Afghanistan’s National Army: The Ambiguous Prospects of Afghanization

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 9

Over the last few years the Afghan National Army (ANA) has often been presented as a success story. This certainly holds some truth, at least in comparison with Afghanistan’s national police, which is widely seen as a complete failure. The ANA is reasonably well behaved and quite popular throughout most of Afghanistan. Its initial difficulties in retaining troops within the ranks seem to have been addressed to some extent and both the desertion and absence-without-leave (AWOL) rates are down from the high levels of 2002-2006. AWOL rates in particular have declined dramatically over the last 18 months, to a relatively low 8 percent, from about 33 percent in 2006 [1]. This appears to be the combined result of a presidential decree turning absence-without-leave into a crime, a widespread media campaign, rising unemployment and rising food prices, which force even less than enthusiastic recruits to stick to the ANA. The number of infantry battalions now stands at 36, while the army as a whole numbers 37,000 men: Still substantially short of its personnel projections, but way above the 22,000 which it numbered at the end of summer 2007 [2]. These relative successes have turned the ANA into one of the pillars of the much touted “Afghanization” strategy. The term “Afghanization” itself is used with some ambiguity within the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), sometimes implying a gradual withdrawal of foreign troops; at other times it implies the gradual shift of the weight of the fighting from the international contingents to the Afghans. A number of European countries seem to lean toward the first interpretation, while Washington clearly opts for the second [3].

Difficulties in Operating Independently

To the extent that Afghanization is meant to allow a withdrawal of foreign troops, the ANA still has several weaknesses. The main one is its extreme dependence on embedded trainers. Five years on, not a single battalion has graduated from the embedded training program, even though the original plan was for two years. A number of battalions, perhaps as many as 12, are considered to be led by sufficiently skilled officers capable of operating without advisers [4]. However, as the insurgency grew into a relatively large conflict through 2005-2007, the ANA has grown dependent on close air support, administered through the embedded training teams. The ANA does not have any personnel trained to handle close air support, nor does it seem bound to develop such skills in the foreseeable future [5]. The fighting tactics that ANA officers have been learning from their trainers are largely based on American tactics; the infantry’s main task is to force the enemy to reveal itself, allowing the air force to wipe it out with air strikes. There is little evidence that ANA units would be able to control the battlefield without such air support, or that they are learning the necessary skills.

The ability of the ANA and the Afghan Ministry of Defense (MoD) to plan and conduct complex operations on their own has not yet been tested; the few autonomous operations carried out by ANA units are simple ones, usually with back-up from foreign units and always with the embedded trainers present [6]. Tight international sponsoring of the ANA also means that it is usually not operating in very small units, which would be most effective in engaging and pursuing the insurgents in the absence of overwhelming air support. Usually the task of engaging the insurgents in close combat is left to the Special Forces of various foreign contingents. Several ANA officers complain about the fact that the training received by the infantry battalions is too “conventional” [7]. By not practicing effective counter-guerrilla tactics, the necessary skills are not being developed, and it will not be possible to rapidly produce such skills in the event of a substantial change in the involvement of foreign troops in the war.

Another dubious aspect of Afghanization is the limited logistical capabilities of the ANA. Although its logistical units are now being developed, the ANA’s difficulties in recruiting skilled staff casts some doubts about the future efficiency of its logistics once the foreign contingents hand over these responsibilities to the ANA.

Ethnic Fault Lines

With regard to its long-term viability, another problematic aspect of the ANA is represented by its internal ethnic fault lines. Since 2005 both the MoD and the Americans have securely guarded any data about the ethnic composition of the ANA, but there is evidence that a genuine ethnic balance has not yet been achieved; even more worryingly, although a point was initially made that units would be ethnically mixed, it is now obvious that they are not. Tajiks are still overrepresented, particularly in the officer corps. According to one estimate, 70 percent of the battalion commanders are Tajiks [8]. This figure is in stark contrast with the Afghan army of the pre-war period, where the overwhelming majority of field officers were Pashtuns and ethnic minorities were mainly relegated to logistics and administration.

Recruitment to the army is not going well in a number of Pashtun regions affected by the insurgency, mainly because of a campaign of intimidation carried out by insurgents against the families of soldiers, which discourages potential recruits from joining and has forced a number of soldiers not to re-enlist. The situation is compounded by the habit of the MoD to deploy only predominantly Tajik units to the war zones of the south and southeast, presumably to avoid the risk of “fraternization” and to enhance the cohesion of the units. As a result, there are very few Pashtuns fighting against the insurgency within the ranks of the ANA. Although friction between ANA units and the local population or even between ANA and locally recruited police is reported, there is no evidence that this is a driving factor in the insurgency. However, such friction and the fact that many soldiers and officers do not speak Pashto must certainly limit the cooperation that these units are able to enlist locally, particularly in remote rural areas. Even the few Pashtuns who serve in these units are usually not from the region where they are deployed, but from other Pashtun-populated regions. Therefore, they lack local knowledge even if they can understand the language spoken by the villagers.

These characteristics of the ANA units deployed in the south, southeast and east are compounded by the unreliability and ineffectiveness of the police, which in principle should contribute local knowledge to the counter-insurgency effort. Locally recruited police forces are more often than not militias in disguise, which fight for their own agenda and are locked in local rivalries. These forces do not effectively cooperate with the ANA and are not reliable sources of information [9].

Perhaps more relevant in the long term is the risk of ethnic tension compromising the unity of the ANA, once foreign troops have been withdrawn or their presence substantially reduced. Given battalions which are largely ethnically homogeneous and with many within the officer corps having a background in ethnically-based political factions, the stage seems set for serious trouble in the event of a foreign withdrawal. Moreover, the army, whose size is now planned at 80,000 but may grow further, is already unaffordable for the revenue-stripped Afghan state and will one day have to be downsized, raising the prospect of serious disgruntlement among officers.


At some point ISAF will have to allow the ANA to be tested on the battlefield in conditions resembling those which it will meet in the event of a withdrawal of foreign forces. Apart from being a test of Afghanization, such a trial—if successfully passed—would also enhance the credibility of the ANA and the legitimacy of the government, as well as increase the leverage of Kabul in any negotiations with the Taliban. The test could, for example, consist of leaving the ANA alone to manage a province or region without external support. The fact that such a test has not been attempted yet in more than six years of international tutoring might reflect a relative lack of confidence in the capabilities of the ANA, or the fear of the political consequences of a failure.


1. Stars and Stripes, Mideast edition, May 8, 2007; Video Teleconference with Major General Robert W. Cone – Commander of CSTC-A (Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan), March 26, 2008.

2. American Forces Press Service, April 7.

3. Author’s personal communications with diplomats in Kabul, April 2008.

4. A. Giustozzi, “Reconstructing the Defence Sector,” Chapter in Deconstructing the Afghan Security Sector, LIT Verlag Security, 2008; A. Giustozzi, “Auxiliary force or national army? Afghanistan’s ‘ANA’ and the counter-insurgency effort, 2002-2006,” Small Wars and Insurgencies, 18(1), March 2007, pp.45–67.

5. Author’s personal communication with a senior American officer and a NATO diplomat, Kabul, April 2008.

6. Author’s personal communication with British army officers and journalists, London, November 2007; personal communication with military attaché, Kabul, October 2007.

7. Author’s personal communication with military attaché, Kabul, April 2008.

8. Author’s personal communication with UN official, Kabul, April 2008.

9. Author’s personal communication with British, Dutch and American officers and diplomats, 2007-2008; personal communication with senior Ministry of the Interior official, Kabul, October 2007.