Afghanistan's biggest problem is bad leadership
We find ourselves in an awkward position in prosecuting the Afghan war: The biggest obstacle to our victory isn't our Taliban enemies but the corrupt and unresponsive leadership of the Afghan security forces and government.
While training and leading Afghan soldiers, I saw first hand that corruption and malfeasance was a greater threat to our success than the military one posed by the Taliban. The primary complaint I heard from Afghan villagers wasn't Taliban violence, but instead police abuse, local government corruption, and a lack of any measurable development in their communities despite billions of dollars in foreign aid investment.
Sadly, the Afghan National Army's (ANA) middle and senior military leaders would regularly put personal interests ahead of successfully prosecuting the war, and examples of abuse were everywhere.
I recall one incident when a senior Afghan officer in our ANA battalion decided to leave on an unauthorized personal vacation. He locked up all the spare ammunition in his private storage facility, which left the combat foot soldiers in a pinch, given their frequent combat missions. Threats from his higher commander to return fell on deaf ears. The only thing that convinced him to return to our base to release the ammo was our threat to cut the lock ourselves, leaving his large storage facility of hoarded and stolen supplies exposed to looting by his equally corrupt fellow officers. It was moments like these that frustrated us beyond measure and cast a dark shadow over our prospects for success in the war.
Despite this preponderance of shoddy senior leaders in the Afghan army, the vast majority of junior officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) are a more respectable bunch. These junior members are committed to the cause of building a professional army and moving the country forward.
As an embedded trainer within the Afghan army, I often wondered: Why are the majority of senior Afghan National Army officers so ill-suited for leadership? Why did they resort to bribery, theft, and corruption at astronomical rates compared with their junior subordinates?
There are many ways to answer this question . I think the historical legacy of the Afghan strongman/warlord served as an archetype that shapes what they see as the "right way to lead." Another influence is the Russian military's imprint that still stains the Afghan army's officer corps. A large number of officers in today's ANA originally served under the Russians, where they learned to be autocratic, corrupt, and self-serving.
There were a few quality ANA senior officers in our battalion. They led from the front, and limited their personal vices (such as corruption) to acceptable levels. They inspired their men with fiery speeches and displays of bravado, like the time our battalion's operations officer confronted the problem of his soldiers refusing to wear their newly issued body armor.
The officer called a formation and began lambasting his troops, menacingly waving his AK-47 while he lectured them. The troops, unsure who was going to be the recipient of the business end of his rifle, were relieved when he swung around and fired at his body armor, which had been propped helplessly against the nearby rock. Afterward, the officer passed around his body armor for them to see first hand that it indeed had stopped the bullet.
The difficulty for an embedded American trainer is trying to take away a positive lesson about Afghan leadership. Waving your gun at your troops and then firing without warning is career suicide for an American military officer. But it works in Afghanistan. Bridging this cultural gap is something we just aren't taught in our military schools.
Given the dearth of quality Afghan commanders, how do we make progress in cultivating a leadership cadre that can carry on the fight and win in our absence? My own solution to this problem was this: I simply ignored the incompetent officers. I didn't waste time trying to change old men who had little interest in reform. Time was short, and lives were at stake, so I devoted my time developing the junior ranking officers and NCOs with good habits of effective leadership. I didn't include the bad leaders in planning, and I didn't expect them to go out on missions with our troops and me. Frankly, these senior officers preferred to be ignored, as it meant more nap time and vacation time for them, and less lecturing from a young pesky American Captain.
I focused on mentoring the young junior officers and NCOs who will be the future of the Afghan army. They will eventually assume command as their seniors retire, die or are forced out. Slowly but surely, these young studs will be percolating to the top of the chain of command.
Will America have the patience to continue to fight in Afghanistan until these junior leaders rise to the top? Only time will tell if this next generation has a chance to usher in a new standard in leadership for Afghanistan's security forces and government, or if they fall into the same bad habits that plagued their predecessors.
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