By HAJIRA ASAF KHAN
Better Relations with the Neighbours
With the US forces having ceased direct active combat engagement in Afghanistan, the Afghan National Army (ANA) or as it is domestically known, the Milli Urdu, was expected to assume the frontline role against the Taliban resistance. Having completed fourteen years in the country in active combat and as training facilitators since ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ began, how well have the ISAF forces fared in preparing the Milli Urdu to deal with the insurgencies on their own?
In 2006, the then Afghan Defence Minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak, had stated that the Afghan National Army was grossly insufficient and that prevailing challenges would require upto 200,000 personnel at the least. The figure was five times over what the numbers of the army amounted to at the time, a dismal 27,000. This statement came to light in reference to the announcement of increasing the Army strength to 70,000, which according to Wardak was not sufficient to effectively secure different areas by establishing military bases including Kandahar, Herat, Kabul, Mazar-i-Shareef, among others.
More recently, in 2014, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had announced that the Afghan National Army was operating with a force of 185,000 personnel. However, an independent report submitted to the US Congress in March, 2015, revealed the numbers to be inflated and showed the actual count to be closer to 160,000 personnel. These numbers fall short of requirements estimated in 2006, when the security conditions were much more peaceful than what they are now. The Kunduz takeover by the Taliban at the end of September, which lasted for less than a week, is not an event that can be dismissed as inconsequential in this regard.
However, there are structural problems that the Afghan Milli Urdu is currently ridden with apart from the insufficiency. The Milli Urdu is facing problems with retaining trained soldiers after the expiration of their initial three-year contract. This results in the loss of invested time and effort as well as combat efficiency of a battalion or Kandak.
Another glaring problem with the Milli Urdu is the lack of discipline and rampant insubordination to the extent that soldiers have been reported to have killed or shot at their non-Afghan superior officers from among the ISAF forces. With trained Afghan officials’ disinclination to continue service beyond the initial contract period, non-Afghan trainers would continue to perform these functions in the foreseeable future. The ISAF forces by their training and cultural norms seem to be acting contrary to the historical legacy which the Afghan people take great pride in. A nation known for touting their legacy of having defeated every military force seeking conquest of the Afghan land, cannot easily be expected to take orders from foreigners. This is a softer element to the harder problem that cannot be overstated.
Though facing the problems of both insufficiency and inefficiency, the Milli Urdu is nowhere near being a lost cause. The force has shown great improvements in combat ability recently as reported by officials from the ground. However, the approach to trainings needs a thorough re-evaluation.
It is not the army alone that is currently in need of a sense of cohesion. The Afghan leadership itself is in a state of power struggle as the two majority leaders had agreed upon a power-sharing arrangement for an interim period after the presidential election in April 2014. The position of Chief Executive was created to facilitate power sharing between Dr Ashraf Ghani who became the country’s president and Dr Abdullah Abdullah who became the Chief Executive. This peculiar situation which is not sanctioned by the Afghan constitution has affected the governance of the country.
Besides paying attention to issues of internal security and governance in Afghanistan, there is a need for Afghanistan to take stock of the evolving political and strategic environment in the region. Traditional good relations between Pakistan and China have been given a major boost by agreement to develop the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). A deal between the P5+1 and Iran on Iran’s nuclear issue has once again opened the door for Iran to play a role in the region and develop economically. Similarly, the Russian Federation and Pakistan are moving forward to strengthen their military and economic relation. Iran-Pakistan relations, which were previously marred by the US-led war in Afghanistan—in which Pakistan acted as facilitator—are warming up again, due to lifting of economic sanctions against Iran.
In this fast changing situation it would be to the advantage of Afghanistan to develop stable political, diplomatic and economic relations with all its neighbours. It has already taken some measures to have good relations with China. Afghanistan should continue to work in a similar manner to take its relations with Iran to the next level. Similarly, Afghanistan can benefit immensely by having better relations with Pakistan.
Working together with Pakistan, Afghans are likely to be in a stronger position to counter insurgency in their country.
Fortunately for Afghanistan, major powers among its neighbours have decided to play a more active role in bringing stability in Afghanistan. Chinese Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Deng Xijun visited Pakistan in early November for discussion related to peace and stability in Afghanistan. Similarly, Ali Shamkhani, Iranian Security Advisorm, also came to Pakistan for consultation. Both Deng Xijun and Ali Shamkhani have supported Pakistan’s efforts to facilitate dialogue between Taliban and Afghan government representatives. Now it is upto the Afghan leadership to take advantage of the emerging situation and work with its neighbours to the benefit of its people and for stability in the region.