The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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In the (Afghan) Army Now

To whom are we planning to hand off the war against the Taliban? An inside look at the Afghan National Army.

Published on September 1, 2011

It has all the hallmarks of a stirring speech, full of pregnant pauses and crescendos. Scattered amongst tattered bedrolls, Afghan soldiers sit cross-legged on the cement floor, listening with the rapt attention usually reserved for the gyrating women of Pakistani music videos. Large fans circle in unison high above, slicing through fluorescent light and stilted air. “We are leaving Kandahar, but that is no reason to get lazy”, bellows Afghan Army Lieutenant Hossainshah, gripping his beret in a fist. “The Taliban are in Kabul. The Taliban are in Herat. The Taliban are in Mazar-i-Sharif.” Pausing for breath. “The Taliban are in Jalalabad.”

After six years of hard battle in Afghanistan’s restive south, the fourth company, third battalion, first brigade of the 205 Corps of the Afghan National Army (ANA) has finally been given a reprieve and is being rotated to the somewhat more tranquil eastern city of Jalalabad. The soldiers wait until the lieutenant exits the sleeping hall and then race to the manifest list left behind, jostling for position. Cheers and laughter erupt from the lucky few scheduled for the first flight out of Kandahar.

Several months prior and 7,000 miles away, on December 1, 2009, President Barack Obama gave a speech with similar flair, albeit to a more subdued audience. Addressing 4,000 cadets at West Point Military Academy, the President announced that he was deploying an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in an effort to “deny al-Qaeda a safe haven . . . to reverse the Taliban’s momentum . . . [and] to strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.” A number of the cadets lining the plush rows of auditorium seating would soon find themselves on the next flight to Kandahar.

Kandahar, the birthplace and spiritual center of the Taliban, has been a perennial focus of Operation Enduring Freedom. But under Obama’s revised strategy, Afghanistan’s second largest city has assumed even greater significance. The road to reversing Taliban momentum, defeating al-Qaeda and building up the country’s security and political apparatus runs straight through Kandahar. Indeed, “As goes Kandahar, so goes Afghanistan”, or so said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, who told Congress last year that the campaign for Kandahar was make-or-break for the overall war effort. Separately, Defense Secretary Robert Gates had been busy managing expectations, cautioning that, “I think it’s important to remember that Kandahar is not Afghanistan.” 

Kandahar may not be Afghanistan, but operations on the Taliban’s home turf have served in recent times as a vital litmus test of Obama’s Afghanistan strategy, the merits of which, more than 18-months later and even after the President announced on June 22 the end of his surge by summer 2012, continue to be the source of fierce debate in Washington and Kabul alike. As a Washington Post story ominously declared last year, “little else will matter if the news from Kandahar is not good. . . . There is no Plan B.”

  This last best hope, rooted in the classic counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine preached by Obama’s generals, saw about a third of the President’s 30,000-troop surge arrive in Kandahar to join with existing coalition forces in prying open the political space necessary for the Kabul administration of Hamid Karzai to out-govern the Taliban and win Kandahari hearts and minds. But with the city and its surroundings, consisting of roughly a million Afghans, these numbers still leave coalition forces well short of the fifty-to-one civilian-to-soldier ratio prescribed by COIN doctrine. This military shortfall, as well as the future gap that will need plugging to maintain and build on whatever gains the Obama surge achieved in its truncated timeline, is to be filled by Afghan forces such as Hossainshah’s fourth company. 

In the Surge

The fourth company is posted to the Old Corps forward operating base in downtown Kandahar. Situated to the west of the city in a neighborhood populated by government buildings, Old Corps serves as an oasis from Kandahar’s suffocating mix of heat, dust and insurgents. Off a palm-lined boulevard and through the outer gates of the base, flowerbeds of purple, yellow and white line the checkpoint, as cows graze farther off to the side. Within this first barrier are single-story, mud brick homes divided by alleyways, where government employees reside with their families. Approaching the military base within requires driving past fields of frolicking kids, both human and goat.

Within the inner wall stands Old Corps proper. Armored personnel carriers, Humvees and Ford Ranger pickup trucks fill the dusty parking lot. Off to one side, a row of offices for military and government administrators lines the inside of a protective wall of cement and barbed wire. To the other side, a grove fed by a fetid stream and filled with chirping birds is dotted by canvas tents for the officers. While the base seems secure, dogs, cats and rabbits somehow find ways to enter and exit with ease. 

At the heart of Old Corps is what looks to be a whitewashed and gutted schoolhouse, its windows long-since shattered by the shockwaves of nearby bomb blasts. Metal bunk beds surround the U-shaped structure. Soldiers, exhausted from mid-day patrols, nap both inside and outside the building. Surveying the slumber is Sergeant Adbul Rashid Palawan, a 29-year-old Turkmen from the northern province of Jowzjan. Wearing yellow-lensed, wrap-around sunglasses and picking his teeth with a matchstick, Palawan tells the soldiers who are still awake of his previous life as a Greco-Roman wrestler, of his rejection of a cushy military posting in Kabul courtesy of a well-connected relative, and of his last two years patrolling Kandahar and its outlying districts. Flies harass the resting soldiers and helicopters swarm high above.

Sergeant Ezmarai has heard these stories before. The black-haired 19-year-old Pashtun from Jalalabad reaches deep into one of the many cargo pockets on his oversized uniform. Being careful not to disturb the two rocket-propelled grenades resting at his side, he pulls out a mirror and proceeds to twist the tips of his handlebar mustache. Twenty-three-year-old Sergeant Shahfaisal, however, hangs on Palawan’s every word until the crackling of his communications radio—to which he is forever tethered, even in slumber—sends him scampering inside the sleeping quarters. There have been reports of 200 Taliban fighters trying to enter Kandahar; everyone is on edge.

In a single breath, Shahfaisal unleashes a torrent of information through the radio handset to one of the combat outposts scattered throughout the city. Shahfaisal’s bed-cum-office serves as the schoolhouse’s nerve center. A knotted web of power strips, adapters, charging mobile phones and other electronic devices sits under the only bare bulb. A portable DVD player blasts a dated Bollywood movie for those not asleep. Twin rows of bunk beds fill the long rectangular room, green paint peeling from its walls. M-16 rifles and RPGs are littered throughout. Toward the back of the sleeping quarters, across a floor covered in watermelon seeds, cigarette butts and spit, both artificial and natural light are lost in the shadows of disassembled bed frames and piles of soiled mattresses. The outline of one soldier can be seen, lying on his back, an intravenous line snaking into his arm.

A clutch of soldiers is gathered around one bunk. At its center is the company’s resident entrepreneur, 28-year-old Dawa Khan, a former police officer who, after a friendly-fire incident with coalition forces, decided he would be safer in the army. Tucked under his bed in a lockbox is a collection of mobile phones, calling cards and cigarettes. Dawa Khan has the company commander’s blessing to visit Kandahar’s markets (in civilian clothes, of course) and return with supplies. For his time and effort, he takes a small cut. Dawa Khan’s distinctive facial hair has earned the budding capitalist the nickname Lenin. The irony is lost on everyone. 

