Afghans ask: 'Whose army is it?'

Undermined by the defense minister and short on weapons, the Afghan Army is struggling.

A squat soldier with red epaulets and a peaked officer's cap pounds out a martial pulse on a bass drum at the Kabul Military Training Academy, on the outskirts of the Afghan capital. Cadets dressed in US Army woodland camouflage uniforms and toting AK-47 assault rifles march in crisp formations. On a rocky hillside, soldiers in training run through duck-and-cover drills.

It's the beginning of a new day of exercises for the Afghan National Army (ANA). It's supposed to be the dawn of a new kind of fighting force in Afghanistan, one that is not aligned with tribal factions, but rather the civilian-elected central government. However, six months into its existence as a force, the ANA is in no position to be the savior of democracy.

American and French instructors toil to crank out a new ANA battalion (about 400 men), every 10 weeks, but face chronic shortages of recruits. Striking an ethnic balance in the ranks – crucial to the new Army's credibility in a country riven by factional conflict – has proved elusive. But the greatest challenge of all has come from, of all places, inside the Afghan Ministry of Defense, where the ANA has been viewed as everything from a nuisance to a menace.

"There are a lot of folks at [the Ministry of Defense] that question this as a waste of resources," says Lt. Col. Kevin McDonnell, commander of the US Special Forces troops who are helping to train the new army. "The idea is catching on. But it's going to happen on their timeline, not ours."

Concern inside the defense establishment about the ANA goes far beyond competition for resources; it is more a question of survival. The minister of defense, Mohammad Qasim Fahim, controls a private army of 18,000 men.

They are mostly ethnic Tajiks from the Panjshir Valley, north of the capital. His narrow interests as a faction leader are at odds with the sweeping mandate of the new Army – to replace regional militias with a single force answerable to the civilian-elected government.

"Fahim is fiercely protective of his power, and he sees the ANA as a threat," says Paul Burton, South Asia editor for Jane's, a defense publication. "It's small now, but the thing to bear in mind, if you follow the ANA through to its natural end, is that it entails the end of Fahim's force."

Fahim's militia is based close to the capital, forcing him to deal with the armed force growing on his doorstep.

One way for Fahim to approach this conundrum would be to create an army in his own image, and by all accounts the ANA is dominated by ethnic Tajiks at the expense of other factions, including the Pashtun, the largest single ethnic group in the country. At a recent ANA graduation ceremony, a portrait of Ahmad Shah Massoud, head of the ethnic Tajik Panjshiri clique until he was assassinated last September, was on front-and-center display.

"Yeah, there's a lot of Tajiks," McDonnell concedes. "But right now, we're limited to taking the people we can get."

Deputy Defense Minister Attiqolah Barialai says that recruiting missions have been dispatched all over the country to bring diversity to the ranks, but as it stands, the ANA fails to reflect Afghanistan's mosaic of tribes and ethnic groups.

"There's absolutely no incentive for the Ministry of Defense people to allow a national army to be built that they don't control," says Martha Brill Olcott, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "After 25 years of fighting, it would be foolish to assume that these people will easily relinquish control of the security situation in the abstract name of national interest."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who lacks an army of his own and depends on international peacekeepers to control the capital, has turned his attention to security-sector reform in recent months.

Several Western observers have reported that Karzai has asked Fahim to pursue ethnic diversity in the military, which is dominated by Fahim's Panjshiri clique.

"Hasn't happened," one Western diplomat says.

Even as the Ministry of Defense has stacked the national Army with Tajiks, it has retarded the growth of the fighting force by way of neglect. ANA wages have been set at $30 per month ($50 upon graduation), and the paltry pay appears to have contributed to an attrition rate that approaches 50 percent.

Farooq Nourotin, a 25-year-old recruit and a former Northern Alliance soldier, says he's proud to serve his country, but he gripes about the money.

"It's not enough," Nourotin says. "I'm alone, but many soldiers can't feed their families. They have to leave to find another way to make money."

Among those recruits who decide to stick with the ANA, soldiers with formal schooling are scarce, so much so that teaching how to plot the trajectory of mortar rounds first requires explaining what gravity is.

"We're not starting out with high school graduates here," says Colonel McDonnell.

US instructors don't stop with physics; they also introduce Afghan recruits to the sights on their automatic rifles. But guns for the new Army have been scarce, shocking in a country inundated with some 10 million small arms, according to UN estimates.

Although Fahim has made public statements in support of the ANA, he hasn't backed up his words with weapons, which were supposed to come out of Ministry of Defense stocks when the first battalion began training in April. They didn't. Since then, the training academy has been outfitted with guns and ammunition donated by Eastern European countries unloading some of their huge cold war stocks.

While the fate of the new Army is being decided, some recruits are acting the part of a multiethnic, nonpolitical, nonfactional force the ANA was intended to be. Hezatallah, a 23-year-old veteran of the anti-Taliban struggle, correctly identifies his commander-in-chief as President Karzai, but swears allegiance to Afghanistan.

"Before, it was unclear who we were working for," Hezatallah says. "Now it is clear we are working for our country. We can all live here as brothers. The fight is to start a new life together. I think we can do this."

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