Is the Afghan Army Standing Up?

by Joshua Foust on 8/1/2008 · 5 comments

The Economist would certainly have you think so.

The army looks very different from the ragged force of three years ago, when units sent to the south were losing 30% of their men through desertion. Desertion rates in Helmand are now only 7%; about half of all soldiers re-enlist. They are better equipped, too, with body armour, M-16 assault rifles and the latest model of Humvee armoured vehicle.

Good equipment does not guarantee success, of course. The army the Soviet Union equipped lavishly in 1989 succumbed swiftly to the mujahideen. Many think the ANA too small. But at least it has stomach for a fight. “They are aggressive and fight forward,” says Captain Ray Dalzell, one of the sweat-stained British advisers in Attal, a new base the ANA built after sweeping up the Gereshk valley, an area of persistent Taliban activity. Others praise the ANA’s speed across the ground and its ability to detect changing local opinion and mood invisible to foreign eyes.

Naturally, the only thing the Americans and Brits say the Afghans are missing is more western mentors and the drive to train instead of nap. Despite the complaints that Tajiks are disproportionately represented in the officer corps and the Hazara can’t get promoted, the army “has the correct proportion of Pashtuns, the ethnicity from which the Taliban draws its strength.” While the Provincial Council of Helmand complain they are “rented by foreigners,” The Economist declares, “few can doubt the eagerness of those foreigners to hand over to the Afghan army as soon as they decently can.”

Well, few can, if they can figure out what that sentence means (hand over what? control? command?). But there isn’t any “there” there, and the author relies on some pretty creative historical interpretations to make this argument. The seige of Jalalabad was hardly succumbing swiftly to the mujahideen, and the author must be thinking us the fool if he (or she) wants to portray Najibullah’s 3-year post-Soviet reign as a rapid collapse. In fact, one of the more interesting, and drastically understudied, aspects of the Soviet War is how long, and how effectively, Najibullah’s army was able to maintain control after the Soviet withdrawal.

But hey, as long as they have M-16s and up-armored HMMWVs (both of which, needless to say, require expensive American maintenance routines), then who’s going to worry?

Previously, the august British magazine of record was caught brutalizing metaphors by comparing the current war to the Great Game, and Hamid Karzai to Shah Shujah. Before that, they went shallow and came up short in describing the actual crisis facing the country. And let’s not even touch their Borat-tastic treatment of Kazakhstan’s bid to chair the OSCE.

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Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Josh SN August 2, 2008 at 9:14 am


Haven’t they been on the bandwagon for Blair’s involvement in Iraq and Afgfhanistan all along?

If I remember correctly, that is why they lost me as a reader, years ago.

David August 2, 2008 at 11:57 am

Antonio Giustozzi’s 2007 article, “Auxiliary Force or National Army?” and the contributions by a tiny handful of other clear-eyed analysts raise issues about the ANA that puff pieces by instant experts who get CSTC-A Powerpoint briefings and parachute visits to ANA showcase units and training facilities don’t bother to address, mainly because they can’t. Moreover, a perusal of the crap churned out by these cheerleaders with hairy legs suggests that they aren’t interested and capable in going beyond the party line.

Despite the billions that have been poured into security sector reform in Afghanistan, there is not yet any serious plan that explains how the ANSF is ever going to bring security to the country and its people.

Tony Cordesman is dead on in saying that we won’t achieve our goals in Afghanistan unless we stop lying to ourselves.

Joshua Foust August 2, 2008 at 12:10 pm


Agreed. I’ve been wondering how to discuss Cordesman devastating presentation on just how poor our self-evaluation has been in Afghanistan. It was, essentially, a top-down critique of the ludicrous notion that “bad news benefits the enemy,” since if we only tell good news stories we have no idea where we need to improve.

Which is why all the reckless cheerleading gets on my nerves so much. But that is a separate issue.

This Economist piece is like when Ann Marlowe was positively quoting two-bit LTCs in Khost saying the one thing the Afghan National Police needs isn’t training by actual police officers from the West, but Army mentorship and retinal scanners. It is a disconnected world view.

Joel Hafvenstein August 3, 2008 at 6:16 am

Hi, Josh,

Great post. Yeah, with the spate of comment comparing the current international occupation to the Soviet failure, I’ve also been surprised by how little attention has been given to the unexpectedly long survival of the Najibullah regime.

The simplistic lesson from 1989-1992 is that foreign subsidy is more important than foreign troops to keep an Afghan leader in power. Najib didn’t fall when the Russian tanks rolled out, but when the Russian government stopped giving him enough money to pay his troops (particularly Dostum’s boys).

I’d love to see a serious analysis of whether this holds lessons for the flagging NATO attempt to stabilize Afghanistan. Let me know if you come across one.

Josh SN August 3, 2008 at 12:22 pm

Checking, it seems the South Vietnam lasted 2 years and 1 month past the date when the last U.S. troops left.

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