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Afghanistan - Army


Historically, Afghanistan has never had robust national armed forces. The treasury simply could not support the demands of such an army. In addition, the cultural factors that had prevented the previous formation of a national nontribal government had also sabotaged efforts to establish such a force. For example, soldiers were accustomed to non-hierarchical tribal organization rather than blind submission to officers. Officers, who achieved their position through tribal and interpersonal ties, never received adequate training. Furthermore, military equipment was less than adequate.

Military operations, particularly those of tribal forces, have been the dominant factor in shaping the country's history. The importance of military achievements is firmly embedded in the mind of almost every Afghan through folklore stories and songs. Successive conquests, such as those by Cyrus the Great of Persia (550 B.C.), Alexander the Great (331 B.C.), Genghis Khan (A.D. 1220) and many lesser leaders, over- powered the peoples in this area by armed force, ruled them only as long as armed force was applied, but their successor dynasties in turn were driven out by superior armed forces.

Ahmad Khan Sadozai, a Durani tribal leader, established himself as the first independent ruler of Afghanistan in 1747. In consolidating his position, armed force was the first essential in gaining the sub- mission and retaining the loyalty of the various tribal leaders who had their own private armed forces. Actually, each tribe provided military contingents for the king.

Thus, no national armed force existed except small groups serving as bodyguards in the royal retinue. Military operations during this early period consisted mainly of expeditions into neighboring territories; payments for services usually included appropriate shares in the loot obtained, an arrangement that seemed to be satisfactory to both the ruler and the participating tribal chiefs.

The first attempt to create a more or less professional armed force not under tribal control occurred in 1834, when Shah Shuja-ul-Mulk, one of the contestants for the throne, secured the services of a British officer, Captain John Campbell, to train the forces that were to oppose those of Amir Dost Mohammad, a rival contestant. Although Shah Shuja's forces fought well on the battlefield, the Shah fled the area leaving Dost Mohammad the victor and the wounded Captain Campbell a prisoner. After recovering from his wounds he resumed his military services under Dost Mohammad, serving directly under the Amir's son, Sardar Afzal Khan, father of Abdur Rahman Shah, who later became one of the country's most colorful and forceful rulers (1880-1901). The innovations introduced by Captain Campbell during this period gave the army the rudiments of its ultimate British character.

Additional British influence on Afghan tactics and organization was introduced during the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838-42), which put Shah Shuja, the British-supported candidate, on the throne, Shah Shuja, however, proved to be an unpopular ruler, and British forces kept him in power by supplementing Afghan troops with British offi- cers. Dost Mohammad regained the throne, assumed the title of Amir (King) after the British withdrawal from the country in 1842, and in the main, his reign continued to reflect acceptance of British ideas and concepts.

Twenty-five years later, development of the Afghan Army was resumed under British influence by Dost Mohammad's son, Shir Ali, who after returning from a visit to India in 1869 instituted a series of reforms. Among them was a major reorganization and modernization designed to place the army on a permanent national basis, rather than depend on tribal levies. Other reforms included provision for payment of troops in cash on a fixed schedule, enrollement of some of the miscellaneous tribal irregulars as regular Afghan troops, instruction in all units in the Pashto language, and the encouragement of soldiers to reenlist and make the army a career.

Progress in these reforms was interrupted and almost nullified by the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-79) in which the Afghan Army was soundly defeated by British-Indian forces. When Dost Mohammad's grandson, Abdur Kahman came to the throne in 1880, the Army was virtually nonexistent. With a liberal financial loan from the British, along with aid in the form of weapons, ammunition and other military supplies, he began a 20-year long task of creating a respectable regular force by instituting measures which still form the basis of the military system. These included increased equalization of the military obligation by setting up a system known as the hasht nafri, where-by one man in every eight between the ages of 20 and 40 took his turn at military service; construction of an arsenal in Kabul to reduce dependence on foreign sources for small arms and other ordnance; introduction of supervised training courses; then organization of troops into divisions, brigades and regiments, containing battalions of artillery; and the development of pay schedules as well as an elementary (and harsh) disciplinary system.

The progress in army development achieved by Abdur Rahman was largely forgotten during the reigns of his two successors, Habibullah Khan (1901-19) and Amanullah Khan (1919-29). In the Third Anglo-Afghan War (May-August 1919) both the army and the larger tribal forces, although not victorious against British-Indian forces, gave creditable combat performances, particularly those under command of Nadir Khan who later became King in 1929.

Amanullah had many ideas concerning various types of reforms, including some military, but his lack of method and unwise policies in financial matters virtually bankrupted the country and led to reductions in the army and a serious loss of effectiveness. Two noteworthy military events, however, did emerge from his desire to modernize the country. One was the creation of an Air Force in 1924 through the purchase of two British aircraft and the hiring of German pilots to help put down a rebellion which his advanced social ideas had inspired. The other was the acceptance of a second Turkish mission in 1927 (an earlier mission had left Kabul in 1921 after an unsuccessful effort to reorganize the army) to assist in training and improving the efficiency of the army.

Amanullah's persistence in forcing reforms on the people led to greater popular dissatisfaction, and eventually serious revolts broke out in 1928 and 1929. The army shared the widespread feeling against the King and this together with its long-term neglect was a major factor in its defeat by the rebel leader Bacha-i-Saqqo, a mountain Tajik who took Kabul in January 1929 and declared himself King (see ch. 3, Historical Setting). He, in turn, was ousted by General Nadir Khan, who rallied scattered army elements and retook the capital with help from several loyal tribes. On October 16, 1929, General Nadir Khan was proclaimed King by a tribal loe jirgah (council).

