In the Arena

Another Afghan Problem

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I’ve been wondering if the U.S. military’s projections about the training of Afghan security forces haven’t been a bit rosy, and the New York Times today raises many of the same questions. I’ve heard conflicting reports on the Afghan National Army in recent months: On the plus side, they are said to fight well. On the minus side, 20-25% desert each year–and worse, a disproportionate number of them come from regions where the fighting isn’t taking place. I’m told that most of the ANA troops in Helmand province are Dari speakers who need Pashtun interpreters to communicate with the locals.

Senator Joe Lieberman proposed a 250,000 person Afghan army last year and everyone said: great idea. But, according to the Times, we’re stuck at 90,000 and backsliding, and the chances of building a larger, professional force, in a country where only 20% of the population is literate, seem dim at best. The situation with the fabulously corrupt Afghan police is even worse.

I am a big supporter of counterinsurgency strategy: it is the most humane way to operate in these sorts difficult environments against an indigenous enemy. But it can’t work if you don’t have (a) a reliable local government and (b) plausible local security forces who can take over operations when you leave–otherwise, it falls apart, as David Petraeus learned in Mosul during the first year of the Iraq war. So, as you read the stories about the progress of counterinsurgency  operations in Afghanistan, here’s a hint: See if the local Afghan forces and government are ever mentioned. If the story only talks about the wonderful things Americans are doing to improve life for the locals, be wary. Our troops have become excellent at building security and civil society in Afghan communities, but if the Afghans aren’t able to sustain the institutions we initiate, we’re building sand castles.