Shahfaisal ends his radio transmission and alerts Palawan to assemble an escort for the company commander to one of the outposts. The soldiers slip off sandals, lace up boots, strap on body armor and grab rifles. Within minutes, the patrol leaves in a convoy of camouflaged and armored Humvees and tan-colored Ford Ranger trucks that kick up dust as they leave Old Corps for the city.

Not all the soldiers have gone. A short walk across the stream and into the woods, a few wayward men have gathered in a glade. Squatting in a circle, squishing fallen mulberries as they adjust their perch, they twist tobacco out of cigarettes, replacing it with crumbled hashish. Their movements, purposeful and precise and made without breaking conversation, have been repeated hundreds of times. Moments later, thick plumes of peppery smoke drift up through the pomegranate and orange leaves. Heads lean against the laps of their neighbor and the conversation turns to the voluptuousness of prostitutes in Pakistani refugee camps compared to those of Kandahar. They will play volleyball later, after which one of the soldiers, struggling to focus as he finds his way back to the crumbling schoolhouse, brings food and water to his sick friend and adjusts the IV, making sure he is comfortable.

These are the faces of the new Afghan army, an army President Obama had hoped would begin taking responsibility for securing parts of the country by the end of last year. That excessively optimistic date had been quietly shifted to this past July, with the more volatile corners of Afghanistan having to wait until 2014. The longer wait is painful not only for the United States but also for all NATO members, where public support for the nearly ten-year war has flagged as precipitously as the Taliban has resurged. Adding to the public relations challenge, 2010 marked not only the deadliest year for U.S. troops in the Afghan war, with this year on course to break that record; it also gave the war the ignoble distinction of being the longest in U.S. history, surpassing Vietnam.

A year before then-commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan General Stanley A. McChrystal careened spectacularly off-message, he identified the under-resourcing of the Afghan National Security Forces as one of the chief obstacles to a successful “population-centric” COIN campaign. McChrystal reiterated the need for a break from the “light footprint” approach that marked the early years of the war, calling for “a radically improved partnership at every level” with Afghan forces and an increase in ANA troop strength from an estimated 90,000 in 2009 to 240,000 by 2013.

Building on this, McChrystal’s former superior, then successor and now Director of Central Intelligence General David Petraeus, the man who literally wrote the book on COIN doctrine, placed equal, if not greater, emphasis on the training of Afghan forces. Indeed, nearly every review of the Afghan war strategy has made the case for the development of an effective Afghan security force. Yet despite a total U.S. investment of more than $20 billion in the ANA, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction stated as late as 2009 that only 23 percent of the Afghan army was sufficiently manned and equipped. If one took force quality into account, the Inspector General said, the number of capable units was lower still. 

The U.S. effort to create an Afghan army has been plagued by chronic under-funding and policy drift since its inception. Distracted by its much larger military engagement in Iraq and the hunt for al-Qaeda, the U.S. government failed to bring requisite resources to bear in the Afghan theater until 2007.1 Born out of the Bonn Agreement of December 2001 following the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan and the collapse of the Taliban, the Afghan army was first envisaged as a standing army of 60,000, to be trained and recruited from the tens of thousands, or possibly even one million, militia men who had flourished after decades of civil war. For the next five years, however, the focus on Iraq and the pursuit of terrorists along the Pakistani border, along with the rapid rotation of coalition advisers and bureaucratic restructuring, caused the Afghan army to languish and the war effort to become habitually distracted. A popular refrain heard in the halls of the Pentagon characterizes this era nicely: “We haven’t been fighting in Afghanistan for nine years; we’ve been fighting for one year, nine years in a row.”

While the Afghan campaign floundered, the Taliban, convalescing in the physical and political cover of Pakistan’s mountainous frontier region, began its unrelenting re-emergence in the large ungoverned pockets of Afghanistan ceded by undermanned coalition forces. It was only after the deterioration in security that the task of building the Afghan army received new urgency. Perhaps in a sign of confidence (but more likely panic), the United States bumped the total ANA force goal, which had stood at 60,000, to 80,000 in February 2008 and then again to 134,000 in September 2008. At the same time, it attempted to uncoil and smooth out a disjointed command structure.

McChrystal and Petraeus’s renewed commitment are only now beginning to take hold. The ANA reached its October 2010 target of 134,000 ahead of schedule and is well on the way to reaching 171,600 by October of this year. Of course, matching quantity with quality in this high growth phase cannot be assumed. A report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies summarized the false faith of absolute numbers:

The statement that ‘numbers create a quality of their own’ is true, but this is scarcely a recipe for success. Counter-insurgency history has shown again and again that low quality forces are defeated by much smaller high quality forces, and that one of the best ways to lose a counterinsurgency campaign is to alienate the people with corrupt forces and/or forces that cannot protect them. The kind of ‘quality’ that sheer numbers create is a proven way of losing wars, with thousands of years of historical examples to warn that such an approach is a recipe for failure.2

Years of neglect have allowed many bad habits to take hold within ANA ranks, adding to a raft of basic problems. The ANA’s illiteracy rate is 70–90 percent; drug abuse is rampant (as much as 85 percent would fail a drug test); desertions are common (roughly 10–20 percent); salary is low (the Taliban still pay better than the army in some cases); and corruption if rife (fuel, weapons and equipment often go missing). Taliban infiltration since March 2009 has included 20 incidents in which a member of the Afghan security forces, or someone wearing a uniform used by them, killed coalition troops. The ANA’s ethnic balance is also a serious problem. The southern Pashtuns who make up the core of the Taliban are virtually nonexistent in the national army. Deployment rotations are dysfunctional. Secretary Gates has said that those posted to the frontlines are basically sent to fight until they either desert, are wounded or are killed. There is also a lack of coalition trainers; the current shortfall is about 18 percent. These problems will only be further exacerbated as the ANA’s rapid expansion requires it to select from an increasingly inferior pool of candidates, and as its sclerotic bureaucracy, inherited from the Soviet era, struggles to provide the infrastructure and logistics to oversee and support such demanding growth. Compounding the task is an increasingly virulent insurgency and the current transfer of even greater responsibility from U.S. and coalition forces to the shoulders of the ANA.

A House Divided

Of more lasting concern, however, is the ethnic, regional and political factionalism that has divided the military into competing spheres of influence. A legacy of civil war that shattered any loyalty to the state, coupled with poor oversight in the early days of the national army, allowed high-level players in the Ministry of Defense and the military general staff to carve up the rank-and-file into competing patronage networks. These rivalries are best personified by the tensions between the former army Chief of Staff and the current Minister of Defense.

General Bismillah Khan Mohammadi served as army Chief of Staff from 2002 to July 2010, having been appointed by then-Defense Minister Mohammed Qasim Fahim, a fellow member of the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance that helped toppled the Taliban in autumn 2001. As the ostensible winners of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance took advantage of its position as last man standing after a protracted civil war, as well as the international disinterest in building an Afghan army. Shrewdly, ninety of the first hundred generals appointed to the new army were from the Panjshir Valley, home of the Northern Alliance. 

