Building an Army for Afghanistan

Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen Former Brookings Expert

December 15, 2001

Rebuilding Afghanistan will involve many tasks: repairing the agricultural infrastructure, refugee resettlement, constructing an entirely new educational system and repairing the damaged physical infrastructure. It also means an extraordinary international effort to feed a long-malnourished population and encouraging as many of the overseas Afghans as possible to return to their homeland. A revived Afghanistan will also need a civilian bureaucracy and a new political order, a process that took a giant step forward at Bonn. This political order will have to reflect particular Afghan conditions and sensibilities, but it must be “modern” in the sense that it represents Afghan interests to the rest of the world while undertaking the tasks outlined above.

However, as the Bonn Agreement noted, an urgent priority of the new Afghan government will be to establish a comprehensive security apparatus.

The Afghan experience with armies has been unfortunate. It has never had a truly professional army, and the absence of such an army was one reason for the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets (and subsequently decline into civil war). The Afghan army of the 1970s was Soviet-dominated, and its coup brought to power a series of pro-Soviet governments that tried to impose their will upon an unwilling countryside. Subsequently, the Taliban also tried to impose their vision of a perfect social order on an unwilling population, drawing its military power from its own militias and foreign volunteers who provided the tactical, strategic, and ideological backbone of this unlamented government.

Roles and Missions

With a very few exceptions, modern states have modern armies. They carry out a number of core functions. In the Afghan case the mission statement of a new model army should include both security and nation-building activities.

Security Tasks

A new Afghan army should be strong enough to:

  • Keep the major roads open so food and other assistance can flow to the villages
  • Keep Afghanistan terrorist-free
  • Prevent inter-tribal and inter regional conflict
  • Provide backup for police and local militias, especially assistance in enforcing bans on poppy growing;
  • Patrol the borders and contain smuggling

Nation-Building Tasks

  • The army should educate other ranks and officers, inculcating new skills (especially via the technical branches and engineering),
  • Instill an all-Afghan perspective and serve as a symbol of national unity
  • It should train and be equipped to cope with disaster, especially flood, earthquake and famine relief
  • Army engineers should be tasked to rebuilding the road and water infrastructure; a future Afghan Air Force should have a light airdrop/airlift capability to reach inaccessible areas.
  • The army should soak up massive arms and put surplus fighters to work in useful tasks
  • Specialized engineering units should assist in de-mining.


The construction of a new Afghan army should be guided several principles.

  • The new military should be broadly reflective of Afghanistan’s ethnic, regional, and religious composition. In this it should mirror the political order envisioned in the Bonn Agreement, avoiding the domination of a single ethnic/tribal group. Here the appropriate models include India, Switzerland, and South Africa. This is important both to help fulfill the national integration mission, but also to prevent one ethnic or tribal group from achieving a dominant position in the army (especially the officer corps), lest it become excessively powerful politically, as in the case of Pakistan.
  • A small, but highly professional officer corps must be the glue that holds the military together. This officer corps, recruited and promoted on the basis of merit, should receive its initial raining in Afghanistan, but it should also be exposed, through IMET-like programs to the military “best practices” of a number of states. Officers in current militias should be put through a course that selects individuals most likely to adapt to a professional military organization. Their subsequent training should stress a national perspective. Demobilized soldiers and officers should not be turned loose, but should be inducted into ancillary organizations, such as a demining corps or local militias.
  • The “other ranks” (enlisted personnel) will probably be more conveniently organized on a tribal or regional basis; however, some branches, such as engineering, artillery, and transportation, should be recruited on an all-Afghan basis. Various ethnic/tribal units should be rotated around the country and in and out of Kabul and other major cities.
  • With the officers serving as a binding element, various ethnic/tribal units should balance each other out, and for the foreseeable future, a new Afghan army should be balanced in part by a small international peacekeeping contingent. The model here could be the armies created by the British in India (and Pakistan) or the Austro-Hungarian army.
  • Complementing the regular army, a professional militia force must be established for each major region. These should be led by officers on secondment from the regular army. Here the appropriate model would be Pakistan’s Rangers or Khyber Rifles, or the Assam Rifles of the Indian Army. Separate from this regional militia, a local police force will provide village security and basic law and order functions.

Other Observations

Building an Afghan state is an urgent and essential task. It will be difficult to create an army that is powerful enough to keep law and order, deter regional warlordism, and contain the narcotics industry, but not so powerful that it threatens the status and the authority of regional tribal leaders. Even worse would be a move against a duly constituted but still-weak central government based in Kabul.

The overriding principle should be one of balancing power. The officer corps must be balanced by being broadly representative, the different military units should be rotated around the country (to avoid developing too-close ties with regional power centers), and the entire establishment should be kept busy with important nation-building tasks.
The Afghan military can also be balanced, until it is more professional, by the presence of a UN peacekeeping force that has superior organization and firepower at its command. The experiences of Kosovo, East Timor, Cambodia, and elsewhere are partially relevant, but of equal relevance are the historical experiences of several states in creating modern and professional military establishments in relatively poor countries, notably Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and South Africa.

Finally, no single outside state, especially one of Afghanistan’s neighbors, should play a dominant role in shaping the outlook of a new Afghan army. While Pakistan, Iran, and Russia might want to provide equipment and technical training, their role should be limited. This would be easier if Afghanistan were to be declared by international convention to be a neutral or non-aligned state.