The Afghan National Army

From Dr Hamid Hussain (discussing question of whether the ANA can be resurrected? what will become of them?)

Some informed individuals asked for my two cents worth opinion about a conversation about the Afghan National Army (ANA) in a changed scenario.  One concern is that a large number of unemployed soldiers can join any faction of the war economy. It invariably resulted in comparison with the disbandment of the Iraqi army after the second Gulf war.



Afghan National Army (ANA)

Thanks Sir for your email.  You raise an important point and following is my take;

“Blood cannot be washed out with blood”.   Pashto proverb

ANA had disintegrated in the aftermath of Soviet withdrawal and subsequent civil war.  New ANA post American occupation is a more recent phenomenon and has an interesting history. In the first few years after the U.S. arrival in late 2001, security was provided by militias of local warlords.  The U.S. had no initial plan for the nation building project and the Department of Defense (DOD) under Donald Rumsfeld was allergic to the whole idea. Constitution of the new Afghan government was a highly centralized template and deft Hamid Karzai had great influence on the process.  Once this centralized project was adopted, then it dawned that this will need an effective national army.  This also neatly fitted into the idea of sidelining local powerful warlords and shedding militias.  However, when the nascent structure for ANA was put in place in 2005-6, insurgency had started in Pashtun south and east.  This meant dominance of non-Pashtuns for a variety of reasons.

These non-Pashtuns had joined the U.S. quite early and had influence due to direct contact with American handlers.  As insurgency was mainly in Pashtun areas therefore there was hesitancy to recruit Pashtuns.  However, one could not do away with Pashtuns therefore Soviet era leftist officers were brought back and urban educated as well some tribal rural Pashtuns resenting Taliban dominance were recruited. Later, some of these officers were eased out again due to the influence of non-Pashtuns power brokers.  Every power player used ANA and police to fill ranks with his partisans.  This was a favor providing a secure job. During the Obama administration, ANA was expanded but rapid expansion simply provided more avenues of corruption including pocketing salaries of ‘ghost soldiers’ that only existed on army payroll.  Despite these handicaps, ANA had a reasonable structure and more importantly in view of rampant corruption in police and other government departments. ANA was held in high esteem by the general public.  More money was spent on Special Operations Forces (SOF) that were better trained, equipped & supported. Disproportionately, a large number of SOF was Uzbek, Tajik & Hazara.

In Afghanistan, there are fifty shades of grey and in view of sustained multi-generational violence; survival depends on keeping channels open with all parties. Same extended family had members among Taliban, local militia, police and ANA. In operations, such contacts helped in survival.  One example will show this complex dynamic. In Takhar, Taliban surrounded a local army garrison. They sent messages to local elders promising safe passage to local soldiers (many were ethnic kin & extended family members). At night local soldiers left the base and went home.  Taliban overran the base and beheaded the defending garrison consisting of soldiers who were from other regions and displayed their severed heads along the road.

Once the U.S. decided to withdraw, in the traditional Afghan way, local deal making rather than fighting determined the outcome. Soldiers went home taking personal weapons with them. In the north & west, a secret deal between Taliban and Tehran was crucial (I’ll write about it in detail soon as information is now trickling in).  The Taliban promised no harm to the Shia minority and Tehran asked Hazara soldiers as well as men loyal to strong man of Herat Ismail Khan to take personal weapons and go home and wait to see how things unfold.

This is the brief background and now the question whether ANA can be resurrected even to a limited extent. The first question is what will be the raison d’être of this force.  Is it simply to pay trained soldiers as a bribe so that he does not join someone else or they will have any role in the larger security setup of the country? There are several issues and I’ll go over the view of major players on the subject.

Non-Pashtun officers and soldiers may come back simply as a secure job if the government can guarantee the regular salary. However, he loathes the Taliban and will not be a committed soldier.  If the goal is to prevent his defection to a hostile force then regular salary may do but he will be of no other use. This is also not a guarantee and in case of active hostilities he will have sympathy with his ethnic kin.  If someone can pay him more, he will defect on the first opportunity. Modern Afghan history provides ample examples of this phenomenon.