Fahim’s successor challenged Tajik control of the military apparatus. Adbul Rahim Wardak, an ethnic Pashtun, took over the Defense Ministry in 2004 and immediately created a twin center of gravity to Mohammadi’s. Both men competed for the loyalties of brigade and battalion commanders. Where loyalties were suspect, they installed trustworthy deputy commanders. Through the manipulation of appointments and promotions, the growing political power of the charismatic Mohammadi came to be viewed as a threat in circles close to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was seen as siding with a fellow Pashtun in Wardak. Longstanding rumors of Mohammadi being removed were finally put to rest when he was made head of the Ministry of the Interior last year.

Ethnicity and regional identity may have divided Mohammadi and Wardak, but in ideology they were aligned. Having both been part of the mujaheddin that fought against the Soviet-backed Afghan government of Mohammad Najibullah in the 1980s and early 1990s, today Mohammadi and Wardak tend to favor mujaheddin officers over those who received Soviet training under Najibullah. While mujaheddin officers cannot match the military education (to say nothing of basic education) and superior technical competence of their Soviet-trained colleagues, they excel in tactical experience on the battlefield.

A rule of thumb for quickly identifying the mujaheddin officer from his communist peer is style of facial hair: The former sports a full beard, while the latter usually opts for a bushy moustache. However, these rules are not hard and fast. Lieutenant Colonel Mohammad Hasan Baluch, commander of the third battalion at Old Corps, doesn’t let his stubble pass the three-day mark, yet he remembers life as a mujahid under the storied commander of the Northern Alliance, Ahmed Shah Massoud. 

Hailing from the northern province of Badakhshan, Baluch joined the Northern Alliance at age 17 as a sergeant, eventually rising to the rank of battalion commander. “The entire country supported the mujaheddin“, he reminisces over a plate of salted watermelon under the officers’ tent at Old Corps. “Under Massoud we didn’t have great numbers or facilities. We’d buy rockets from Tajikistan one at a time, US$100 each. But discipline and command was better under Massoud. He made one decision and it was executed.”

After the mujaheddin toppled the Najibullah government in 1992, Baluch recalls the disunity and dissent that tore the movement apart and allowed the Taliban to rise and seize Kabul a short four years later. “The mujaheddin had beat the Soviet superpower. Pakistan didn’t want the mujaheddin to get any stronger and so they brought the Taliban”, he says. Baluch then followed Massoud back north. From the Panjshir Valley, he was a member of the shadow government that eventually served as Kabul’s proto-government in 2002 after the fall of the Taliban.

Where Baluch cuts the figure of a mujahid, General Sher Mohammad Zazai, the silver-bearded commander of the 205 Corps in Kandahar, is every bit the communist—again, facial hair notwithstanding. On Camp Atal (“hero” in Dari), the Afghan army’s headquarters in southern Afghanistan, the general’s presence is announced by the brand new, black, armored Land Cruiser parked outside his office. Having recently received his second star, the general’s anteroom is filled with what can only be described as tacky flower arrangements brought by a steady stream of well-wishers who pose for a quick picture before leaving. However, the gaudy bouquets and effusive congratulations are deceiving. Zazai has been known to usher foreign security contractors out of his office by the sole of his boot. In one of our early encounters, he quickly established his dominance by commenting on my patchy excuse for a beard. The general’s disdain for contractors and journalists seems to only be exceeded by his contempt for Pakistan, which harbors the Talibs that slips into his jurisdiction each spring.

As a young man from the province of Paktia along the Pakistani border, Zazai first joined the army under King Zahir Shah in the early 1970s. After spending four years training in Leningrad, during which time a military coup brought an end to 230 years of Afghan dynastic rule, he returned to Afghanistan and a new communist government. He then served under the communist state until Najibullah fell to the clean-shaven Lt. Col. Baluch and his mujaheddin fighters. From 1992, the general took his orders from whichever mujaheddin group controlled Kabul for the moment. With the arrival of the Taliban in 1996, he simply “stayed out of sight.”

When pressed on what it must have felt like to be a soldier under the monarchy, under the communist state and then to take orders from the very same mujaheddin that only days before he had been fighting against, the general, seemingly disinterested in the question, spots a passing fly. “The army is the army”, he says. “We never touch politics. The army is a military force that supports the government. This is the nature of the army.” A fly swatter snaps down on his desk. “We follow orders.” 

Interviews with Zazai involve a public affairs team, several coalition mentors and a handful of interpreters. The final tally can break into double-digits, not exactly a conducive environment for candid conversation. In less formal settings, officers tend to be more forthcoming.

To the east of Kabul lies a military cantonment that houses the families of former and current officers. Modest homes line rutted roads where chickens, goats and sheep flee chasing children. In a private garden hidden behind mud walls, a peacock preens in peace. For the last four years this is where General Amir Mohammad Ahmadi has spent the bulk of his forced retirement. 

Sipping saffron tea against the chill of a setting sun, Ahmadi explains the cause of his exile. As a commanding officer in the Mahaz-i-Milli mujaheddin group, the general served directly beneath the current Minister of Defense. Ahmadi and Wardak fought side by side against the Soviets and Najibullah’s army in eastern Afghanistan. Twenty years later, this close relationship put him at direct odds with Wardak’s Tajik rival, Chief of Staff Mohammadi. As Mohammadi’s influence grew, the three-star general was quietly pushed aside to this garden redoubt. 

But Ahmadi was not just any mujahid fighting against a Soviet-backed regime. In a previous life he was a dedicated communist. He joined the military shortly after Mohammad Daoud Khan deposed his cousin, the King, in 1973. Rebuffed by a United States still in the deep freeze of Cold War, Daoud sought military aid from the Soviet Union. A steady stream of advisers, tanks and aircraft poured in from Moscow as officers obtained military training and scholarships in the Soviet Union. By 1978, the army numbered 98,000. 

For Ahmadi, becoming an officer in Daoud’s army was “one of the greatest honors a son could give his father.” He waxes nostalgic, “The old army was educated and disciplined. You wanted to work for your nation and defend your country. Today’s army looks more like a private security company.” Yet all was not well in Ahmadi’s gilded army. Although the military was ostensibly above politics, the Peoples’ Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), a radical leftist party, began recruiting Soviet-trained officers and nominating them to Daoud’s government. In April 1978, the PDPA assassinated Daoud and brought in Afghanistan’s first communist government. The proletarian celebration was short lived, however, as internal division soon split the ranks of the PDPA. Political purges from not one but two coups within five years hobbled the officer corps. By 1979, with the Soviets on the brink of invasion, the army had shriveled to less than half its previous size while a pernicious insurgency simmered throughout the countryside.

After eight years in the army, Ahmadi had had enough of naive officers, plucked from peasant stock, being manipulated by the politically motivated. In the post-coup environment, power was used harshly and torture against suspected counterrevolutionaries was not uncommon. “I got really upset and it was unbearable for me to see what was going on”, he says. Twice warrants were issued for his arrest because of his refusal to join either Communist Party. “If you don’t join their parties you’re right away under surveillance. ‘Why don’t you join us? You are against the revolution?’ they asked.”

