Afghans, Report for Duty

The security situation in Afghanistan is bad at the moment, as NATO-led forces face a growing Taliban resurgence. There are 40,000 foreign troops there now (including 14,000 from the United States), but that is not enough to maintain control of villages all over the country. The Afghan Army is slowly growing, in both size and competence, but it is still too small to protect a frightened, war-weary population.

To better the situation, the United States has recently made it a priority to improve the training of local policemen in Afghanistan, district by district. Corruption has been an enormous problem among police departments, which are often controlled by local warlords and militias. So we are working to train both rank and file policemen and their commanders. But even if this strategy is successful, it will take years, and we may not have that much time. It makes no allowance for complicating events — a collapse of security in Pakistan, for example.

We are creating more battalions for the Afghan Army as fast as possible. But it takes time to train senior officers and staff. Time is also needed to build the mobility and technological sophistication required to compensate for the Afghan Army’s small size.

A better strategy would be to institute a draft in Afghanistan. A draft would make it possible to gather a much larger military force, and far more quickly, around the core professional force already in place.

President Hamid Karzai and the Afghan Parliament are likely to embrace a draft as a national response to the present threat from the Taliban. Afghanistan has a long tradition of having a draft. It’s true there would be obstacles: the old draft registers no longer exist, and it would not be acceptable today to exempt certain tribes, as once was done. Also, the Afghan government would need to find a way to pay the new force. (Historically, Afghan draftees were paid almost nothing; they served as a duty.) But Afghans can find solutions to these problems.

History suggests it would be possible to organize the new, large force quickly. During the Korean War in the 1950s, the United States helped build a 700,000-man army in a nation with a population only about two-thirds that of Afghanistan. In the Greek civil war in the 1940s, we helped build a Greek security force of 182,000 soldiers in two years. These armies were not as sophisticated as today’s forces, and they did not require new body armor, high-tech communications equipment and armored Humvees. But they were sufficient to overcome threats greater than those Afghanistan now faces.

An enlarged army would strengthen Afghanistan’s central government, thereby diminishing the power of the often corrupt local police departments. The Afghan Army has a good officer corps respected by the Afghan people.

The insurgency is already being fought mostly by small army units. Rather than build new battalions, we could simply add more platoons and companies. This would reduce the need to train additional senior officers and it would make it possible to promote the good officers we have already identified.

Once the draft began, foreign trainers would still be needed. So it would be important to challenge our NATO partners to play a larger role in training the new troops. But the numbers of trainers needed would actually be smaller than the number of foreigns battalions we currently need — but do not have — from NATO.

The United States should lead the way in providing additional trainers. We will have the forces we need for this as the surge in Iraq ends. In setting the example, we may well inspire the NATO nations to see how adding trainers now could enable them to reduce their forces later.

If we, along with NATO and other participating nations like Australia and New Zealand, begin helping the Afghans plan now, it may be possible to start training new draftees by late 2009, almost two years from now. The timing is not ideal since the extra forces are needed right away, but this is the fastest possible way of solving the security problem in Afghanistan.

Ronald E. Neumann, the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. He was the American ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to April 2007.