Sometimes you have to wonder if irony, like satire, can actually survive another decade like the one now coming to an end. Last week, the chief of NATO asked the Russians to contribute helicopters as its part of the escalation to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. The image of Russian helicopters used in another fight against Afghan rebels has got to be one of the major propaganda coups of our time. A fitting end to the Zero Decade.
If Moscow says yes, the choppers will become part of the expanding effort that we have been told will stabilize that nebulous entity called Afghanistan, weaken the Taliban, shatter al-Qaeda, and turn over control for national security to the Afghan National Army and national police. There’s just one problem. Building an Afghan army and national police force has been tried before. And it’s never, ever worked.
Starting in the 18th Century, the British tried it four times. Declan Walsh reported a couple of years ago:
Each has failed, frustrated by war, invasions or the stubborn ways of conservative tribesmen. Now the west is making the fifth try, and the task is no less urgent, or complicated, than in the past.
The British say their most pressing problem is absenteeism. Afghan men value family life and find barracks life strange. Many overstay their leave by weeks, facing no punishment on their return, or never come back. The Helmand battalion is 30% under strength as a result. "We end up sitting here with bated breath hoping they will turn up," said Capt Noel Claydon-Swales.
But the historical omens are ominous. It took most European countries between 50 and 100 years to form their national armies, said [the highly respected Afghan scholar] Dr [Antonio] Giustozzi. The Soviet Union tried to fast-track the process in Afghanistan in the 1980s, but failed. "You can keep pumping in money but in the long term it is not sustainable," he said.
But surely the situation has changed in two-and-a-half years? The details, yes. But the prognosis? Hardly. Many of the soldiers who have been trained and haven’t deserted or defected are poorly motivated, poorly trained, sympathetic to the Taliban, unreliable in combat, AWOL much of the time, and often brutal, intimidating and criminal in their dealings with the local population.
Antonio Giustozzi’s latest assessment appears at the Royal United Services Institute (subscription only), and is titled The Afghan National Army: Unwarranted Hope? He could just as well have left off the question mark.
The latest effort to train the Afghan Army began more than seven years ago and was announced to reporters by Gen. Tommy Franks, then commander of U.S. Central Command, "I am pleased that our forces have begun training the Afghan National Army."
That was then, and this is now. Nobody needs to be reminded of how the Cheney-Bush administration dropped the ball in Afghanistan and went on into Iraq, which, for years before September 11 "changed everything," was the real first target of the neoconservatives’ Project for a New American Century.
For the moment, focus on the practicality of the mission and forget about whether current U.S. Afghan policy is a righteous project, an unfortunate but necessary evil or just another round in the saga of American empire dating back to the first pronouncement of Manifest Destiny. Because even the most avid foe of the escalation – I count myself on that side – knows in her heart (and experience with Iraq) that not enough opposition will be built in the streets or, ha-ha, in Congress to soon stop the flow of troops to Afghanistan that began last March and will run at least until next November, according to the generals. That being so, the essential question about the policy is: Will it work? Can the Afghan National Army (and national police force) be enlarged and improved enough to take care of the nation’s security on its own in, say, the four or five years that President Hamid Karzai says is needed?
Ample evidence speaks loudly against it.
There’s no need to scour left-wing or other objectionist Web sites to come to this conclusion. For starters, one can read the 66-page unclassified version of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategic assessment of the situation.
Let me interject another caveat. Afghans can fight. The British, the Soviets and others throughout history have learned this the hard way. Cowardice is not the problem. As ranger995, someone who was embedded with Afghan troops, has pointed out, there are Afghans in the ANA, especially younger ones, who have plenty of courage, will and integrity to fight. The problem is, there aren’t enough. And there won’t be enough in the fuzzy time-frame that has been set out for beginning to turn security over to them. That’s the case even though the 4000 U.S. trainers now in Afghanistan will soon be joined by an estimated 4000 more, plus 150 new NATO training teams. The Pentagon has not released any information about whether those 4000 trainers have the special skills needed to do their job effectively.
Here’s one reason why, as noted a couple of months ago by Martin Fletcher: Rushed training 'risks turning Afghan troops into cannon fodder':
Recruits to the Afghan Army are being rushed into combat with a barely acceptable level of training, according to senior British officers closely involved in the programme. ...
"We are close to the wire in the balancing act between quality and quantity," Brigadier Simon Levey, the chief coalition adviser to the Afghan Army’s training command, conceded. The present standard of training was "acceptable, but we must not fall below it".
Lieutenant-Colonel Nick Ilic, the head of the British team that is training Afghan officers and non-commissioned officers, told The Times: "We are walking a tightrope and we could easily fall off."
Another official, who declined to be named, said: "You could argue that the recruits are being made cannon fodder. Every time we lower the bar it’s the minimum we can get away with until someone says we need to lower it more to speed things up."
Speed-up is in the works again as the United States seeks to get 134,000 Afghans into the ANA by next fall. An ambitious goal given what’s happening every day.
