By Judith Snyderman
Emerging Media, Defense Media Activity
May 26, 2010 - As the Afghan army rapidly approaches a 171,000-troop level this year, the force's top-ranking uniformed leader is tackling growing pains with help from an U.S. Army advisor.
For the past year, Army Col. George T. "Tom" Donovan, a member of NATO's training effort in Afghanistan, has been working closely with Gen. Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, chief of the Afghan army's general staff.
Donovan described Mohammadi as a "charismatic and decisive leader," during a May 21 "DoD Live" bloggers roundtable.
Donovan said he and the Afghan general are working together to improve the army's organization, citing personnel management as one area in need of development. The process for assigning new officers to command billets at brigade and corps levels, for instance, is complicated by a legacy of nepotism, Donovan said.
"Because of the culture in Afghanistan, there are quite a lot of phone calls being made by leading officials on behalf of their relatives or people they know," Donovan explained. That kind of pressure, he said, also applies to promotions, which are complicated by other factors as well. Donovan said a fledgling written evaluation system is not yet reliable and doesn't reflect past achievements.
"Many officers have served in many different armies over the years. They're Mujahidin fighters, they're maybe members of the old communist army or members of the king's army - or members of some faction in between," Donovan said.
Another wrinkle is that the Afghan army is required to maintain proscribed proportions of Pashtuns, Tajiks and other ethnic group members, so promotions must consider the ethnicity of the outgoing officer in assigning a replacement. "Otherwise, if they change the ethnic group, then they have to move the chief of staff or operations officer or something in order to keep the ethnic balance within that command," Donovan explained.
He added that Mohammadi has helped to introduce innovative solutions. During a recent graduation at the national military academy, newly commissioned Afghan army lieutenants drew stations in a lottery. "Ingeniously, they came up with a lottery system that was broken down by ethnic group and region that basically took the ability of anyone to meddle with assignments out," Donovan said.
A priority now, he added, is to clarify roles, responsibilities and authorities within the military organization, including the role of Mohammadi's own office. The chief of the general staff reports to Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak. Donovan said he believes friction that may exist between the two, because Mohammadi is Tajik and Wardak is Pashtun, would be eliminated if their job roles were more clearly defined.
It also is important, Donovan said, to "power down" some authority to add efficiency. "If you wanted to move a sergeant from one squad to another squad within the same platoon," he said, "that requires a piece of paper signed by the minister of defense." Donovan also believes introducing civilians into the defense ministry's work force at lower to middle levels would enable them to gain experience and eventually rise in the organization.
Meanwhile, Donovan said, Mohammadi is focused on solving a frustrating problem related to some Afghan officers who have shown a lack of acceptance for taking responsibility or initiative.
"[He] is addressing that now," Donovan said, adding that Mohammadi is using his vast experience to "teach commanders how to command and leaders how to lead."