ANALYSIS: The Afghan Factional Army —Musa Khan Jalalzai - Wednesday, January 26, 2011

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Experts claim that the Indian military’s presence in Kabul will expand India’s power projection in Central Asia. This military presence will deny Pakistan strategic depth and it will shift the battleground away from Kashmir to Balochistan and FATA

The establishment of an Afghan Factional Army (AFA) — an army of unskilled, illiterate and non-professional former mujahideen and Taliban warlords — is a threat to peace, stability and the national concordance of Afghanistan. Members of this ethnic and sectarian rogue army are not only fighting alongside Taliban militants against the coalition forces in various provinces of the country and in the tribal belts of Pakistan, they support terrorist networks as well. Neighbouring states, specifically Pakistan, fear that any weak Afghan government will easily become prey to the Indian political and military influence after NATO withdrawal in 2014. India is trying to counter Pakistan’s military and political influence by establishing an India-friendly government in Kabul.

The decades-old rivalry between Pakistan and India has resulted in Afghanistan being caught in the crossfire. India and Pakistan have been trading accusations about each other’s involvement in Afghanistan for years. The Indian Army has long wished to deploy its forces in Afghanistan and train the Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers. Last year, during the Afghan president’s visit to Islamabad, Pakistan offered training facilities to the ANA and promised a more active role in the reconstruction process.

In 2009, Indian army chief, General Deepak Kapoor, claimed that the Indian military presence in Afghanistan could give it some strategic depth against Pakistan. Indian military presence in Afghanistan and its support to the ANA can leave a significant geo-strategic impact on Pakistan. To effectively counter the Indian hegemony in Afghanistan, the country supported the Afghan Taliban militarily. Islamabad considers the Afghan Taliban its strategic assets.

Experts claim that the Indian military’s presence in Kabul will expand India’s power projection in Central Asia. This military presence will deny Pakistan strategic depth and it will shift the battleground away from Kashmir to Balochistan and FATA. The Pakistan Army recently claimed that it had recovered US and Israeli manufactured weapons from terrorists in various parts of the country bordering Afghanistan. The army and intelligence circles complain that the secret services of some eight states are actively operating inside Pakistan.

After nine years in power, President Karzai became suddenly worried about the political and sectarian influence of former mujahideen groups in the ANA last year. President Karzai warned that during the mujahideen years, it was sectarianism, ethnic violence and political rifts that destroyed the army. During the so-called mujahideen rule in the 1990s, the country’s weapons, tanks, missiles and soldiers were all distributed among sectarian warlords.

This was the worst way to destroy the ANA. The mujahideen destroyed over 5,000 tanks, sold Ariana Afghan Airline planes and looted all the museums, libraries, warehouses and military headquarters. President Karzai has recently complained about the politicisation, ethnicisation and sectarianisation of the ANA. He named some former mujahideen and communist groups that raised their flags in the army headquarters. A military expert says that if the seeds of factionalism, sectarianism and regionalism take root in the army, another future civil war cannot be ruled out in Afghanistan.

These concerns, the president’s disillusion and his gestures about the expected future war within the Afghan Army need to be considered deeply. Keeping in view President Karzai’s concerns about the factionalisation of the ANA during his rule, military experts claim that all appointments to the defence and interior ministries are being made on political and sectarian bases. For example, the first non-professional and illiterate defence minister was Qasim Fahim who belonged to a sectarian and linguistic group of the Northern Alliance. The Chief of Army Staff Mullah Bismillah Khan was from the same group.

The present defence minister, General Abdul Rahim Wardak, belongs to the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan (Pir Gilani Group), the deputy defence minister, Gul Zarak Zadran, has a long association with Professor Sayyaf Group. The former interior minister, Yunus Qanooni, belongs to the Northern Alliance. The three slogans of the Afghan Army, ‘Khuda, Watan, Wazifa’ (God, country and responsibility) now just remain confined to paper, as the soldiers look upon one another as enemies. The present bunch of 140,000 soldiers of the AFA is decreased and curtailed. Every day, soldiers run away due to hardship.

For the past eight years, the lack of leadership in army units has resulted in abuses of power. Notwithstanding fixed ethnic quotas for army recruitment, Northern Alliance warlords still control the command of the armed forces. This domination of the high command created more problems in the south. Most officers of the Afghan Army have been deeply involved in illegal contracting practices, drug trade, embezzlement and killings. They fight alongside their Taliban partners against the US and NATO forces at night.

They have been playing the role of 10, 20 and 50 dollars-a-day Taliban for the last five years. The International Crisis Group (ICG), in its report for 2010, has revealed that ethnic and political rivalries among high-ranking officers of the Afghan military establishment and the general staff put the popularity and credibility of the forces at stake. From 2006-2009, a cold war between Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Chief Of Army Staff General Bismillah Khan caused deadlocks over control of staff, resources and operations.

Army vehicles and helicopters are being used by army officers for commercial purposes. Arms are being sold to the Taliban. The culture of this military corruption has complicated the task of NATO, ISAF and ministry of defence advisers. The issue of the recruitment of Pashtuns has become more complicated as the Northern Alliance does not like seeing a large number of Pashtuns in the army. According to sources from within the Afghan Army, at present, the Islamic Unity Party of Professor Sayyaf, National Islamic Front, Northern Alliance, Shia groups, Gulbuddin’s Hizb-i-Islami, and former Afghan communist groups have strong representation in the AFA. With weak training and education, inadequate logistics and equipment, the army has never been able to prove effective in the war against terrorism.

In southern Afghanistan, non-Pashtun soldiers feel like foreigners. In January 2011, a Tajik soldier said that as there are ethnic minorities in the country’s Pashtun-heavy army, bribery was the only way they could make sure their Pashtun commanders give them a break. Another soldier said, “As a non-Pashtun, I am cheap. I am not as valuable to them (the army) as a Pashtun soldier.” The US approach to demobilisation and reintegration has, specifically, eliminated the Afghan Army’s professionalism and skills of countering the Taliban insurgency. To prevent future civil war within the Afghan Army, the president must reshape the management by strengthening legal and administrative departments to depoliticise and de-ethnicise the military establishment.

The writer is author of Britain’s National Security Challenges and can be reached at

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