Good news from Arghandab
Jul 31st 2008 | ARGHANDAB
Afghan soldiers are better trained and happy to fight
All kitted out and somewhere to go“THERE is zero trust in the government but the ANA [Afghan National Army] is our only hope. They behave well with the people and are stronger than the Taliban.” That was the pithy assessment of one tribal elder trudging back towards Arghandab district near Kandahar, the day after the largest operation so far by the fledgling Afghan army. It had taken just 24 hours from the first appearance of Taliban fighters for over 1,000 Afghan troops to deploy and drive them out of Arghandab.
After a slow start the army is at last emerging as a credible fighting force. In 2007 $7.4 billion went into training and equipping it and the police. Every week now, a Kandak (a 650-man battalion) finishes training and takes to the field. The army will reach its initial target of 80,000 early next year. On August 5th the first formal transfer of authority to Afghan forces is due to take place for the Kabul area.
The army looks very different from the ragged force of three years ago, when units sent to the south were losing 30% of their men through desertion. Desertion rates in Helmand are now only 7%; about half of all soldiers re-enlist. They are better equipped, too, with body armour, M-16 assault rifles and the latest model of Humvee armoured vehicle.
Good equipment does not guarantee success, of course. The army the Soviet Union equipped lavishly in 1989 succumbed swiftly to the mujahideen. Many think the ANA too small. But at least it has stomach for a fight. “They are aggressive and fight forward,” says Captain Ray Dalzell, one of the sweat-stained British advisers in Attal, a new base the ANA built after sweeping up the Gereshk valley, an area of persistent Taliban activity. Others praise the ANA’s speed across the ground and its ability to detect changing local opinion and mood invisible to foreign eyes.
But there are problems, too. The greatest, according to Major-General Robert Cone, an American in charge of helping rebuild the army, is a shortage of Western “mentors”—people seconded to help with technology, planning and logistics. Other problems are cultural. To the consternation of British NCOs, Afghan soldiers tend to see time between operations as a chance to catch up on sleep, not training. They resist carrying rations or ammunition on patrol, preferring to forage from villages. Corruption, on the other hand, seems to affect the army less than most Afghan institutions.
Ethnic divisions are also a worry, though the army strives to offset them. Battalion commanders are always a different ethnicity from their executive officer. Nonetheless Tajiks are disproportionately represented in the officer class and Hazaras and other smaller groups are under-represented. “I can’t get promoted to sergeant-major because I can’t pay the necessary bribes and I am just a Hazara,” claims one sergeant. “So I am leaving.” Half the army speaks Dari and the other half Pashto.
The army has the correct proportion of Pashtuns, the ethnicity from which the Taliban draws its strength. Unfortunately, they are overwhelmingly from the eastern provinces, the army’s historic recruiting grounds, rather than the south where the Taliban comes from. So the ANA, while vastly preferred to either Western troops or the venal police, still seems foreign in the south. “The ANA does not have good relations with us,” says Haji Mohammad Anwar, a member of Helmand’s Provincial Council. “The people like the behaviour of the ANA, but they are rented by foreigners.” Maybe so, but few can doubt the eagerness of those foreigners to hand over to the Afghan army as soon as they decently can. The ANA’s improvement must bring that day forward.