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About That Afghan Army

The debate over U.S. interests and strategy in Afghanistan is getting hot as the Obama administration deepens U.S. involvement in a war many already see as another dreaded quagmire. In light of the ongoing policy debate, and to hopefully educate, we thought it worth examining some fundamental questions about the war.

One question that has repeatedly come up revolves around the quality of the Afghan army back in the Soviet occupation days compared to that of today. As Nightwatch’s John McCreary asks: “How come the Soviets could sustain a large and effective Afghan Army between 1979 and 1992, but the US cannot after 8 years, thousands of American dead and wounded and billions of dollars of aid?”

Unlike when the U.S. scattered the Taliban in 2001, when the Soviets rolled in, there was an existing Afghan national army with all the customary organizational trappings: corps, divisions, brigades and a functional air force. When Soviet paratroopers began landing in Kabul on Christmas Eve 1979, they did so at the invitation of the Afghan communist regime to put down a growing internal rebellion. The Soviets had already spent years advising and building the Afghan army before they invaded; in 1978, Soviet military assistance to Afghanistan totaled over a billion dollars.

Much of that money and effort was wasted when the Afghan army rapidly melted away through desertions to the rebellion as the Soviet 40th Army arrived en masse; dropping from 100,000 troops in 1979 to 30,000 by the end of 1980. How did the Soviets go about rebuilding the Afghan army? The draft. Over 70 percent of the 1980s era Afghan army was conscripted, many by “press gangs,” according to historian Lester Grau. Press gangs followed Soviet offensive sweeps through villages and conscripted Afghan youth on the spot. (In an editorial last year, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ronald Neumann, called for reinstating the draft there.)

During the 1980s, Afghan troop strength fluctuated between 120,000 and 150,000. Of course that was ration book strength. Units were typically 40 percent below that due to massive desertions that averaged 1,500 to 2,000 men a month, according to Abdulkader Sinno in Organizations at War in Afghanistan and Beyond (highly recommended for understanding the current players in Afghanistan). The border troops were the worst of the lot.

The army’s weakness forced the communist regime to buy the services of militia armies, such as the Uzbek militia of warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, a process that accelerated as the Soviets began to pull out and the regime became more desperate. In 1988, 30,000 of the 50,000 regime troops in Herat were militiamen, according to Sinno.

As for Afghan army performance under Soviet occupation? In a word, terrible. It was incapable of independent offensive operations and, apart for a handful of elite, heavily coached units, was relegated to guarding supply lines and fixed installations. The Soviets did use some Afghan army units offensively, to draw mujahedeen fire. Grau writes that Soviet officers considered adviser to the Afghan army as a hardship post: “The living conditions were not optimal, the language and cultural differences made them feel uncomfortable, the presence of covert Mujahideen in the units made them feel insecure and adviser duty was not considered a stepping stone to promotion.”

Okay, so if the Afghan army was so bad, how did it hang on for almost three years after the Soviets pulled out? First of all, the Soviets continued to provide advisers, advanced weapons, air support, and poured in military aid to the tune of $300 million a month. Second, when the Soviets left, the mujahedeen’s unified front dissolved; Afghan warlords battled each other for the spoils before the communist regime had even fallen. Soviet largesse kept the communist regime afloat until Gorbachev resigned in 1991 when the spigot was turned off. The regime immediately fell, the warlords entered Kabul, and a new bloodbath began.

There is no doubting the Afghan’s fighting ability, as the U.S. military is learning. However, transforming a warrior culture that excels at guerrilla warfare into a modern, professional army is a difficult proposition. The U.S. is spending around $5.5 billion annually to train and equip the Afghan army. Building that army will take many years and much dedication from western advisers.

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