The success of the 350,000-strong Afghan National Army will be critical for Islamabad.
The Afghan election has surprised the world. Some 7 million Afghans turned out to vote, a third of them women, defying militant threats urging them to boycott the poll. To the national and foreign press, voters made it clear that they were casting ballots against the Taliban—who staged nearly 112 terrorist attacks to disrupt the democratic process.
Out of the eight candidates for the job of president, three frontrunners—former foreign ministers Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and Dr. Zalmai Rassoul and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani—all announced their resolve to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the U.S. enabling the posting of approximately 20,000 post-withdrawal American troops plus drone bases targeting Taliban and Al Qaeda in Pakistan. Hamid Karzai, the retiring president, had refused to sign the agreement in order to be better able to make a deal with the Taliban, somewhat on the same lines as Pakistan on its side of the border. All three have, off and on, accused Pakistan of being responsible for terrorism inside Afghanistan. The second-round faceoff between two winners will be held in May.
How does this bode for Afghanistan and the region?
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has congratulated the Afghan people and said his government is not betting on any one candidate and is committed to noninterference. The Foreign Office has repeated the assurance about noninterference. But Afghanistan remains skeptical: Kabul refused to allow Afghan refugees in Pakistan to cross the border to vote in the latest election.
The Afghan election proved most media analysts in Pakistan wrong. Voting this time was not ethnicity-based. Abdullah is upbeat despite his Tajik background, Rassoul is backed by the establishment of the outgoing president, and Ghani counts on support among the new urban youth. Abdullah, who pulled out of the 2009 vote before the second round spewing allegations of irregularities, has hailed the latest poll as a success. Significantly, Abdullah again wants to make a deal with Ghani before the second round in May, and, since Ghani doesn’t want it, some analysts believe he is the final winner.
The people of Afghanistan have reposed confidence in the Afghan National Army, while its neighbors have misgivings about the ability of the ANA to face up to the Taliban and their Pakistani allies. India has reason to be perturbed about the “endgame” following the withdrawal of the Americans from Afghanistan in 2014. It abstained at the U.N. vote against Russia after the Ukraine crisis, counting on Moscow to help out in the post-withdrawal phase in Afghanistan. China has been more scared than India. It has pulled out from the copper mines near Kabul, expecting the breakout of civil war. Western analysts think China should be persuaded to return to Afghanistan to help keep Pakistan’s old strategic-depth doctrine at bay.
Elections in Afghanistan have always been ethnicity-driven. And since the country never got centralized, it also never got devolved; hence the various ethnicities living without a common stake in the state. Afghanistan is supposed to be “unconquerable,” but invaders never had difficulty—because of this lack of a common stake—in crossing this state without state attributes to go and invade a juicier India. Many think Afghanistan was not allowed by its neighbors to become a normal state.
Today, things are different. Afghanistan is supposed to be able to defend itself. The countries that invaded it in 2001 under a U.N. Security Council fiat will have left behind the largest force Afghanistan has had in history, at 350,000-strong, if you count the police also. The second largest Afghan Army was fielded by President Najibullah at 40,000-strong, left behind by the Soviet Union. If America and its allies don’t fund the ANA, it won’t be able to prevent a civil war imposed on it by its neighbors, come 2015. Najibullah’s force collapsed after the Soviets stopped funding it and he was shot and hanged by the Taliban, who themselves never had more than 20,000 men under arms when they conquered a fragmented Afghanistan.
In 2010, Pakistan’s then-Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, had told the Americans the ANA will fracture and evaporate after international forces leave Afghanistan, abandoning the country to familiar warlord-ism. He had flagged Pakistan’s India-specific concerns, including unresolved issues related to India’s military capability and its Cold Start doctrine. He had said: “We plan on [the basis of] adversaries’ capabilities, not intentions.” In Pakistan, everyone believes that the insurgency in Balochistan is fomented and funded by India with collusion from Kabul. In Kabul, all ethnicities, including the Pakhtun, believe that terrorism inside Afghanistan is organized by Pakistan.
Some years ago, a number of ANA soldiers were attacked and killed by the Taliban in Kunar province while they were asleep. Left to the ANA by the Americans for some odd reason, Kunar is now home to Pakistani Taliban’s chief Mullah Fazlullah, a psychopath leading Pakistan through a kathak of peace talks he never really meant to lead anywhere. And Pakistan allegedly has the Haqqani network of Afghanistan on its side of the border.
In Pakistan on the Brink, Ahmed Rashid discusses the Afghan Army: “U.S. recruitment policy includes a strict ratio established in 2003 among all ethnic groups. Thus Tajiks could not be over 25 percent in the Army, but in 2010 they constituted some 41 percent of soldiers and officers in the Army, while Tajik officers commanded 70 percent of the units.”
