(London Post Report) As casualties mounted to dramatic levels in 2015, even according to official figures that are most likely underestimated, the Afghan National Army (ANA) has for the first time begun experiencing serious problems in recruitment. The army also experienced a resurgence of ghost soldiering (soldiers who are listed as being on active duty, but who do not serve)—a problem which had been largely contained by 2010. The units most exposed in the fighting were seriously depleted and under-strength by November. The withdrawal of the mentors/advisers from the ANA tactical units in 2014 exposed a range of weaknesses in logistical capabilities, planning, procurement, equipment maintenance and administration. The resulting paradox is an ANA less mobile then the insurgents, despite the fact that it remains more or less in control of the main highways of the country. Despite the huge amounts of military hardware it has received, the ANA still mostly deploys to battle in unarmoured Ford Rangers.
The tactical performance of the ANA in the midst of battle is more difficult to evaluate because reliable information is hard to come by, but sources within the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the ANA themselves concur that there is a very serious leadership problem. Appointments to senior positions are still heavily influenced by political interference, often resulting in the appointment of incompetent commanders. The insurgents have gained the initiative and the ANA has not been able to put together any serious efforts to reclaim it. As a result of all these factors, morale within the ANA is in decline. Reforming the ANA in the middle of an ongoing and escalating conflict is clearly a very difficult task, not least because of the political vetoes of factions, parties and powerful individuals.
More than two years have elapsed since February 2014, when the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) published a report on the ANA entitled “The Afghan National Army: Sustainability Challenges beyond Financial Aspects.” During this period the missions of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) ended, and the Afghan security forces faced their first fighting season without the support of foreign combat troops (although limited air support has been available on a few occasions). It is time, therefore, to update that assessment of the ANA in light of its performance during the past year.
2015 was by all accounts a difficult year for the ANA. At the beginning of the fighting season in April, the Taliban managed to penetrate the defences of Kunduz city and briefly occupy part of it before being pushed out toward the suburbs. The following months saw a standoff as the Taliban retained control of the suburb of Gor Tepa and of several district centres around Kunduz. Finally, in September, the Taliban managed to take Kunduz city, forcing the ANA to counter-attack and fight for two weeks to retain control. It is widely believed that only the deployment of United States (US) Special Forces and US air force assets allowed the ANA to eventually push the Taliban out of the city. The fall of Kunduz produced major shock waves in Afghanistan and beyond, as the fighting entered an urban area for the first time. Kunduz, near the border with Tajikistan, is far away from Taliban supply lines that are based in Pakistan and have to cross several Afghan provinces. Kunduz was once a stronghold of the anti-Taliban opposition, and its capture must be considered a major logistical achievement for the Taliban.
From February 2015 onward, the Taliban and the ANA fought over the mountain districts in the north of Helmand Province, where the positions held by government forces gradually eroded. In October, the offensive was renewed, and for the first time since 2008 the Taliban came close to the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. Also in October, the security forces ceded ground in neighbouring Uruzgan province, and a Taliban offensive in Ghazni and Zabul cut off the southern highway for about ten days, for the first time since the start of the war. Throughout the country many roads became insecure, particularly for government officials, and dozens of district centres fell into Taliban hands, though most of them remained that way only for short periods of time.
As the end of the fighting season approached, the Taliban were able to keep fighting throughout November, another unusual development. The mood ofoptimism that could be sensed in Kabul in the summer, in the wake of news of a struggle of succession within the Taliban, was replaced by doomsday expectations and panic. More than ever, the question was whether the ANA would be able to contain the insurgency.1
The February 2014 AREU report focused on the non-financial sustainability of the ANA, looking in particular at organisational resilience in the face of adversity. A number of benchmarks were identified within two broad categories:
• The mobilisation and management of human resources;
The quality of rank-and-file recruitment, relative to the composition of Afghan society:
◦ The degree of dependence on external advice and services provided by foreign military forces;
◦ The production and management of skilled manpower for the task of providing combat support: indirect fire, close air support, improvised explosive devices (IED) counter-measures, etc.;
◦ The production and management of manpower with the skills needed to provide logistical support and maintain units on the ground (the so-called “combat service support”).
• The extent of political interference and its disruptive effects on command and control:
◦ The extent of meritocracy within the ANA;
◦ The solidity of the chain of command; ◦ Factionalism and ethnicism.
The methodology adopted for this update consisted of nine free-flowing but structured interviews with MoD and ANA officers, supplemented by contacts with foreign diplomatic personnel. The authors also collated and utilised material available in the public domain (articles, broadcast transcripts and released and leaked documents). Even less official documentation and data was available than for the 2014 study, as the MoD has tightened policies concerning the release of data.
This update follows the structure of the February 2014 AREU report, except that it adds a section (Section 7), which discusses two aspects of the ANA’s current status that have emerged as major weaknesses: morale and leadership.
1 For a more detailed study of the Afghan army from the 1940s onwards see the forthcoming book: Antonio Giustozzi, The Army of Afghanistan (London: Hurst, 2016).