COMMENT: Afghanistan: the threat of civil war —Musa Khan Jalalzai - Thursday, March 17, 2011

Source :\03\17\story_17-3-2011_pg3_4

Strong military leadership is impossible in an environment where political and ethnic affiliations rather than merit are the basis of promotions

The issue of mutual distrust between the US and NATO and the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the killing of innocent civilians by the US-led coalition forces, has been a matter of great concern for Afghan politicians. The rising power of the Taliban insurgency, desertions of Afghan army soldiers, ethnic and sectarian rivalries and massive corruption in the government departments have threatened the US and NATO stabilising strategy for Afghanistan. These are a few reasons behind the rift that caused distrust between the Karzai regime and its NATO allies.

Having expressed deep regret over the recent US killings of innocent children in Kunar province, a source in the Afghan defence ministry told me that the entire military command is highly disturbed and the majority of officers are not willing to further cooperate with the coalition partners. President Karzai urged NATO to stop civilian killings by mistake. “We are very tolerant people but now our tolerance has run out,” he said. The president cried as he held a girl who he said had her leg amputated following an attack. Now the issue of foreign occupation is openly discussed in military units.

Private debates in government offices, political circles and in military headquarters have recently focussed on the point that this unsuccessful war on terror has put in danger the territorial integrity of the country. According to the Afghan Human Rights Commission report, more than 520 children have been killed between 2009 and 2010 and some 200,000 children are living with disabilities as a result of wrongly directed US air strikes and crossfire among warring factions. In 2010, at least 2,800 civilians were killed and over 4,000 injured. The recent US resolve for permanent military bases in Afghanistan is seen by the ANA as a new formula of permanent colonisation of their country.

Nationalists in the defence and interior ministries have showed some reservations and disillusionment. They openly blame the Americans that they are pushing the country to the brink of civil war. A long-term US presence, according to sources in the defence ministry of Afghanistan, will bring further instability and undermine the hope of reconciliation with the Taliban and other militant groups. The Global Security Organisation in its situation report on Afghanistan has stated that the US war in Afghanistan has created many problems, neither addressing ethnicity nor factionalism. The Afghans loathe Americans and Americans are treating the Afghans like slaves. This mutual distrust has increased the importance of mercenaries like Blackwater to play their controversial role in the country.

Notwithstanding the US and NATO’s billions of dollars investment in the Afghan National Army and the police, this army has now turned against the American presence. Traders and truckers complain they are paying monthly $ 1,000-10,000 bribes to the provincial governors, police chiefs, and local military units whose territory they pass through. According to a recent report, warlords pay millions of dollars to the officers of the ANA every month. Business relations between private contractors and the army are thriving. According to the US exit strategy, it wants to equip, train and arm the ANA and the police before the expected military withdrawal in 2014, but the widespread drug addiction within the police and the army ranks is a big hurdle in the way of building a well organised army in Afghanistan.

Some Afghan military officers and soldiers were recently removed from service for their involvement in drugs offences. Some officers are running their own businesses to support their families. Every month, one-fifth soldiers of the Afghan army become absent without informing their commanders. They are not able to pay the rent of their houses, their children are not schoolgoing, and they are not willing to fight for Americans and corrupt Afghan warlords. Soldiers and officers of the army are from three backgrounds and follow three different ideologies. The first group has a communist background, the second group were trained in Pakistan as mujahideen fighters, and the third has an American, NATO and European background. This ideological, sectarian and ethnic division within the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the police department can cause an unending civil war in the near future.

Recruitment on ethnic and sectarian basis has created many problems. In 2002, as defence minister, General Fahim made some appointments on ethnic basis. In these appointments, of 38 generals, 37 were Tajiks and one was Uzbek. In fact, all these generals were associated with the Northern Alliance. If we look at the list of the 100 generals appointed in 2002, 90 belonged to the Northern Alliance. The story has not ended there. These and other appointments in the defence and interior ministries were followed by the removal of Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and intelligence Chief Amrullah Saleh for their non-professional performance. Both these officials had challenged President Karzai on his plans to reconcile with the Taliban insurgents. Mr Amrullah Saleh was found involved in many torture cases of Pakistani and Afghan detainees.

The command selection of the ANA is based on ethnicity and personal connections at the corps, ANA general staff, or ministry of defence level. Strong military leadership is impossible in an environment where political and ethnic affiliations rather than merit are the basis of promotions. Enforcement of discipline is another problem faced by the ANA. According to a recent US military report, units of ANA sell vehicles, weapons, fuel and other military equipment and are involved in outright theft of food provided by the US. The transmogrified ethnic face of the ANA was unveiled in the 2010 ethnic war between the nomadic tribes and Hazara population in Behsood district of Wardak province. Military command in the defence ministry was ethnically divided on the issue.

Generals from both Sunni and Shia groups were trying to arm the nomads and Hazaras respectively. This massive shift in the ethnicnisation and sectarianisation of the Afghan army officers will lead to another civil war between the Pashtuns and Tajik warlords. General David Petraeus’ plan of local defence is widely opposed in the military circles. He wants to copy the idea of the Pakistan Army qaumi lashkars (national militias) fighting Taliban terrorists in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This plan, military observers say, will not work in Afghanistan.

According to Petraeus’ strategy, 10,000 unemployed Afghans will be put on the CIA payroll and prepared to fight against their countrymen. He wants to give them dollars and arms so that they can form a Pakistani style qaumi lashkar. This plan will not succeed, as the Afghans have now turned against the US presence in their country. Illegal detentions, searches and torture have ultimately changed their mind. Since 2001, hundreds of men, women and even teenagers have been arrested, tortured, and killed by the US forces. At present, NATO is fighting the Taliban, but doing nothing to address the ethnic divide, corruption and bridging the trust. In summation, the long-term US presence in Afghanistan will cause more problems, more casualties, destruction and violence.

The writer is the author of Britain’s National Security Challenges and Punjabi Taliban. He can be reached at

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