Camp Violet, the palace intrigues seemed far away as the men prepared for their first taste of battle: Sergeant Jerome Reilly from Tennessee had set up a simulated ambush on an Afghan army convoy, with a fake roadside bomb to see how his men would react. As the sound of the fake bomb echoed off the canyon walls, the men stood around in a daze — easy marks for a Taliban sniper. Turning these men — and tens of thousands like them — into a credible fighting force will take much more money, effort and Afghanistan's scarcest commodity: time.

With reporting by Shah Mahmood Barakzai / Kabul

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