Building an Afghan National Guard

Sunil Dasgupta
Sunil Dasgupta Former Brookings Expert, Director - University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Political Science Program at the Universities at Shady Grove

January 11, 2002

The core function of any state in the world is to provide security to its citizens. Almost every government in Kabul failed to perform this function because the country could never develop a professional military force that is more loyal to the nation and the state than to the tribal chiefs and ethnic groups.

Many factors have contributed to this phenomenon. Firstly, Afghanistan never had a legitimately constituted central authority for a long enough period of time. Kabul dealt with the tribes and clans in the countryside through the tribal leaders, who operated in patron-client relationships with the people. Kabul functioned at the apogee of a multi-tiered system of patronage rather than as the seat of central authority with the ability to rule.

Secondly, the patronage networks both contributed to and were the result of ethnic and tribal identities being stronger than a national Afghan identity. This is why the Afghan mujahideen groups fighting the former Soviet Union could never join politically even when they fought together. Thirdly, the national military, such as it was in the 1970’s, was infiltrated by the communists, who were more loyal to Moscow than to a nationalist agenda. Finally, palace intrigues encouraged factionalism within the military and senior military officers often aligned themselves with one group or the other to protect their own positions. This undermined the organisational integrity of the force and over time eroded effective civilian control over the military.

Now, American and UN efforts in rebuilding Afghanistan must focus on building a national armed force in the country that will be loyal to the state and be able to impose order when required. Building such a force—and hence an Afghan state—will not be easy, but without it the country is doomed to return to civil war and, perhaps, terrorism.

While colonial Britain was able to raise a potent military force throughout the Indian subcontinent it failed to do so in Afghanistan. Britain had to remain content with irregular forces in the NWFP and tribal areas abutting Afghanistan such as the Khyber Rifles and the Punjab Irregular Frontier Force Regiment (now the Frontier Force Regiment of Pakistan army). A few well-known Pashtun families also sent their sons to the officer corps of the British Indian Army and British Indian Army officers officered the irregular forces. In recent history, the Russians—before and after their invasion—came closest to trying to create a Western-style military in the country. The Taliban used Islamic ideology in an effort to create a force that went beyond tribal and ethnic loyalties. None of these models worked.

Given these failures, the structure of an Afghan military force should lie somewhere between an army and a police force. In the past, Kabul’s weak leaders have been afraid that the strong, professional military might turn against them. Consequently, they stuffed army posts with ethnic loyalists and undermined the institution itself. Moreover, tribal and ethnic leaders have feared a national army might be used against them. Therefore, a national armed force in Afghanistan must not be as powerful as a regular military. Equally, however, such a force cannot be an ordinary police department. A police force vested in local politics cannot be armed and organised to match the military capabilities of potential troublemakers without risking the abuse of power. This is a fundamental civil-military dilemma: how does a society raise a force strong enough to hold the nation together but not so powerful that it threatens the leadership itself?

National Guard Model

Faced with the same dilemma, countries from Colombia to India have filled the institutional space between the regular military and the law enforcement police with forces resembling the pre-1965 National Guard in the United States. Before 1965, when the Guard was turned into a military reserve, the organisation was primarily meant for domestic use. It was raised and maintained by the states primarily for quelling civil disturbances that were beyond the capabilities of the local police, but could also be requisitioned by the federal government—federalized—for deployment outside the state of origin. By design, the Guard was weaker than the military, stronger than the law enforcement police, and a state, rather than a federal, force.

The National Guard, and its variants around the world, might be a good working model for a new Afghan national armed force. Here are the key organizing principles:

The national government in Kabul would raise a small core element, including a professional officer corps, while the troops would be raised and maintained by tribes and ethnic groups (with budgetary help from the national government) who are part of the power-sharing arrangement in Kabul. The force would be lightly-armed with personal weapons, light machine guns, and mortars, but not with heavy weapons such as tanks and artillery. The relative “weakness” of the force and the continued tribal influence should give regional leaders the confidence to support such a force.

The troops would be organised into five regional commands: one each in the major tribal conglomerations such as eastern Pahstun, southern Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazaras. There would be a national command, near Kabul, of a two-brigade force (combining Pashtun and non-Pashtun elements) that could be rotated from the regional commands on a schedule that took care, among other things, to enable soldiers to be near their homes during sowing and harvesting seasons. However, the national government would have the legal authority to requisition any or all elements of the force for deployment outside their region of origin.

In building an officer corps, the Swiss military’s goal of a desirable ethnic mix would be useful. The Afghan Guard officer corps, which would ideally provide leadership upwards from the platoon, should be recruited to reflect the ethnic mix of the Afghan nation, but trained nationally and internationally to imbibe the principles of national unity and professional military service. The United States and South Africa, which have extensive experience with building multiethnic militaries, might be locations for training this new officer corps. Pakistan and India, which have also raised multiethnic militaries successfully, might be useful for training purposes as well, but their involvement must be carefully managed so as not to reignite regional rivalries inside the new force. An alternative “secular” model might be Turkey, but that is also fraught with dangers.

Senior leadership of the armed force would reside in a council of officers that reflected the country’s diverse ethnic mix but which only had a staff role. The line command positions would report directly to the political authority in the office of a minister of defense or a minister of interior. Both senior line and staff positions would be alternated according to an agreed-upon schedule to ensure ethnic turnover. A different power-sharing would also determine ethnic rotation in ministerial positions.

The minister of defense, in consultation with the military council, would appoint regional military commanders and commanders of military installations such as training academies, recruitment centers, and weapons depots, from members of the national officer corps. In making these appointments, care should be taken to exchange ethnicities, i.e., place a non-Pashtun in a Pashtun regional command and vice-versa to prevent collusion between local leaders and the commanders. Below the level of battalion commanders, the ethnic mix of the officers could be flexible depending both on availability and need.

In the interim, before the Guard becomes fully functional and perhaps even after that, there is a need for a multinational UN force that provides order and enables the formation of the new force. The UN has had some success in raising a new police force in Kosovo and that experience should translate to Afghanistan.

The inability to establish a unified national armed force would leave the undesirable option of partitioning Afghanistan in order to bring peace, which as the history of partitions goes could well fail. The principle of modern statehood requires that the natural frontiers of political units be determined by the state’s ability to impose national order. If the coalition that is handed power in Kabul is unable to impose this order, while regional and tribal leaders are left to provide their own security, Afghanistan might return to civil war and cease to exist as a nation in the same way it has failed as a state.