Why the effort to build a national army is doomed to failure
In early 1989, Dr. Mohammed Najibullah, the embattled communist president of Afghanistan, faced a choice. As the last of the Soviet forces supporting him had withdrawn, he knew the momentum of the U.S.-funded mujahideen bent on his overthrow would be hard to stave off. Moscow was offering only money, a handful of advisors and limited air support as a consolation to what seemed like impending doom. Even with a strong army, Najibullah knew success would depend on his ability to secure mujahideen territory outside of Afghan cities, and that would require the help of militias.
While centuries of fickle alliances and treacherous terrain have made unaccountable Afghan warlords and the fighters they command a double-edged sword, it was a risk Najibullah felt compelled to take. By the time Soviet financing finally dried up in early 1992, Najibullah had amassed more than 170,000 irregular fighters (not including those whose neutrality he leased), and as he knew they would, his newly poor militias switched sides in droves, signaling the beginning of the end.
President Karzai (and his 2014 successor) will soon face a similar dilemma, though in all likelihood, what surely didn't feel like much of a choice to Najibullah will feel equally constricting to Kabul in the coming years. The numbers and dynamics on the ground speak for themselves.
Assuming Washington is able to secure a Status of Forces Agreement with Kabul, U.S. forces will draw down to an expected 5,000-10,000 advisors and counterterrorism professionals by the end of 2014. In the following three years, Afghan forces (police, military and border security) will collectively contract from 352,000 to 230,000 due to budget constraints and a lack of international donors.
The geopolitical necessity that drove Najibullah to use Soviet money to play militias and mujahideen against each other will lead Afghanistan's next president to do the same.
Currently, Afghan forces have significant difficulty holding territory on their own even when NATO forces secure it for them, to say nothing of their ability to capture new territory independently. Worse still, Afghans are known for abandoning their outposts shortly after U.S. forces leave them in Afghan hands; in one catastrophic 2011 instance, the Afghan army abandoned a fully-stocked, well-fortified, battalion-sized base to the Taliban in Kunar.
Given the terrain and vulnerability to NATO and Afghan forces, it is unsurprising that before his death Osama bin Laden even suggested Kunar and Nuristan as havens for al Qaeda and Taliban fighters seeking refuge from the drones over northwest Pakistan, and many took his advice. Today, nearly all of Kunar and Nuristan have been conceded to the Taliban, and the withdrawal of the final U.S. brigade in the region will surely widen the security vacuum. Elsewhere, even when Afghan forces hold their ground, absent NATO forces goading and supporting them, they rarely leave or venture far from the confines of their bases to engage the Taliban.
In due time, when the contraction of Afghan forces requires an even more acute realignment to protect only the country's most important population centers and infrastructure (government buildings, roads, etc.), there won't even be the semblance of a military presence in the countryside, nor targets to draw Taliban attention from the prized cities and district centers.
After 2014, CIA and U.S. special operations forces will try to compensate for these shortcomings by drastically increasing the number of drone strikes in Afghanistan (which, by December 6, had exceeded 447 in 2012 alone). Predictably, while a counter-terrorism strategy might be sufficient to prevent locally planned attacks against the American homeland, it will not be sufficient to protect Afghans who are sure to suffer an increase in domestic terrorism attacks like those seen throughout Iraq after the U.S. drawdown there.
Unpleasant as it is, the same geopolitical necessity that drove Najibullah to use Soviet money to play militias and mujahideen against each other will lead Afghanistan's next president to do the same with American support. Karzai's successor will not be as ruthless as Najibullah was, yet neither will he be under any illusions; he will not blindly hope for "victory" in the absence of more than 100,000 proficient soldiers and marines when their presence couldn't even bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, much less to its knees. As a result, to keep militants from trying to contest populated areas, he will feel compelled to knowingly instigate conflict in rural areas to keep fighting out of the dozens of small and large cities across the country. The countless anti-Taliban militias, mostly dormant since the U.S. invasion, are sure to rise again, though absent coherent organization and effectiveness. Kabul will seek to harness their efforts in order to keep the various Islamist elements busy in the countryside -- away from the people and institutions that matter most to a threatened regime -- leaving rural Afghans to bear witness to the coming war.
The problem, however, is the resistance such a plan would inevitably face, both by Afghans who remember how Najibullah's militias laid waste to Afghanistan, and to international donors who have become sensitive to the country's history of irregular forces eclipsing conventional ones. As a result, the new militia effort will likely have two defining characteristics: it will be strictly tethered to the concept of self-defense at the local level to promote the impression that every militia is small, independent and lacking grander ambitions; and it will try (but surely fail) to bypass the most well known warlords in its selection of candidates to minimize the threat of nationwide civil war or insurrection.