Paul D. Miller in Foreign Affairs says things have improved: “Fortunately, the international community has already set the Afghan Army on the second course, ensuring that its ranks are ethnically mixed. Tajiks are overrepresented, constituting 39 percent of the officer corps, well above the official target of 25 percent. But their overrepresentation comes at the expense of the smallest groups, including Uzbeks and the Hazara, not Pakhtuns. Pakhtuns made up 42 percent of the officer corps and 43 percent of the enlisted ranks, just below the official target of 44 percent.”
Michael Kugelman who watches the scene from Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center shows a dark side to the $60-billion ANA enterprise, which is “far better trained and equipped than the Northern Alliance ever was.” In 2012, half of Afghanistan’s Army was addicted to drugs, 65 employees with the main spy agency in 2013 were fired because they were hooked on opium. Illiteracy, too, haunts the already punch-drunk ANA: a staggering 95 percent of military and police recruits are robustly illiterate. In 2013, some 30,000 soldiers deserted out of a total force of 185,000 under the Ministry of Defense. Because of their poor level of comprehension, ANA soldiers have killed American troops. Next, they might kill because of the ethnic divide.
But one can’t ignore the fact that the ANA is well-trained and may fight better once the Americans are gone. It has been observed that in the late 1990s the Northern Alliance never surrendered to the Taliban in five years of fierce conventional fighting; but the 1998 massacres of Mazar-e-Sharif by the Taliban might still send shivers down the spines of most ANA fighters not already fled north with their deserting Pakhtun fellow-warriors. As for the numbers on both sides, the Taliban will likely be constantly supplied with the fighting manpower of regional nonstate actors.
Yet the changed map of war can’t be ignored. The Taliban and their reinforcements cannot expect a walkover like the one in 1998. The big change in 2014 is the universal antipathy felt in Afghanistan for Pakistan.
What if the ANA doesn’t fracture, keeps united under a charismatic general, and is faced by an invasion by nonstate actors? If that happens, the ANA will become the most powerful entity in the country, more powerful than the state of Afghanistan. It will immediately enlist the sympathy of the luckless population haunted by the corruption and incompetence of the Karzai government. This has happened before in the region. The purist may not like it when it happens, but after the Arab Spring and the experience of Pakistan and Bangladesh with representative democracy, an ANA-ruled Afghanistan might actually settle down to better governance.
Afghanistan is already ripe for the plucking after it ranked a miserable 175th on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Needless to say, the champions of freedom of speech and liberation of women in Kabul, who could breathe again during the U.S.-ISAF order in Afghanistan, will all be swept aside in no time once this order gives way to the foreordained Islamic one.
And there will be ample cause for this: “Only 47 percent of Afghans say that they trust the Afghan Parliament to do its job, 45 percent trust government ministers, and 43 percent trust the court system. A vast 77 percent of them identified corruption as a major nationwide problem.”
The Afghan National Army is still a work-in-progress. Top Pentagon officials say: “While Afghan troops are earning tactical victories on the battlefield, they struggle to hold cleared territory and still need much help in areas like transport and intelligence.”
Nonstate actors remain a source of anxiety. Writes Kugelman: “Yet for now, and in all likelihood for the foreseeable future, militants are continuing to pour into Afghanistan. Afghan officials and Taliban commanders claim that since announcing a ceasefire with Islamabad on March 1, the Pakistani Taliban—already very active in Afghanistan—have been deploying fighters into the country. Meanwhile, Pakistani researchers estimate that hundreds of militants from Pakistan’s Punjab province—ranging from sectarian extremists to anti-India jihadists—have relocated to the tribal areas in preparation for assaults on Afghanistan. And Indian security officials assert that their chief indigenous Islamist militant threat, the Indian Mujahideen, have branched out to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Afghan Taliban.”
The last time that nonstate actors went into Afghanistan, Pakistan suffered—and it continues to suffer today at the hands of the jihad vets waging armed rebellion in favor of an Islamic order pledged to transforming the state into a pre-modern utopian Caliphate. Pakistan has no clue what will finally jell in Afghanistan and how it will affect Pakistan’s much-weakened state as it sleepwalks through a process of slow surrender it calls peace talks.
The ANA is, in fact, Pakistan’s best bet. It can prevent the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban from succeeding together and becoming a power that Pakistan cannot face up to without yielding territory that the latter are already demanding in peace talks. The consensus is that the Pakistan Army has a hands-off approach to Afghanistan, but that it remains suspicious of India.
Just like Pakistani consensus in support of democracy, the Afghan consensus in support of the ANA may not be of much use because terror empties all such popular devices of their meaning. Over the years, it is not Afghanistan that has become more and more like Pakistan but vice versa: the destruction of the ANA will complete the process despite Pakistan’s large standing Army. Unlike Afghanistan, the change here will be internally induced.
From our April 12-19, 2014, issue.