“It was not easy to leave after so many years”, says Ahmadi of his decision to defect to the mujaheddin, “but I could see death in front of my eyes . . . . Knowing that someone is going to kill you makes it easier.” So with ten fellow officers, Ahmadi left his family in Kabul and made the treacherous journey to Pakistan. Mujaheddin fighters had orders to kill escaping soldiers on sight. Once in the safety of the mujaheddin camps on the far side of the border, Ahmadi used his Soviet training to build a platoon of fighters to take on his former compatriots in Kabul’s Soviet-backed regime.

Not all the defecting officers ran immediately back to the frontline. “Some let their beards grow, prayed 24 hours a day and lived off rations but now claim to have fought the Soviets”, grumbles Ahmadi. “But I know they have done nothing.”

The general quickly rationalizes any moral quandary over the question of fighting against former colleagues. “We knew people in top posts in the Soviet-backed government that we had studied with and were now fighting against, but we had different paths and different beliefs. We fought against them because our beliefs were more important than theirs. They were fighting in the same way because they believe in the Soviet way.”

Where Ahmadi does have mixed feelings is over what the mujaheddin did with the country they fought so hard win. “The difference between the mujaheddin and Daoud’s army is from the ground to the sky”, he says, tracing an arc towards the darkening horizon. “The mujaheddin had no experience in governance. They took everything apart and destroyed it.” Much what was left of the Afghan army, following a series of mutinies and botched coups leading up to the fall of the Najibullah government in 1992, ran away from their posts for fear of mujaheddin reprisal. Those who could fled the country (some air force pilots escaped in their planes to Pakistan). Others became cab drivers or businessmen. The soldiers who saw themselves first and foremost as military professionals and stayed, quickly grew their communist moustaches into mujaheddin beards. 

In the end, disunity among the mujaheddin parties and a dearth of resources within the army led to splinters of the military either dissolving outright or being absorbed by one of the warring factions vying for Kabul. As Afghanistan crumbled politically, so did its army. Ahmadi, disillusioned with communism and, now, jihad, fled to Pakistan. He did not return for a decade.

Another Day

Mornings at Old Corps begin with the five o’clock call to prayer piped through speakers from a small mosque adjoining the back of the schoolhouse. Shortly thereafter, the company commander, in a long Calvin Klein T-shirt and with bits of breakfast still caught in wisps of his beard, makes his way through the bunks, ordering his men to go pray.

The soldiers perform ablutions and find their way either to the mosque or a quiet west-facing corner, the sun a soft tangerine color at their backs. Palawan the wrestler goes for a run while the rest of the men group off for a quiet breakfast of green tea, cake, bread and thick cream. Someone is always thoughtful enough to bring food to Shahfaisal as he monitors radio transmissions from his bed. In the parking lot, next to an armored personnel carrier, three Canadian soldiers from a nearby base sleep soundly on cots under the cover of mosquito nets. Across the stream, lunch is already being prepared. Sitting on hot coals, a huge cauldron is filled with cloves, onions, masala and rice. In the next pot, beef with lentils simmers away. By the time the first patrols begin to return, lunch should be ready.

By six o’clock, the sun already begins to blind, even through the thick glass of an armored Humvee that is slaloming through the blast walls on the outskirts of Old Corps before barreling down the still-empty Kandahar streets. For the moment, goats and stray dogs share these streets with bearded laborers who take turns between shoveling dirt and sipping tea. In a few hours, the streets will be choked with traffic that brings Afghan convoys to a halt but parts urgently when the more conspicuous U.S. or coalition forces make their way through.

Kandahar is an overexposed city of near uniform height. For the most part bare, The skyline is punctuated by a handful of jagged peaks striped in diagonal strata and a NATO surveillance blimp floating high above. As the city awakens, a mob of faded, sea-foam green burqas and drab shalwar kameezes is offset by the colorful outfits of children on their way to school and the bright juices and fruits sold by local vendors. It’s early summer, and melons are in season.

This morning, Palawan the wrestler, Ezmarai of the handlebar mustache and Lenin are visiting a checkpoint manned by the fourth company. Six Afghan soldiers armed with automatic rifles and light machine guns are scattered along the two-lane thoroughfare, stopping cars at random to check for paperwork. Maybe a hundred yards down the road, past a string of shops selling tires, electronics, jewelry and sides of lamb, a separate police checkpoint has been erected. 

Toyota Corollas and yellow taxis honk to speed the process along. Bicycles, motorcycles and auto rickshaws attempt to maneuver around the inconvenience. Buses heading east to Kabul or west to Herat idle. One truck transports camels who are understandably less patient. Onlookers sit in the shade of low mud brick walls. Dust and diesel choke the air.

At one corner of an intersection with a side street, children play with a puppy near a drainage ditch. Behind them stands a women’s clinic where an improvised explosive device was discovered and disposed of less than a year ago. Across the street is an empty lot. Not four months back, it was a bomb-making safe house before the army leveled it. And just five days ago, an IED was found behind one of its crumbling outer walls.

However, unlike the surrounding rural districts, the stationary bombs have not been the biggest threat in Kandahar City. It’s the more mobile and suicidal variety that soldiers fear most. In recent months, body-borne, vehicle-borne and even donkey-borne IEDs have rocked the city. One 2010 attack on an Afghan police base in Kandahar involved at least three Taliban suicide bombers; it left nine dead (six Afghans and three Americans), to say nothing of the spent attackers. Some soldiers say they can distinguish between the behavior of a motorcyclist and a suicide bomber. But the majority admits that, apart from recognizing the absence of a license plate before they get too close, there’s little they can do. “The Taliban look like civilians”, they shrug.

By noon, the heat is unbearable. The men return to a nearby spartan yet fortified combat outpost to eat, clean their weapons and pray with the other 35 soldiers and thirty police who live there (those not operating the checkpoints are on foot patrol throughout the city). Palawan, Ezmarai and Lenin inspect a series of checkpoints and outposts that afternoon. Along the way, others in the convoy stop for haircuts and to peruse Kandahar’s lively bazaars. 

That evening at Old Corps, while the officers play chess in brightly lit quarters and enjoy a dinner that includes fresh vegetables (in the mornings they also indulge on eggs), the enlisted men trade stories. One that has become a quick favorite is of a soldier who came up to me at Old Corps holding a grenade by its pin, berating me with questions in what I assumed was Pashto, Afghanistan’s official language (along with Dari). Ezmarai quickly chased him away and, laughing it off, assured me that as long as I’m with the fourth company I have nothing to worry about. Reassuring as it is, tensions remain high. Rumors have spread throughout Old Corps that I’m not a journalist but a Turkish spy. 

