x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A regimental system may hold the secret to Afghanistan

As the country becomes peaceful over time and a new generation of young Afghans grow up without the bitter memories of war and with modern ideas, a strong national army can develop.

On the eve of the London conference on Afghanistan last week, I had dinner with some ex-British army types who were musing about the Afghan national army (ANA). This force, of course, will have to take over security for the country when foreign troops have gone. The build up of the ANA, which currently stands at about 100,000 soldiers will accelerate this year to meet a target of 171,000 by autumn of 2011. The pressure is on: the Afghan government is expected to take a lead role in security after five years.

The good news is that the army is one of the few institutions that Afghans trust. It may be the only one. At the moment, many Pashtuns are refusing to join the army, or simply deserting and it is extremely difficult for Tajik soldiers to defend the Pashtun-dominated south without seeming like outsiders. These wise old soldiers had a question: why hasn't the army been organised along the old British regimental system that would be in keeping with Afghan tribal tradition as well?

Historically, the United Kingdom's army was comprised of regiments and corps raised by individual barons or nobles who ruled counties all over the country and swore allegiance to the monarch in London. Today the British army is a national institution but the local ties linger. Just consider the names of the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, the Irish Guards or the Coldstream Guards. The parallels are broad with Afghanistan but they are still there. Like pre-modern Britain, Afghanistan has never had a strong, centralised state.

The tribal aristocracy, particularly in the Pashtun areas, was relied upon to be loyal to the rulers in Kabul and it raised fighters from local areas when required. In return the tribal leaders were given money or other goods. It was a delicate balance but it worked until 1979 when the Soviets invaded. The subsequent years of war have torn apart the national fabric. Various neighbours have instituted a divide and conquer policy to control the country. Some tribes and ethnic groups were given more arms and money than others by Pakistan, India, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, to fight.

Suspicions among Tajiks, Pashtuns, and Uzbeks run deep. At the moment, the army is struggling to establish itself as a national institution because it is highly centralised. The government in Kabul is irrelevant to the vast majority of Afghans outside urban areas. But they will obey the heads of the tribe. A failure to do so would result in ostracism by the community. The old punishment for this was your house would be burnt down. Many Afghans voted for a presidential candidate, regardless of their personal preference, because their leaders told them so.

The tribal structure is very rigid and hierarchal. Tapping into it could be a way to stabilise entire areas of the country. The heads of the tribes could raise local armies which are sustained, and answerable to, the ministry of defence in Kabul. There would have to be good oversight to ensure quality but it could be done with a light footprint. This may sound like a history lesson but Afghanistan is an ancient nation and historical memory runs deep. As the country becomes peaceful over time and a new generation of young Afghans grow up without the bitter memories of war and with modern ideas, a strong national army can develop.

Britain did this at its own pace. Someone will have to tell the Americans all of this. After all, it's they who are paying for the Afghan army. As nations become rich and peaceful, other sets of priorities loom large. The media tent for the Afghanistan conference was pitched in London's Green Park, which is famous for the profusion of white and yellow daffodils that flower each spring. But the tent's original location would have damaged the bulbs that are expected to come up in the next couple of months. So the tent, which held 500 journalists, was moved a few metres.

The Afghans, who are also a nation of gardeners and flower lovers, appreciated this. hghafour@thenational.ae