When the government unexpectedly melted in Kabul, a surprised Taliban got concerned.  Original deal with the U.S. was that the Taliban will remain outside Kabul until transition occurs in an orderly fashion and during this time, the U.S. will withdraw.  Time frame was around 4-8 weeks.  The sudden change needed a new response.  First, the Taliban sent a message to their contacts in government in Kabul to tell ANA soldiers & police to remain on their posts. This did not work out as senior government officials including military commanders have gone AWOL in haste and soldiers changed to civilian clothes and went home. Now, the Taliban asked the Americans if their troops will take control of the city until modalities are worked out.  Americans told the Taliban that they were heading for the exit and had no plans for taking over security of Kabul with possible risks.  Taliban then told the Americans in that case they would have no choice but to enter the city and take control to prevent chaos (Pretty soon we will see details of the last chapter of this saga as direct participants will try to give their versions). This was the narrow window where at least some ANA could have been kept under arms but now under Taliban control if original deal had worked out.

Taliban don’t need any additional armed men for security.  Security is their forte and they pride themselves on that.  Second, meager current and potential significant future resources available to the central government will be used to pay Taliban foot soldiers and commanders first.  Second on the list of recipients will be civil bureaucrats, technocrats; doctors etc. and ANA soldiers are not on that list.

For these reasons, Taliban have no incentive to rehire ANA soldiers. Taliban will counter the argument that if a disgruntled ANA soldier wants to join any opposition, we are fully capable of handling him.  One argument will be to re-hire some uniformed ANA for public relations but Taliban have already distributed army uniforms to its own foot soldiers and it looks good enough for public relations purposes.  For this ceremonial duty, Talib has exchanged his sandals for boots, turban for helmet and a brand new American assault rifle for old AK-47.  This advertisement model is complete with a wrap around eyeglasses. This is all courtesy of American taxpayers.

The United States has left the scene lock, stock and barrel. I have not seen any sign that anyone in Washington is willing to spend a single penny let alone any political capital on a venture that seems like supporting the Taliban government. Currently, there are no takers in Washington.  The most anybody will be willing in the near term will be some humanitarian aid.  Even a secret agreement with the Taliban is not on the table as any leak will have devastating political effects. Current policy is to let the Taliban feel the heat and no plans for throwing them any rope.

The Pakistan army had serious reservations about ANA right from the start.  I remember Pakistan army Chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s views about ANA during one of his interactions with Americans. General Kayani met with President Obama’s personal emissaries in 2012 in Abu Dhabi and told them that ‘you are spending billions training the Afghan military and police. Should Afghanistan collapse in the near future – not an unlikely scenario – it would leave an armed, angry force just across the Pakistani border, many of them enemies of Pashtuns’.

Over the years, countless numbers of senior Pakistani officers complained to me that the U.S. was wasting money on ANA.  One reason was resentment about the fact that Washington was spending billions on ANA with doubtful future but not willing to strengthen the Pakistan army with two hundred years of history. Somehow psychologically, they don’t like the idea.  Now, with a changed situation, one will need persuasion and an organizational shift of thought process.  Senior brass has some concern based on recent examples of Iraqi army where unemployed soldiers joined sectarian militias and Daesh.  From Pakistan’s point of view, I don’t see how Pakistan can convince others to take this road.

In summary, the idea has some potential benefits but unfortunately, currently there are no takers. The role of some of the trained soldiers of ANA will be if Afghanistan stumbles into another round of civil war.  Afghan as well as all foreigners who have a dog in the fight will use them in their proxy wars. In that unfortunate case, the most valuable cannon fodder will be ANA Special Forces personnel, tribal and clan militias and members of border tribes trained by CIA in their Counter Terrorist Pursue Teams (CTPT) program.

Comparison with Iraqi army disbandment is interesting but needs a separate whole discussion. Everybody says that was a big mistake but there are many nuances.  Two major players, Kurds and Shia vetoed the idea.  Kurds told Americans point blank that they were not risking their lives to remove Saddam Hussain and then allow resurrection of the hated army responsible for committing genocide of Kurds (at that time I spent few years doing detailed research on Kurds that was an education and a peek into their tragic history). Shia politicians and theologians promised neutrality in the conflict with the condition that post-Saddam Iraq will have no semblance with the old order. Shia memory that remembers tragedies of fourteen hundred years ago like it was yesterday was still bleeding from the wounds inflicted by the Iraqi army in the aftermath of the First Gulf War of the 1990s.  Shia were not willing to even hear the name let alone allow resurrection of an army that had laid waste to Najaf, Karbala & Basra in front of their eyes.

“The Iraqi and Afghan wars have not ‘ended.’ Only America’s involvement has ‘ended.’ … When a country leaves a war before achieving victory it is not called leaving. It is called defeat”.     Dennis Prager

Hamid Hussain

20 September 2021

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Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

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