A month ago, AFP reported:
[T]he picture painted by NATO commanders shows that, while international troops suffer increasing casualties, training too is an uphill battle in this country wracked by more than 30 years of war.
Out of the some 94,000 Afghan soldiers trained so far, 10,000 have defected, General Egon Ramms, commander of the operational headquarters in charge of the NATO-led International Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF), told reporters this week.
He also estimated that 15 per cent of the armed forces are drug addicts.
If the reporter didn’t mistake "deserted" for "defected," that means Western forces are giving large numbers of the enemy better fighting skills.
If Gen Ramms really meant "deserted," he’s low-balled the actual number. From September 2008 to September 2009, the Pentagon and the Inspector General for Reconstruction in Afghanistan put the desertion rate at about one in four. More Afghans were recruited than ever before, 35,000. Digging deeper into the numbers, however, as Gareth Porter has done, puts the number of keepers at 19,000.
The old 70 square-mile Soviet base that now serves as the Kabul Military Training Center eight miles from the downtown of the capital has put tens of thousands of Afghans through its 10-week training program. But how many of these actually serve on active-duty is unanswerable.
So when stories like this appear in The New York Times saying that vast new numbers of Afghans are signing up, readers can hardly be blamed for remaining skeptical at the outcome of this enlistment surge. As Chris Hedges has pointed out, instead of body counts of enemy dead the way "progress" was often measured in Vietnam, the "good news" now is the allegedly swelling numbers of ANA soldiers.
Tossing aside for the moment the numbers, there is also the quality of both the trainees and the trainers. It’s not American troops’ fault. They haven’t been prepared for their task. And there is no evidence that the new trainers soon to be on the way to Afghanistan will have any more background in how to train than those troops already on the ground. As Hedges writes:
Afghan soldiers are sent from the Kabul Military Training Center directly to active-duty ANA units. The units always have American trainers, know as a "mentoring team," attached to them. The rapid increase in ANA soldiers has outstripped the ability of the American military to provide trained mentoring teams. The teams, normally comprised of members of the Army Special Forces, are now formed by plucking American soldiers, more or less at random, from units all over Afghanistan.
"This is how my entire team was selected during the middle of my tour: a random group of people from all over Kabul—Air Force, Navy, Army, active-duty and National Guard—pulled from their previous assignments, thrown together and expected to do a job that none of us were trained in any meaningful way to do," the officer said.
"We are expected, by virtue of time-in-grade and membership in the U.S. military, to be able to train a foreign force in military operations, an extremely irresponsible policy that is ethnocentric at its core and which assumes some sort of natural superiority in which an untrained American soldier has everything to teach the Afghans, but nothing to learn."
"You’re lucky enough if you had any mentorship training at all, something the Army provides in a limited capacity at pre-mobilization training at Fort Riley, but having none is the norm," he said. "Soldiers who receive their pre-mobilization training at Fort Bragg learn absolutely nothing about mentoring foreign forces aside from being given a booklet on the subject, and yet soldiers who go through Bragg before being shipped to Afghanistan are just as likely to be assigned to mentoring teams as anyone else."
While there is a relative handful of men like ranger995 directly involved with training soldiers in the field, most, as Brian Coughley noted in September, are far from that level of skill:
In Afghanistan the training course is ten weeks, and 90 percent of recruits are illiterate and language-incompatible with their peers, let alone the foreigners. Afghan instructors are keen but barely effective and the logistics system is a tattered joke. Some foreign instructors may be good, but most are depressingly ignorant of language, culture and customs.
It’s hard to know whether the drug problem Gen. Ramms spoke of is truly addiction or just the widespread smoking of hashish among Afghans. Recreational drug use is one thing when you’re sitting at home or around the campfire. It’s something else when you’re expected to be on patrol against people armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. This was made amply clear more than a year ago in this widely seen video:
Then there’s the problem of trying to create a national army out of a mix of ethnicities. Porter writes:
The latest report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, issued Oct. 30, shows that Tajiks, which represent 25 percent of the population, now account for 41 percent of all ANA troops who have been trained, and that only 30 percent of the ANA trainees are now Pashtuns.
The new figures are less promising than older ones that had suggested that Pashtuns were 40% of troops (about their proportion in the population). Now it seems they are just a third of the troops. To have a Tajik army patrolling and searching Pashtuns could be a bad scene. So too would be a Pashtun denial of the legitimacy of the Afghan National Army.
And this is all before there's any discussion about warlords, opium-funded Taliban, the anger of the populace toward foreign occupation (whoever the occupier is), and the deeply corrupt Karzai regime that even the most pollyanna assessment of Afghanistan's future cannot be sanguine about.
In the Pentagon and other parts of the Obama administration can be found plenty of people who recognize all these problems. Still, magical thinking has not disappeared. The idea that the United States can somehow overcome all these obstacles and do it on a rapid timetable - obstacles that were there for the British in the 1880s and the Soviets in the 1980s - is just another sad foray into the myth of American exceptionalism.
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