KABUL — As the 2014 draw-down of international combat troops in Afghanistan nears, a lot of attention has been focused on whether the Afghan army can secure the nation from extremist militant groups, such as the Taliban. But former government and military officials say ethnic divisions and political factions could be as big a threat to peace in the country.
The Afghan army is now some 184,000 strong. The police force numbers 146,000.
Relying on just the personnel count gives the impression that Afghan security forces are nearing the targets for being able to defend the country from extremist threats.
But former military and government officials are warning that the Taliban and terrorists are not the only threats Afghanistan will face in 2014. They say some ethnic warlords are starting to re-arm themselves for what could turn into an ugly fight for territory and influence.
These ethnic divisions, which analysts say exist in the government, the army and even provinces controlled by warlords, could prove disastrous.
"The fear is that after 2014 that the army will disband again, because there are different factions," noted Shir Khosti, the former governor of Ghazni province, "as most of these generals in the army are from the north, and now my understanding is that they are shifting heavy weapons to the north as well, and that is going to create a lot of problems in the future. [We] need to pay heed to these issues now, before it escalates to a level we cannot contain any more."
The Taliban are present in most of Afghanistan, but are most resilient among their ethnic Pashtun base in the south. In the north, commanders of the former Northern Alliance, comprising ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara, hold sway.
The head of Kabul's Military Training Center, Brig. Gen. Aminullah Patyani, says army recruits are a mix of all ethnic groups.
He says, Pashtun, Tajiks, Uzbek, Hazara, Pashaei, Noorestani, Baluch -- all the nationalities that make up the nation of Afghanistan, can come here, that is how we are training here.
After Soviet Union forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the country entered a brutal civil war, fought along largely ethnic lines.
But analysts say the situation in 2014 will not be the same. They point to more civic institutions and expectations that the American military will maintain a presence of some 10,000 personnel in the country. But also they caution that much will depend on how well the army sticks together to face the challenges ahead.
Khosti warns Pashtuns are underrepresented in the Afghan military, and army commanders tend to come from the north.
Political analyst Khalid Mafton adds that many in Afghanistan's security forces, as well as in the ministries of defense and interior, have been appointed based on their affiliations with particular political and ethnic groups, making them vulnerable to ethnic conflict once international troops leave.
Mafton said he is expecting the worst.
"If the United States leaves the country, this army, because of the reasons I mentioned, will definitely collapse, maybe not within days or weeks, maybe with in a month, maximum, ok, so who will be replacing them? The Taliban," he said.
Asked if he thought different groups in the country were beginning to stockpile weapons for possible conflict, Mafton's affirmation was an unequivocal "Yes."
After three decades of war, and a thriving black market thanks to opium sales, analysts say there are more than enough weapons in the country to go around.