Afghanistan’s Leadership Problem

U.S. and Romanian Special Forces train Afghan Provincial Response Company, Laghman Province, Feb. 9, 2012. David Axe photo.

U.S. and Romanian Special Forces train Afghan Provincial Response Company, Laghman Province, Feb. 9, 2012. David Axe photo.


Afghan security forces will take over as U.S.-led international troops gradually withdraw from Afghanistan through 2014. At least that’s the plan. Poor leadership could undermine Afghan efforts to secure their own country. “There’s a gross lack of leadership in Afghanistan,” says “Tom,” a U.S. Army Special Forces officer assigned to train Afghan police in Laghman province, east of Kabul.

Tom spoke on the condition we not print his real name.

It’s not clear why Afghanistan fails to produce good military leaders in the right quantity, although Tom offers some hints. He describes a culture infused with concept of insh’allah, Arabic for “if God wills it.” As long as God is calling the shots, men don’t have to.

Widespread cronyism and corruption, rooted in poor governance, poverty and a strong sense of family and tribal loyalty, can also prevent good leadership candidates from advancing through the ranks. For instance, a governor’s halfwit brother is more likely to attain a leadership position than a genuinely qualified man with no ties to high-ranking officials.

Finally, Afghanistan is dominated by what Tom calls “man-culture” — that is, displays of physical courage and bravado. Leaders are often selected for their physical presence rather than their skills. “There’s no leadership training,” Tom laments.

Tom’s struggles finding a good officer for the Afghan police unit he advises illustrate the leadership quandary. When Tom and his Special Forces teammates took charge of the 100-strong Laghman Provincial Response Company in August, the unit was led by 47-year-old Maj. Mohamed Kazem, a Soviet-trained Afghan officer with close ties to the provincial leadership.

Kazem, whom Tom describes as “a patriot and a good orator,” was popular with his superiors but ineffective on the battlefield. Kazem was the kind of officer who wanted to go home at dinner time, Tom says. But in Afghanistan, the fighting can occur any time. So the provincial police chief arranged to have Kazem promoted out of the unit. That left a leadership void that Tom hoped would be filled with a better candidate.

“You find the guy who’s most influential,” says “B,” Tom’s weapons sergeant. “They’re going to listen to him more than us. Having someone in charge they really respect is the main thing.”

The Special Forces troops kept a close eye on their trainees and detected a leader emerging. A trainee named Wafa had all the qualities of a “natural-born leader, as opposed to a formally-trained one,” Tom says.

Tragedy struck. The Taliban targeted Wafa’s family because of the man’s association with the foreigners. They kidnapped Wafa’s cousin and dragged him before a Taliban “court.” He was beaten then shot 30 times. To protect Wafa’s surviving family, the Special Forces troops helped move them into a new home.

“Having that happen was a turning point,” Tom says of the cousin’s murder. Afterwards, Wafa came into his own as leader. His motivation was personal.

But he still lacked formal training. Most importantly he, like most of his fellow policemen, was illiterate. That limited his educational prospects and made promoting him to a formal leadership position all but impossible.  “How do I deal with rampant illiteracy?” Tom asks. “I don’t know.”

B says the trainees are slowly learning to read and write. “They’re supposed to spend one hour per day in reading and writing class and learning English on their own.” That offers some hope that Wafa will eventually qualify for formal leadership position. Until then, “I can’t really use him,” Tom says.

The inadequacy of existing leaders and the obstacles to growing new ones could complicate the coalition’s efforts to transition Afghanistan to native security forces. “Finding a strong officer makes all the difference in the world,” B says.

This entry was posted in Afghanistan, David Axe, English.

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