In the end, the verdict is that it’s another good day: No one has fallen victim to the Taliban. A sawing motion across the throat emphasizes this last point. Gallows humor runs thick through the bunk beds of the old schoolhouse. The soldiers then turn back to mobile phones and their constant cacophony of Pashto and Farsi music, only silenced five times per day by the muezzin’s call to prayer. The buzzing of mosquitoes has replaced the flies. The generator that powers the single bulb hums in the distance. 

Naimullah, the most elderly of the enlisted men, sits on a bench outside, keeping watch for the night. Inside, where the heavy air makes for pristine smoke rings, Ezmarai, laying on his bed, eats a single-serving portion of peanut butter straight from the container without sullying a whisker. In the opposite bunk, Shahfaisal cranes under the bare bulb, flipping desperately through his Pashto-to-English dictionary in search of conversation. Another day in the fight for Kandahar comes to a close. 

Cooperation for Kandahar

Hamkari Baraye Kandahar, or Cooperation for Kandahar, was never stylized as the next Fallujah or Ramadi. Instead of the house-to-house urban combat of Iraq, the campaign for Kandahar is a civil-military effort. Officials went to lengths to avoid calling it an offensive or operation in favor of the more innocuous label of a process. But what a process it is. Eighty percent of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s 2010 Afghan budget was marked for Kandahar, which includes $90 million for agricultural vouchers alone. In addition, 160 American civilian specialists in governance and agriculture descended on greater Kandahar, up from the eight posted there the year before. 

The military component of the civil-military process featured somewhat less prominently. Since early 2010, small bands of Special Operations forces have been killing or spiriting away insurgent leaders in the middle of the night as part of an effort to shape operations to prime the battle space. Simultaneously a “rising tide of security” as advanced by McChrystal established a presence in the city and surrounding districts in the form of checkpoints and patrols. 

Kandahar, while already war-weary and deeply suspicious of outsiders from either Washington or Kabul, was not considered overrun with Taliban; it was merely teeming with them. This allowed for a deviation from the COIN mantra of shape, clear, hold, build and transfer, to shape, hold/build/clear and then transfer. The limited government presence—and it is limited to a handful of fortified compounds—would be extended in the form of inflating bubbles of security, governance and development, before long engulfing the entire city and its surroundings. The Taliban would be pushed to a handful of enclaves from which they could easily be cleared and civilian casualties would be kept to a minimum.

As early as January 2010, plans were in place and broadcast to the public for these final military sweeps of the outlying districts—specifically those to the north and west where the Taliban operate with near impunity—to be in full swing by June 2010. By late August, during the fasting month of Ramadan, the Kabul government was supposed to have re-established order in time for September’s parliamentary elections, leaving a full three months to consolidate gains in the city before Obama’s December 2010 strategy-review sessions. November’s U.S. congressional mid-term elections also fell conveniently into this timeline. But the Kandahar process did not go according to plan. 

Instead of melting back into the countryside or mounting a harrowing last stand, the Taliban orchestrated shaping and clearing operations of their own, meeting McChrystal’s rising tide with a tsunami of intimidation, kidnappings, assassinations and bombings. They even gave it a name. Operation Al-Fatah (Arabic for “victory”) was a grisly affair. In the first four months of the 2010, 27 government officials or Afghans working with foreign contractors in Kandahar city were assassinated. In April of that year, gunmen assassinated the deputy mayor of Kandahar as he prostrated for evening prayers in a mosque. That same month, three bombings targeting foreign-supported aid organizations and local police shook the city and shattered the windows of the Old Corp schoolhouse. In May, and then again in August, the Taliban launched brazen attacks on a major NATO airfield in Kandahar. In June a remote-controlled bomb killed the governor of a neighboring district, only days after a suicide bomber killed more than fifty at a wedding party full of off-duty police officers. 

In such a jarring environment, local government could not recruit the key staff needed to out-govern the Taliban, or to govern at all, for that matter. The office of the mayor of Kandahar was half-staffed, and 400 posts went unfilled at the provincial level. Electricity, sanitation, health care, education, employment and justice remained in short supply. The local population either sided with the devil they knew in their Pashtun confederates of the Taliban or took great pains to appear indifferent.

The challenging atmospherics, as the military is apt to describe situation, threw a kink into the U.S. timetable. Military operations were pushed back to the fall after Ramadan, and into the harvest and parliamentary campaign season. The abridged timeline prevented a functioning government from asserting itself in Kandahar. Instead, the city remained contested through the traditional winter détente—when hundreds of insurgent leaders were killed or captured across the country—and into the spring 2011 fighting season. Eighty positions of the 125 in the mayor’s office remain empty, largely because of Taliban threats of assassinating government workers. And these threats are not empty. In April, the Taliban killed the Kandahar provincial police chief. In the same month the Taliban tunneled out 476 colleagues from the local prison. In May, the Taliban brought Kandahar city to its knees with a major assault involving at least six suicide bombers, eight government targets, forty insurgents and 32 hours of fighting that left dozens of casualties. And last month saw not only the assassination Karzai’s half-brother, the Chairman of the Provincial Council, but also that of Kandahar’s Mayor.

The fourth company was already well established into the rhythms of Jalalabad as the yearlong campaign to secure Kandahar continued to unfold, but they did have a hand in its early phases. Before the morning call to prayer during the first weeks of May 2010, the fourth company and 500 other Afghan soldiers blocked off Kandahar’s main exits and cordoned-off Taliban-infested neighborhoods. Four hundred Afghan police and forty intelligence agents conducted house-to-house searches. NATO air support and explosive ordnance disposal teams were standing by. The nearly 2,000-man force was operating on information gathered from the network of spies, agents and tipsters run by the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence agency. Reviewing reports on a series of Taliban safe houses scattered throughout Kandahar, the provincial and district governors, along with the local police chief and the Afghan army commander of the first brigade agreed to the joint operation.

The sweeps went on for another five days and turned up caches of weapons, ammunition, explosives, communications equipment, record books and Taliban propaganda. But the prized item of the operation was Mullah Ali Akmad, a local Taliban commander thought responsible for a recent series of bombings and assassinations. Akmad was found in possession of a signed letter from Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar instructing local mullahs that no one was to attend the funeral of any government worker—grim foreshadowing for the coming summer. In the end, Akmad and 14 other suspects were turned over to the National Directorate of Security for questioning, the Afghan police returned to their bases, and the fourth company disassembled their checkpoints before heading back to Old Corps. The mission was deemed a success.

But manning checkpoints is a far cry from what most soldiers in the Afghan army signed up for. U.S.-funded Afghan army recruiting commercials broadcast across the country stoke Afghan pride at having beat back successive waves of invaders over the centuries. The recruiting campaign attempts to link together the Afghan National Army and “the warrior poets of old, protectors of the people, picking up a gun not because they wanted to but because they had to, in order to protect society”, said Jahid Mohseni, CEO of Moby Group, which produced the campaign, in a radio interview.

