Dec 31, 2009

How to Whip the Afghan Army Into Shape

Much of President Barack Obama's strategy rests on the creation of a new, more competent Afghan military. Here's what he'll need to know to get the job done.

In his Nov. 28 speech at West Point laying out his military strategy for Afghanistan, U.S. President Barack Obama explained that success hinges on developing Afghan security forces that can control the country on their own. Tasked with the responsibility of figuring out how to develop them is Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, newly arrived in Kabul. According to the New York Times, Caldwell intends to devote unprecedented time and effort to improving the quality of Afghanistan's security force leadership, rather than merely concentrating on increasing the quantity of troops. This is an overdue change that promises real improvements.
In Afghanistan, poorly led soldiers and policemen have often proved useless or worse. For the past eight years, the lack of leadership in Afghan police and militia units has resulted in egregious abuses of power that have helped convince thousands of Pashtun tribal elders to support the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Those abuses have too seldom offset forceful action against insurgents. Increasing the number of Afghan troops, which some analysts believe must be the top priority, will not solve any of these problems without sound leadership. As U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry has aptly pointed out, "Ten good police are better than 100 corrupt police, and 10 corrupt police can do more damage to our success than one Taliban extremist."

In developing the Afghan National Security Forces, the U.S. and Afghan governments must combine short-term fixes with long-term development. It is a project that will take longer than American policymakers would like, no matter how many resources they allocate to it. It will also require smart use of U.S. resources.

Of the potential remedies for inferior Afghan leadership, the replacement of bad Afghan commanders with better ones is an obvious choice, but not an easy one. Numerous commanders in the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) hold their positions because they have friends or relatives in the upper echelons of President Hamid Karzai's government and those patrons have been known to demonstrate resolve and guile in protecting their protégés.

A case in point is Brig. Gen. Shams, former commander of the 2nd Brigade, 201st Corps. Shams had far too little experience for a brigade commander and owed his position to political connections. Devoting more of his time to socializing in Jalalabad than to leading his brigade, he failed to organize any brigade-level operations, and corruption ran rampant within his unit. American advisors eventually appealed to higher levels of the Afghan government for help, but high-level Afghan leaders blocked action against Shams for many months. In the end, thankfully, U.S. persistence induced Karzai's office to authorize the brigade commander's relief. Read more


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