Afghan National Army Brings Security, Sets Example
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
JALALABAD, Afghanistan, Aug. 13, 2004 The Afghan National Army is more than just a security force for the nation; it is an example.
The army is one of the few unifying forces in this diverse nation that does not have many such forces. The country has many different ethnic backgrounds: Pashtun, Uzbek, Turkic and Tajik, among others.
Tribal loyalties also are strong, officials in Kabul said. Loyalty to family, tribe or clan and ethnic group has priority over national loyalty. "People here think of themselves as a Pashtu before they think of themselves as an Afghan," said an official. "In many cases, it is the only loyalty that they may have."
Developing capabilities that cross tribal and ethnic boundaries while maintaining peace is key to the success of the Afghan National Army and ultimately Afghanistan, officials said.
The country is not used to working together. In the past, the Afghan army was raised in various provinces and kept there. The units were made up of one ethnic entity and remained in that area.
During the Soviet invasion, the mujahedeen, or warriors, who fought against the occupation were ethnic or tribal based. Few groups worked together except under the direst need.
During the civil war that followed the Soviet pullout, militias for the ethnic groups destroyed whatever infrastructure was left.
When the Taliban fell, coalition officials were determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
From the start, the Afghan National Army has been integrated with all ethnic and tribal backgrounds. "We have people from all areas of the country and of all ethnic groups in each battalion," said Army Capt. Stephen Robinson, who is helping to train an ANA battalion. "People don't realize how important that is to all the population."
Another U.S. soldier agreed. "This is the one institution in the nation where your ethnic makeup is not paramount," he said. "It's like the U.S. Army in that regard: it's not what you are, but what you know and what you can do."
The soldier, who asked not to be identified, said it is a very interesting dynamic as he watches the various ethnic groups from the beginning of training to the end. "At the beginning, they are very suspicious of each other," he said. "Pashtu (recruits) watch Uzbeks, who watch Tajiks, and so on. Little by little, they gain respect for each other. What's more, they come to trust one another."
The units can be a Tower of Babel, however. Different ethnicities speak different languages and dialects. Pashtu, Dari, Uzbek and Urdu are the main languages the recruits speak. Few American trainers speak those languages. Good "terps," as the American soldiers call the interpreters, are employed to help bridge the linguistic gorge, Robinson said.
After months of training, the ANA units begin deploying to various parts of the country. The difference between the ANA and local militias is the first thing that stands out, said Army Sgt. 1st Class Brian Bedington, another trainer, who is from the Oklahoma National Guard.
Even the best-trained militia does not have the discipline of the ANA, Bedington said, and often the militias are the biggest criminals in the area. "We get a lot of complaints about the militias shaking down people," Bedington said. "That does not happen with the ANA. The ANA soldiers are even-handed. They don't have a dog in the fight at these places they are deployed to, and the people soon realize that."
The sergeant noted the people enjoy seeing the ANA soldiers arrive. "They know they will be protected," he said.
The ANA soldiers enjoy deploying. "They get two bucks extra a day," Bedington said with a laugh. "But what really pleases them is the respect the people show as they go to various parts of the country. I mean, the Afghans like to see American troops in areas because they know they will be protected. But when they see Afghan troops acting with the same professionalism as the Americans, their appreciation goes through the roof."
Americans accompany the ANA units on missions and say that the Afghans are cool under fire and capitalize on their training.
The biggest problem with the Afghan National Army right now is there are too few trained members. There are currently 15,000 fully trained soldiers in the ANA, said President Hamid Karzai recently. Officials at Combined Forces Command Afghanistan said the country needs 70,000 soldiers in the ANA.
"The long pole in the tent," said an American officer who would not release his name for security reasons, "is the leadership. It takes years to develop officers to command companies or battalions, and it takes years to develop a professional NCO corps." This officer said it didn't make sense to him to train soldiers if the officers and NCOs weren't ready to command them.
But Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, who visited Afghanistan Aug. 11 and said he understood the officer's concern, didn't think it was any time to slow down training. "In fact, most people agree it needs to be speeded up," Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview. "What this means is that the ANA must be mentored by coalition units."
Myers said the training is important, but so is the equipment the units receive, the transportation, the pay and so forth. "You can do all that, but the government has to sustain it," he said.
The chairman said the ANA soldiers "continue to be respected wherever they go. They continue to do a good job operationally when asked to participate."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld spoke to members of the ANA undergoing training at a provincial reconstruction center in Jalalabad on Aug. 11. "From all the reports I have been receiving, the Afghan National Army has been doing a tremendous job," the secretary said through a translator. "Keep up the good work. Your country is worth fighting for."