Ezmarai, and many of the soldiers in fourth company who aren’t simply there for a paycheck or because their families didn’t know quite what else to do with them, will tell you that they joined the army to serve their country as part of a polished and professional force, not to do glorified police work. But the ANA is unlikely to escape these types of operations any time soon. “No matter how much effort is made to improve the integrity, size and capability of the various elements of the Afghan police, improve Afghan governance, and create an effective structure for prompt justice”, explains the CSIS report, “there will be three to five years in which the ANA will have to play a critical role in various clear and hold efforts, and in helping local, aid and government workers in various build roles.” In other words, operating checkpoints will be a mainstay of army life for years to come. 

Marja

It was not that long ago, however, that the new Afghan army got its first taste of modern warfare. Roughly 140 kilometers along the Arghandab River west of Kandahar, the largest joint operation of the war thus far spilled onto the small hamlet of Marja in the province of Helmand. More than 2,000 ANA soldiers joined 4,000 U.S. and coalition troops in the early hours of February 13, 2010, as they began to secure 750 square-kilometers of poppy fields latticed by dirt roads and irrigation canals, home to some 80,000 villagers and the Taliban’s largest remaining bastion in southern Afghanistan.

Ground units surrounded Marja while sixty aircraft raced across the desert to insert thousands of U.S and Afghan troops behind enemy lines. Approaching from the north in Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters, 211 marines and 71 Afghans sat in nervous silence. This was the largest air assault since the beginning of the war, the largest in recent marine history, and for most of the Afghans their first time aboard a helicopter. Through the roar of rotors and engines, this mixed assault force put into practice what it had learned over the previous nine days: that the fastest way to break the tension of their looming mission was to swap crude jokes and gestures at the expense of the Taliban’s manhood. 

Kilo company of the third battalion, sixth marines, had been running drills with the second battalion, first brigade of Afghanistan’s 203 Corps for a full week by now. Previously based in Khost in the volatile east, 203 Corps, apart from a few green soldiers, arrived sufficiently battle seasoned. They quickly, if grudgingly, picked up the basic fire and movement patterns of the marines, so that the rest of their time was spent practicing jumping off helicopters, in the dark, under simulated fire.

When helicopters weren’t available, tape and cots were used to recreate their interiors. In the middle of the night, hundreds of marines and Afghan soldiers hurried out of the delineated aircrafts into defensive positions and then repeated the maneuvers. To simulate combat conditions the troops were weighed down with enough ammunition, food, water and supplies to last three days. Mortars, rockets and mobile assault bridges were also crammed into the makeshift helicopters. The bomb-sniffing dogs unnerved the Afghans but it was vital that these drills be realistic.

In the early practice sessions, the well-disciplined marines, whose packs were clean and tight with everything clipped and tied, didn’t know what to make of the Afghan soldiers sauntering up with thick blankets spilling out the top of their packs, gold tea kettles and portable stereos dangling at the sides. The drills proved incredibly useful at sorting through such glaring oversights. 

Not having night-vision goggles, the Afghans were to follow the Marines off the helicopters. This also ensured that, if any Afghans panicked and froze while offloading, Marines wouldn’t pile up behind them as the Taliban picked off easy targets. As an extra precaution, a handful of marines were to disembark last, pushing forward any stragglers. Fortunately, it never came to this. Despite being nervous, the Afghans fed off the gung-ho marines and were eager to impress. At H-hour, things went roughly as planned. According to marines present, it was “dark as fuck”, some encountered chest-deep mud, and IEDs were strewn throughout the battle space. But the landing zones were more or less as the intelligence reports had predicted and the Taliban were reassuringly nowhere to be seen.

The rest of the mission did not go so smoothly. Four cold and sleepless nights passed behind enemy lines before the marines and Afghan soldiers connected with the rest of the third battalion, sixth marines, two nights longer than anticipated. In that time they faced numerous booby-trapped houses, deadly snipers, 360-degree firefights and countless ambushes. They used an array of weaponry and called in numerous air strikes. And they took several casualties as they set about clearing northern Marja. 

During the operation, each squad of marines had a different experience with their Afghan soldiers. For some, any reservations held by either side quickly transformed into professional respect after fighting shoulder to shoulder through their first firefight. There are reports of Afghans having to be restrained from charging headlong into incoming fire and having to be taught the virtues of tactical patience from their U.S. Marine counterparts. This, however, was not seen as an insurmountable shortcoming and was even admired to an extent by Marines who were always ready to “get some.”

The Afghan soldiers did prove particularly useful when searching Afghan homes and in identifying potential Taliban. Their resourceful nature also meant that pillows and blankets were scavenged for the cold desert nights, and that meals with fresh bread, rice, chicken or goat were prepared depending on what fleeing residents had left behind. But for every story of an Afghan soldier picking off escaping Taliban from 750 meters with a rocket-propelled grenade, taking a machine gun round to the face and surviving, or diving on a marine moments before an unseen Talib let loose a burst of fire, there’s one of an Afghan soldier absent-mindedly setting off an IED, firing his weapon indiscriminately in the direction of a friendly position, or accidentally shooting off his own fingers.

As quickly and successfully as the initial stages of the Marja operation were carried out, in some respects it was a failure for the ANA. Operation Moshtarak (“together” in Dari) was billed as the coming out party for the modern Afghan army. The tone from Kabul and Washington was that Moshtarak would be the debut of the new and improved military running a complex and sizeable operation, and would not only showcase their planning of the missions but leading both the fight and the effort to engage with locals. Yet a New York Times journalist embedded with Kilo Company throughout the mission, a former U.S. Marine himself, witnessed otherwise. “In every engagement between the Taliban and [Kilo Company], the operation has been led in almost every significant sense by American officers and troops”, wrote C.J. Chivers. “They organize the forces for battle, transported them in American vehicles and helicopters from Western-run bases into Taliban-held ground, and have been the primary fighting force each day.” By Chivers’ account, the Afghan army served more as an auxiliary force than an equal partner:

From transporting troops, directing them in battle and coordinating fire support [air strikes, rockets, artillery and mortars] to arranging modern communications, logistics, aviation and medical support, the mission in Marja has been a marine operation conducted in the presence of fledgling Afghan army units, whose officers and soldiers follow behind the Americans and do what they are told.3

The CSIS report was somewhat more generous, “[Afghan] officers also played a major role in approving, planning and carrying out the Moshtarak operation, although it is clear that the bulk of the work was done by coalition forces in all of these areas.” Attempts to put an indigenous face on foreign military operations are nothing new. The New Yorker‘s Dexter Filkins has written similar vignettes about relations between the U.S. military and Iraqi Security Forces. The danger lies in the fact that these incidents reflect political expedience taking precedent over frank assessments. Eventually this more palatable “spin” gets misconstrued for hard facts by the very same interconnected government organs shoveling it out.

A 2009 U.S. Defense Department report that influenced the decisions of Congress proclaimed that Afghan army units take the lead in 54 percent of operations. What it omitted was that the overwhelming majority of these operations involved fifty to sixty men, said long-time Afghanistan-watcher Antonio Giustozzi. In fact, most of these were simple patrols, a NATO official told Giustozzi. The larger operations billed as “independent” are carried out with considerable assistance if not outright international direction, control and ample reinforcements, such as in the case of Moshtarak.

