Mohammad Naseer at 29 is an Afghan veteran commander who began his career as a foot soldier with Ahmed Shah Masood’s Northern Alliance. At 18, he shook hands with Masood at an inspection line-up in the Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul.
A commander in the Afghan National Defence Security Forces, Naseer who completed a four-year training course, is stationed at the Intercontinental hotel in Kabul, attacked last summer by eight suicide bombers.
“One of my men shot one of the militants right here in the lobby,” he explains. He believes Afghanistan will be a better place when the foreign forces are gone, with the Afghan National Army (ANA) capable of defending the country.
Afghan military commanders might show confidence about troop readiness in the post-war transition phase and after, but research by the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), a policy research organisation reveals the peripheral areas of Afghanistan, such as Nuristan province, risk falling to the Taliban after the Isaf withdrawal is complete.
In the next few months, US troops will ‘relinquish responsibility’ over the western half of Nuristan while keeping their options open as to possible future intervention in the eastern border districts, explains the AAN.
The only Isaf presence in Nuristan is in Nurgram district, on the border with Laghman. Here the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) has not increased their presence. Promises of reinforcements have not materialized and salaries of the police quick reaction force – the only legitimate security forces in the province –were withheld for five months in late 2011 because of corrupt local government authorities.
It can be argued that taking up responsibility in such areas can be a tough test for the ANSF: these districts are insurgent strongholds partly because of their location, but also because they are seen by the Taliban as strategic for operations. It would be a success story for the Taliban if they were able to overthrow the inadequate government in several district centres or – even briefly – the provincial capital itself, say observers.
Though many soldiers with the ANA admit that “foreign countries have trained and equipped them”, there is consensus that the “intervention should end and western troops should leave Afghanistan because they are infidels working for their own geo-political benefit”.
The occupation has not brought peace, say ANA soldiers and when asked if they will secure outlying provinces they explain “that the ANA will be better able to secure their country against all outside enemies”.
The ANA is said to represent a multi-ethnic force, especially in Kabul and Kunduz — such as the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras — although there have been reports showing rifts between the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic community and Tajiks and Hazaras from the north. The rupturing of ethnic fault-lines could result in a repeat of the civil war of the 1990s, if this situation is not contained, security experts explain, pointing to the lack of ethnic balance in the ANA and National Police.
Guidelines issued in 2003 by General Karl Eikenberry, a former chief of the Office of Military Cooperation-Afghanistan focused on ethnic balance in the ANA explaining that the composition should be balanced: 38 per cent to be Pashtuns, 25 per cent Tajiks, 19 per cent Hazaras and eight per cent Uzbeks. A report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction in October 2011 showed that Tajiks, representing 25 per cent of the population, now account for 41 per cent of all ANA troops who have been trained, and that only 30 per cent of the ANA trainees are now Pashtuns. Reasons for the predominance of Tajik troops include the fact that the ANA was finding it difficult to recruit troops in Kandahar and Helmand provinces by mid-2007. Tajiks are known to occupy key positions in the Ministry of Defence as well, say Kabul-based observers.
In 1992, the previous civil war between Pashtuns and Tajiks happened when the army of the Soviet-supported Najibullah regime had disappeared, having kept peace between the two ethnic groups.
Tajik commanders don’t trust Pashtuns in the south and the east because they cite Taliban influence among the police forces, says a professor of social sciences at Kabul University. For security expert, General (retired) Abdul Wahid Taqat, a former Afghan intelligence official, the challenge is cleansing the army of anti-western, religious sentiment. Even with attempts at establishing a traditionally patriotic culture within the ANF, he says that soldiers and officers with affiliations to the Taliban, anti-Soviet mujahideen and tribal warlords, might undermine the effort.
It has been two years since the government formed a special military intelligence cell to identify such elements within the security forces, especially active, following the killing of Nato troops by Afghan soldiers, he adds. Intelligence cells have a presence within the interior ministry as well as the defence ministry for this purpose, he says.