Corruption and ethnic factionalism are so rife in Afghanistan’s fast-growing army that the force could face the risk of disintegration when international troops leave, a new report has warned.
As Barack Obama, the US president, re-affirmed his commitment to start withdrawing US forces in mid-2011, the International Crisis Group issued a bleak assessment of progress towards creating an Afghan military capable of containing the Taliban.
The study also warned that Mr Karzai’s plan to negotiate with insurgent leaders was a recipe for worse instability since his government’s “unrestrained pursuit of wealth and power” had bankrupted its ability to offer a broad-based settlement.
The report was released on Wednesday as Mr Obama held a joint news conference with Mr Karzai, who is visiting Washington on a trip that US officials hope will open a new chapter in their often stormy relationship with the Afghan president.
Portraying an Afghan military riven with divisions, the report said growing supplies of Nato weapons and material were fuelling patronage networks run by rival commanders, while the force remained hobbled by a lack of logistical capacity, poor leadership and crippling attrition rates.
A long-standing conflict between Abdul Rahim Wardak, the defence minister, and General Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, the chief of the army, has severely hindered the military’s development and fuelled graft and subversion, the report said.
Although the report acknowledged that the army enjoyed more support than many Afghan institutions and was more advanced than the police, it warned that a failure to implement reforms could mean that a bigger army would result in greater insecurity.
“History has shown that failure to build a cohesive national army has often led to the diffusion of state force among disparate actors, hastening the collapse of governments in Kabul,” said Candace Rondeaux, a senior analyst with Crisis Group.
The report recommended reforms including bolstering the military’s administrative structures and reviewing senior staff in the ministry of defence and army to reduce factional tensions.
“Failure to develop a sustainable, comprehensive long-term defence posture could risk the army’s disintegration after the withdrawal of international forces,” the report said.
Nato wants to increase the Afghan army to 240,000 troops by 2014, from about 112,000 in March this year. The alliance needs bigger and stronger Afghan security forces to allow it to start withdrawing an international troop commitment which is due to peak at some 140,000 troops, including almost 100,000 Americans. The US has spent more than $10bn on the Afghan army between 2002 and 2008, the report said.
Afghanistan’s military will face a test this summer when US forces hope thousands of Afghan troops will play a big role in an operation designed to secure Kandahar, the heartland of the Taliban.
But the report warned that many Afghan units struggled to perform more than basic patrol or checkpoint duties independently, and that Nato’s focus on training infantrymen rather than bolstering administrative and supply capacity had hindered the army’s ability to operate in the field.
As US allies resist sending more troops, a recent Pentagon report said that, as of the end of March, only 44 per cent of the required 4,083 trainers had arrived at Nato’s Training Mission-Afghanistan. This month, in a stop gap measure, the US said it was dispatching 850 trainers from the marines and army corps.
The report said that many Afghan military leaders were opposed to Mr Karzai’s aspirations to negotiate with Taliban leaders on the grounds that the government should only attempt to enter talks from a position of strength. Many officers also oppose the idea of trying to integrate Taliban fighters into the security forces.
Mr Karzai is seeking backing for his plans to talk to the Taliban in Washington, but the report warned that while the Afghan government might once have had limited potential to be a legitimate guarantor of a broad, negotiated peace, it had lost credibility.
“Under these conditions, reconciliation and reintegration, as currently conceived by Kabul and the US-led coalition, does not represent a route to a permanent peaceful settlement of the conflict,” the report said. “Rather, it is an invitation for the country to descend further into the turmoil that led the Taliban to give succour to al-Qaeda and other violent extremists in the first place.”
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