The U.S. and NATO are slowly rebalancing Afghanistan’s infantry-centric military toward a more modern army that can handle logistics, fire support, engineering and communications. But despite acquiring the trappings of a 21st-century military force, the fear in Washington is that, at its core, the ANA continues to more closely resemble the armies of Afghanistan’s past.

Stretching back over three centuries, the history of the Afghan military closely mirrors that of the state it serves. Both have been forced through convulsive fits of centralization and devolution as the exigencies of modernization from the outside world have marched the Afghan state, in lockstep with its military, from feudalism to centralized monarchy to nation state. At times the military acted as a unifying presence against centrifugal forces on the state. In other instances, it was the dissolution of a divided military that hastened the breakdown of the government apparatus. Today’s attempts to recreate the Afghan state and its military after their complete destruction is the fourth go-around in 150 years of Afghan tumult. Many hope it will be the last.

Afghanistan’s first modern national army was founded by Amir Sher Ali Khan in the wake of the First Anglo-Afghan war. Using field manuals translated from English into Pashto and Dari, he built a regular army of infantry, cavalry and artillery numbering some 50,000 men.

Prior to the Anglo-Afghan war, a handful of hereditary elites relied on mercenary armies—financed by tribute, taxes on trade and agriculture, and tribal levies—to crush domestic rebellions and inter-tribal conflicts. But as the British arrived in 1839 to blunt Russia’s eastward expansion, a hired army was no match against a Western colonial power. Instead, a popular uprising was required. Fortunately, the foreign invader was also an infidel, which made mobilizing the loose conglomerate of tribes a religious imperative. 

With the help of rural militias, the British were in retreat within three years. This first Anglo-Afghan war valorized the defense of Islam, lionized the guerilla warrior and provided a founding myth for Afghan identity. But as is the case in war, Afghanistan’s traditional order and longstanding patterns of authority were in traction. The insular ruling elite had little control over the militias they had unleashed, who, after proving decisive in victory, demanded a greater stake in the nation they had helped midwife into existence. 

It was in response to the rising challenge of tribal chiefs and their irregular forces that Sher Ali Khan created the nation’s first modern military. Yet, despite its professional training, by the outbreak of the Second Anglo-Afghan war in 1878, his modern army proved a “paper tiger”, in the words of Ali A. Jalali, a former colonel in the Afghan army and current professor at the National Defense University. The army disintegrated after initial clashes with the British. The fragmented forces were then absorbed into the tribal irregulars and civilian militias that, for a second time, succeeded in repulsing the foreign threat. 

Jalali lists poor training, lack of unit discipline and cohesiveness, and inadequate leadership as the reasons for the army’s downfall: problems that today’s NATO trainers would surely sympathize with. But Sher Ali Khan was also forced to reconcile with the enormities of transforming warrior poets into disciplined soldiers. A British observer of 1880s Afghanistan remarked on this daunting task, his words still echoing eerily today:

The Afghan does not lack native courage, and in hill warfare he is unrivaled, so long as it takes the shape of guerilla fighting . . . but once he is asked to sink his identity and to become merely a unit in a battalion, he loses all self-confidence and is apt to think more of getting away than of stubbornly holding his ground as he would have done with his own friends led by his own chief.

The next iteration of the Afghan national army came in the aftermath of the second British invasion. The new amir, Adbur Rahman, was forced to consolidate control away from the usurping tribal chiefs, now dizzy with power after rescuing the fledgling nation twice in half a century. With financial backing and advanced military technology from the chastened British, the “Iron Emir” set about building a powerful army and doing away with Afghanistan’s feudal system of decentralized government and autonomous regions. Power now emanated from the center, and those who challenged the state had to contend with a 90,000-strong army. Adbur Rahman quickly and ruthlessly disposed of all rivals and set the country on a fast track of modernization. But his heavy-handed approach cost him the support of the traditional and fiercely independent tribes, and sowed the seed of discontent that plunged the country into civil war by 1929. 

In the first quarter of the 20th century, which saw Afghanistan both gain full independence from British-rule and implode through civil war, “the national army became more attached to the government and acquired a solid institutional identity as the country underwent a process of integration through a nationwide education system, economic progress and political development”, says Jalali. In his view, the pace of military progress was intrinsically linked to the expansion of government influence through economic, political and social modernization, and the availability of resources to increase the army’s professional effectiveness. 

This trend of military-government development and expansion would continue as the country and the army went about rebuilding themselves for the third time. From the ashes of civil war, King Nadir Shah quickly conscripted an army of 70,000 and a more measured pace of modernization was introduced. The legitimacy of the centralized state was further enhanced with the introduction of combat aircraft, armored vehicles, modern artillery and automatic weapons. The superior firepower of the center cowed the periphery tribesmen into submission. “Domestic security challenges” approximated an oxymoron.

The most recent undoing of the Afghan army began in the late 20th century, with the backdrop this time being the Cold War. The communist coup of 1978 and the subsequent Soviet invasion had as penetrating and far-reaching consequences for the country as the Anglo-Afghan wars. Radical attempts at centralization under Soviet-backed regimes spurred yet another mass mobilization across the conservative countryside, now with the formal title of mujaheddin. The state’s advantage in firepower was whittled away by the rapid and large-scale arming of opposition forces at the hands of the United States and other foreign actors. By the 1980s, Afghanistan was again a nation-at-arms.

The coups of the 1970s brought to an end more than two centuries of dynastic rule. And as the Soviet Union withdrew in 1989 and Afghanistan was lost to a second civil war, Boston University anthropologist Thomas Barfield explains that Afghans were once again tasked with the question of “who had the right to rule and on what grounds?” The answer has yet to be found. 

As the Afghan government struggled for coherence, its military fell pray to the same forces that tore the formal state structure apart. The professional, Soviet-trained army, where national loyalty had begun to transcend tribal allegiance, reverted to form. Tangible local loyalties took primacy over any commitment to a state that had been reduced to an empty husk.

Today, the United States has pinned its hopes on Karzai as a latter-day “Iron Emir” Abdur Rahman to lead the fourth rebuilding of the country and its military. Taking the place of the British, the United States is providing financial backing and advanced weaponry for Karzai to build an army to reverse the process of decentralization that tore the country asunder after the fall of the Soviet-backed Najibullah regime in 1992. However, Karzai and the international community are coming to terms with the harsh reality that it is no longer 1880, and that a de facto centralized monarchy or dictatorship is untenable in modern-day Afghanistan, where thirty years of war has politicized and militarized the entire country to an unprecedented degree. 

As the Karzai government fumbles its way to finding the right mix of local and central governance to bind the country back together (just last year Karzai devolved power to village militias to defend the country’s more remote pockets), the burden falls on the Afghan army to shield the state from another rural insurgency that is challenging Kabul’s writ. To do this, the Afghan soldier is required shed palpable tribal identities in favor of allegiance to a still nebulous nation-state. To wit, he must evolve beyond the role of the warrior poet of old and become a modern, professional soldier. 

