Now that the U.S. and NATO have imported the “they’re stepping up” narrative from Iraq to Afghanistan, it may be useful to look at what independent analysts think of the capabilities of the Afghan National Army (ANA).
The June 2008 assessment by the Government Accountability Office leaves little room for optimism:
[…] Less than 2 percent (2 of 105 units) of ANA units are assessed as fully capable of conducting their primary mission. Thirty-six percent (38 of 105) are assessed as capable of conducting their mission, but require routine international assistance, while the remaining ANA units (65 of 105 units) are either planned, in basic training, or assessed as partially able or unable to conduct their primary mission.
As to my question of what exactly is so “national” about ANA, well, it seems not much. Here’s what Antonio Giustozzi wrote at Jonestown in May:
With regard to its long-term viability, another problematic aspect of the ANA is represented by its internal ethnic fault lines. Since 2005 both the MoD and the Americans have securely guarded any data about the ethnic composition of the ANA, but there is evidence that a genuine ethnic balance has not yet been achieved; even more worryingly, although a point was initially made that units would be ethnically mixed, it is now obvious that they are not. Tajiks are still overrepresented, particularly in the officer corps. According to one estimate, 70 percent of the battalion commanders are Tajiks. This figure is in stark contrast with the Afghan army of the pre-war period, where the overwhelming majority of field officers were Pashtuns and ethnic minorities were mainly relegated to logistics and administration.
Recruitment to the army is not going well in a number of Pashtun regions affected by the insurgency, mainly because of a campaign of intimidation carried out by insurgents against the families of soldiers, which discourages potential recruits from joining and has forced a number of soldiers not to re-enlist. The situation is compounded by the habit of the MoD to deploy only predominantly Tajik units to the war zones of the south and southeast, presumably to avoid the risk of ‘fraternization’ and to enhance the cohesion of the units. As a result, there are very few Pashtuns fighting against the insurgency within the ranks of the ANA. Although friction between ANA units and the local population or even between ANA and locally recruited police is reported, there is no evidence that this is a driving factor in the insurgency. However, such friction and the fact that many soldiers and officers do not speak Pashto must certainly limit the cooperation that these units are able to enlist locally, particularly in remote rural areas. Even the few Pashtuns who serve in these units are usually not from the region where they are deployed, but from other Pashtun-populated regions. Therefore, they lack local knowledge even if they can understand the language spoken by the villagers.