The organization of the modern military establishment stems from Nadir Shah's measures to reconstruct his armed forces. These measures included an increase in military pay, the acquisition of 10,000 rifles and a substantial loan from the British Government; the appointment as Minister of War and as commander in chief, of his own brother, Shah Mahmud Khan, an able and trustworthy personality, respected by all, particularly by tribal leaders; the reopening of the Kabul Military College for officers; the opening of training courses in all combat arms for officers; the reinforcing of the Turkish military mission with some German instructors; and the hiring of Soviet air technicians to im- prove instruction in the deteriorated Royal Afghan Air Force. By 1933, when Nadir Shah was assassinated, military morale and capabilities had improved appreciably, and the army was an important factor in achieving a relatively peaceful accession of his young son, Mohammad Zahir Shah.

The new King and his uncle, Sardar Hashim Khan, who exercised great influence over governmental affairs during the early reign of the King, continued the policy of military development and military progress initiated by Nadir Shah. Progress, however, was retarded by the materiel shortages and other restrictions imposed by World War II. During the war the country proclaimed its neutrality and concerned itself primary with further stabilizing conditions within the country and generally increasing internal security. Some improvements were made in the organization of the embryonic Air Force through acquisition of a limited number of fairly modern aircraft.

The immediate post-World War II period was one of further readjustment between the internal security forces and the army. Little was done to improve the quality of arms or to adopt modern concepts requiring up-to-date equipment. This situation persisted until the signing of a military assistance agreement with the Soviet Union in 1956. Under this pact the Soviet Union undertook to mod- ernize the army and to provide it with advanced types of armament. Since 1956 the impact of Soviet military assistance has been great. While the quantity of Soviet aid is not known, it has been steady, and by 1967 the armed forces had become almost completely dependent upon the Soviets, not only for equipment for also for logistic support. As a consequence of their basic improvement, the military establishment has increased its effectiveness and capabilities, particularly in the role of providing domestic stability. This factor has been of great importance and assistance in the government's move toward the establishment of a constitutional monarchy.

The military traditions found in most armies having an historic past are lacking in Afghanistan's armed forces, mainly because of the relatively minor role performed by the army and of the many interruptions in its development. In victory the army's accomplishments usually were overshadowed by tribal leaders who extolled their individual and collective exploits as decisive factors on the battlefield. The Afghans tend to be hero worshipers, and the tribal people are proud of their warrior ancestors. They admire military exploits and regard death in battle as honorable. There is no hesitation to give up life in defense of tribal honor or to resist encroachment on tribal territory.

By 1967 the principal combat elements of the army were three tactical corps and four separate divisions. Corps headquarters were located at Kabul, Gardez, and Kandahar, each controlling divisional units within a lim- ited territorial area of responsibility. The separate divisions reported directly to Kabul and were dispersed throughout the parts of the country not under control of the three corps. The general reserve was maintained in Kabul, along with several elite units of the capital garrison including the Royal Brigade.

In the 1980s, the government of Babrak Karmal established a nominally national armed forces with the help of the Soviets. This Afghan army was divided into 11 infantry divisions and 3 armored divisions in late 1985. There were also 2 mountain infantry regiments, a mechanized infantry brigade, an artillery brigade, 3 artillery regiments, a commando brigade, and 3 commando regiments. The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimated in 1985 that divisions were at about quarter strength, i.e., about 2,500 men. There were several elite Afghan army units: the 24th Airborne Battalion, and the 37th, 38th, and 444th Commando Brigades. The status of the airborne brigade was unclear in late 1985, as it had mutinied in 1980. The commando units were considered politically loyal, but had endured heavy casualties. As a result, they were reorganized as co-dependent battalions.

Though the Soviet Union departed Afghanistan in 1989, the government it had helped to establish remained and the Mujahidin fighters who had resisted the Soviet occupation continued to resist the activities of this government. Immediately after the Soviet departure, the government of then President Mohammad Najibullah pulled down the façade of shared government, declared an emergency, and removed non-party ministers from the cabinet. The Soviet Union responded with a flood of military and economic supplies. Sufficient food and fuel were made available for the next two difficult winters. Much of the military equipment belonging to Soviet units evacuating Eastern Europe was shipped to Afghanistan.

Najibullah's government finally collapsed in 1992 as Mujahidin forces took control of Kabul. Army commanders and governors arranged to turn over authority to resistance commanders and local notables throughout the country. Old animosities between tribal and ethic groups resurfaced. The Mujahidin leadership attempted to take over government and military institutions, but the factionalism eventually proved to be overwhelming. Groups that had supported a united cause against the Soviet Union and the government in Kabul carved out small fiefdoms across the country and a civil war erupted. The newly declared Islamic Republic of Afghanistan again lacked the capacity to maintain an army loyal to a central government.

Even with the rise of the Taliban and the creation of their "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" in the late 1990s, they lacked the administrative efficiency of a state. The military did not exist on a national basis. Some elements of the former Army, Air and Air Defense Forces, National Guard, Border Guard Forces, National Police Force (Sarandoi), and tribal militias existed, but were factionalized among various groups. The Taliban's "army" was a coalition of militia formations composed of assorted armed groups with varying degrees of loyalty, commitment, skill, and organizational coherence.

Following the ouster of the Taliban in 2002, the US-led coalition began efforts to form an Afghan National Army (ANA). These efforts continued under the NATO-led mission. The US Combined Security Assistance Command - Afghanistan and the NATO Training Mission Afghanistan were responsible for leading the effort to develop the Afghan National Security Forces, including the ANA.

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