Washington’s concern over angst-ridden Afghan soldiers has more to do with cold self-interest than altruism. With the passing of Obama’s self-imposed surge deadline, policymakers and analysts are speculating on just how the Afghan army might fare once U.S. troops begin transitioning out of Afghanistan. “After this initial reduction, our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead”, said Obama as he announced the end of the surge. “Our mission will change from combat to support. By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.”

The United States will continue picking up the slack on governance, development and counterterrorism (congressional whim in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death and mounting budget cuts notwithstanding), but counterinsurgency, or maintaining a secure environment in which governance can flourish, will be delegated to the Afghan army. If pitted against each other today, the Washington consensus, in the view of Council on Foreign Relations fellow and former State Department South Asia hand Daniel Markey, holds that neither the Afghan army nor the Taliban would be able to deliver a knockout blow. Instead, the protracted insurgency might degenerate into a civil war reminiscent of 1992. The Afghan army, which, thanks to former Chief of Staff Mohammadi, still carries vestiges of the Tajik Northern Alliance around which it was built, could be torn back into its constituent parts of regional, ethnic and tribal warlords fighting amongst each other and the Pashtun Taliban. India, Russia, and Iran might very well feel compelled to again support the Northern Alliance as a means of countering Pakistani and Saudi support of the Taliban and its extremist policies. 

Washington’s more cynical experts fear that this process will play out disturbingly quick, with the battle-tested Taliban, already infiltrating the country’s north and west, overwhelming a “paper tiger” army within months and providing a sanctuary to al-Qaeda and other terrorists. 

What the Obama administration hopes July 2011 did mark is the turning point where the Afghan military and government bring to bear all the equipment and training they have received and begin winning over vast swaths of the country. Optimist see this process taking another three to five years, with what’s then left of the Taliban being reintegrated into the political system. Ninety percent of Washington’s mental capacity is concentrated on this three-to-five-year horizon, with a majority of that focusing on the next few months. And rightly so: They’ve got a war on their hands. But Afghan history is nothing if not a cautionary tale of short-term imperatives leadings to disastrous unintended consequences. America’s singular focus on building security forces at the expense of a capable and responsive civilian government (the U.S. has spent over $25 billion on security and roughly $15 billion on governance and development) might have some unforeseen outcomes of its own.

It will not be until 2014, perhaps 2016, that the Afghan government can provide essential services to the country, says the CSIS report. In the meantime, it will be up to the military to fill the void. As it stands, the army is already delivering aid, health care, infrastructure and governance, not to mention police work. In turn, it is the army, not the government, that is receiving the public’s trust. Polling numbers confirm that the Afghan army is seen as the most dependable and honest institution in the country. This is not necessarily a problem, said former Assistant Secretary of Defense Bing West in a 2010 New York Times op-ed. West argues that as the United States begins to withdraw from Afghanistan, the business of nation-building should bypass the ineffectual and possibly corrupt Presidential Palace and be placed squarely in the lap of the military. “Although isolating Mr. Karzai will strike many as a giant step backwards, the truth is that we don’t have a duty to impose democracy on Afghanistan”, he wrote. “[A] diminished Hamid Karzai can be left to run a sloppy government, with a powerful, American-financed Afghan military insuring that the Taliban do not take over.”

West closes his argument with the blithe acknowledgment that such an approach could set Afghanistan tumbling toward the Pakistan-model of “an army that has a country rather than a country that has an army.” When the Pakistan-model is held up as an acceptable outcome, something has clearly gone wrong.

Separately, an assumption held closely in Washington is that, after spending most of its existence as a source of geopolitical instability, a strong Afghanistan would have a stabilizing effect on the region. It is true that an Afghan state with a solid government, backed by a formidable military, would prevent its lands from being used as the crucible for proxy conflicts. However, it also holds that an imposing Afghan military would produce a more confident and assertive tone from Kabul. 

Centuries of foreign meddling have understandably left the Afghan psyche riddled with insecurity. This personality disorder is apparent in the xenophobic rhetoric that litters the country’s politics, with Iran and Pakistan the frequent targets of the Afghan stump speech. Give Afghanistan an army of 240,000, trained and equipped by the United States, and the posturing and saber rattling will only increase.

Admittedly, beyond a skirmish or two along the contested Durand Line separating Afghanistan from Pakistan, full-blown interstate war remains far-fetched at the moment. A more likely scenario is a moderated continuation of the past. Even with a standing army of more than 200,000 and a functioning government, rivals will continue to compete for influence over Afghanistan. The infant state, still towered over by its neighbors and politically immature in the rough-and-tumble diplomacy of the region, will have to carefully balance its relationships between rivals Pakistan and India, Iran and the United States, as well as, to a lesser extent, India and China, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and perhaps even Russia and the United States, lest its national interest succumb once again to foreign machinations. For the moment, Washington continues to wrestle with its more pressing Afghan problems. As Markey sighs, “Would that we could have these problems.”

At Old Corps, meanwhile, the focus is more on the existential than the esoteric. The entire fourth company has returned to Old Corps from their combat outposts in Kandahar city. Backbreaking bear hugs are the standard greeting. Milling amongst the fourth company are their newly arrived replacements from Jalalabad. After fighting over the best bunks in the schoolhouse (Shahfaisal shooing away interlopers as he’s still at work on the radio), they set off exploring what may be their new home for the next three years. Ezmarai and Palawan sit behind a desk in the schoolhouse courtyard as soldiers return the M-16s and rocket-propelled grenades that will not be making the trip to Jalalabad. After the mountain of weaponry is inventoried, it will be re-issued to the new arrivals. Meanwhile, hulking transport trucks are brimming with the requisite packs, bedrolls, teakettles and stereos over in the parking lot. Soldiers scale the lumbering vehicles as the first few slowly negotiate their way around the lot. 

Naimatullah, an elfin soldier from Jalalabad, plays an Afghan flute from atop the hood of a parked Humvee. Lenin, with an uncharacteristic grin, waves goodbye as the first convoy pulls away for Kandahar Airfield. A loud bang and a sharp snap ripple through the parking lot. It’s not incoming fire or a bomb blast, however. A truck has broken an axel. Some won’t be leaving Kandahar quite as soon as expected. 

1For the inside story of how this happened, see Dov S. Zakheim, A Vulcan’s Tale: How the Bush Administration Mismanaged the Reconstruction of Afghanistan (Brookings Institution Press, 2011). Zakheim was Pentagon Comptroller from 2001 to 2004.

2Anthony Cordesman, with Adam Mausner and Jason Lemieux, “Afghan National Security Forces: What It Will Take to Implement the ISAF Strategy”, CSIS, July 12, 2010.

3Chivers, “Marines Do Heavy Lifting as Afghan Army Lags in Battle”, New York Times, February 21, 2010.

Alim Remtulla is a Canadian writer based in Kabul, Afghanistan. Marginally conversant in Dari, he spent a month in 2010 with the Afghan National Army in Kandahar and Helmand provinces and is one of the few foreign journalists to embed with that force without NATO supervision. A shorter version of this essay appeared in the printed version of the September/October 2011 issue of The American Interest.