ABC The Drum

You don't need a crystal ball to predict problems ahead for the Afghan National Army: poor retention rates mean 60,000 new fighters are needed each year with the problem likely to worsen. Western models are inappropriate in a nation built on tribal culture and multiple ethnicities.

The United States possesses the most powerful military the world has ever seen.

If you want something broken, these are the guys to do it. Anything from a specific car in a distant country through to a medium-sized nation can be destroyed quickly without breaking a sweat.

The problem is that wars are no longer won by breaking things.

The United States military has spent over a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together. 'Victory' is achieved through constructing a reliable and effective security force to take over after the GIs leave.

A base-level of security is necessary for everything else to follow: basic infrastructure, law enforcement, the upholding of human rights and making education accessible.

This is the problem the United States now faces in Afghanistan.

Over the past year, there has been some progress made in rebuilding the Afghan National Army (ANA). In June 2012, it finally reached its target size of slightly less than 200,000 soldiers. This milestone was achieved with great fanfare.

However, it hides the fact that the ANA is still completely reliant on international support for even basic logistics, intelligence, vehicle maintenance and artillery, air and armour support. The ANA now has warm bodies, but little else.

After 11 years and tens of billions of dollars, only one Afghan brigade from 23 is capable of operating independently.

One of the biggest problems now facing the ANA is keeping the soldiers it has recruited. Desertion is a major problem. Desertion runs at about 10 per cent per year. Failure to re-enlist runs at about 20 per cent per year.

In other words, as many as 60,000 additional soldiers need to be recruited each year just to maintain current levels.

Across 2013 and 2014, as the ANA is asked to do more of the fighting — and potentially the dying — this poor retention rate is only likely to worsen.

Unless something is done, once the international forces withdraw, the Taliban might not have to wait long before the ANA simply dissolves on its own.

What has been the problem in Afghanistan? Put simply, the international community has tried to put a square peg through a round hole.

Afghanistan is not a functioning modern nation state. The nation does not exist in any Western sense, so the Afghan 'National' Army was always going to be a problematic model.

Even in Western countries, national armies are a relatively recent development. Humans have always fought other humans as part of groups. However, from primitive tribes, through to medieval times, right through the dawn of the 20th century these groups have generally been based around a pre-existing communal group.

The soldiers storming across the battlefield behind William Wallace would have had their brothers, fathers, uncles and next-door neighbours directly in front, to the side and behind them. The same was largely true right through the 19th Century.

Group cohesion was ready-made through pre-existing communal ties. Thus, in most cases, desertion would have meant abandoning kin and would have been unthinkable.

The First World War changed modern armies. This was due to two developments.

First, nationalism had matured to a point where individuals would respond to a nation's call to arms. Individuals had begun to identify with their country above and beyond their immediate community.

Second, technology reached a destructive tipping point, where mass causalities could be inflicted quickly. An artillery shell could land on one stretch of trench killing all the sons from one town, while the neighbouring town's soldiers all returned safely.

This was not a recipe for social cohesion on the home front. As such, during the First World War, western militaries began to permanently move away from communal-based recruitment and embraced whole-heartedly the 'mixed' national model.

Besides one or two isolated cases, like the Roman Army and Revolutionary French Army, a national model is a relatively recent development in human war fighting and should not be thought of as natural or even 'best practice'.

Clearly, nationalism is not a strong enough motivation in countries like Afghanistan to hold an army together. New recruits are more likely to see more differences than similarities when they first come into contact with their new comrades.

Secondly, the war in Afghanistan is not the Western Front of 1916. The technology and hit-and-run tactics that the Taliban insurgency uses have more in common with pre-First World War colonial warfare than the conventional battlefields that have scarred Europe in the 20th century.

The solution of structuring the ANA along ethnic and clan lines is also one drenched in risk.

If Kabul was to lose control, ethnic-based warlords would have ready-made armies at their disposal.

I submit to you that the solution lies in getting the balance right.

The principal group (30 to 100 soldiers) should be communally recruited. Communal ties will help glue these units together.

However, these principle groups should be structured within larger formations of mixed origin. So, a unit of 300 soldiers would still contain a mix of Uzbeks, Pushtos and Tajik soldiers. But, these soldiers would sleep, train and fight side-by-side kin.

It would then also be difficult to break these units up into ethnic-based armies, as coordination between 'like units' would be firewalled.

It is time to start doing things differently in Afghanistan.

If we are going to help to stitch the ANA back together, we have to apply socially-appropriate models and not simply assume that our way is the best way.

This article was originally published by ABC The Drum