The Fiction at the Heart of Obama’s Afghan Surge


My latest in the National on Obama’s planned Afghan surge begins thus:

"As he prepares his Tuesday speech to present Americans with his plan to increase troops in Afghanistan, the US president Barack Obama could be forgiven for feeling like the economist in the old joke that finds him marooned on a desert island along with an engineer, a chemist and hundreds of cans of food but no way of opening them. The engineer gets to work trying to fashion tools for the job; the chemist tries combinations of salt water and sun to get the tins to rust. Having had no luck, they ask the economist to lend the insights of his profession. His answer: ‘Assume a can opener…’

"The ‘can opener’ in the assumptions of the Afghanistan exit strategy that Mr Obama will propose is the Afghan security forces. The president faces the unenviable task of trying to bridge the competing demands of a military commander on the ground who has warned that 40,000 new troops are needed simply to halt the Taliban’s momentum, and of a Congress controlled by his party but increasingly sceptical of the strategic purpose and economic viability of continuing a ground war in Afghanistan.

"At the same time, he has to answer the question so acutely posed recently by the defence secretary, Robert Gates: ‘How do we signal resolve and at the same time signal to the Afghans and the American people that this is not open-ended?’ (The Afghans and their neighbours expect that, sooner or later, the Americans will go — which is why the Taliban profits from the hedged bets of so many key players on and around the battlefield).

"Mr Obama’s answer: sending more troops to Afghanistan is, in fact, an exit strategy, because those troops will slow the Taliban’s advances, providing time to train Afghan forces to take over the fight, allowing the Americans to leave. That argument allows Mr Obama to send reinforcements and at the same time answer domestic demands for an end to a war that America can no longer afford. (Last week, Democrats in both chambers tried to underscore that point by introducing legislation to impose new taxes on Americans to finance the war).

"The problem, of course, is that Mr Obama’s Afghan security forces may be about as hypothetical as the proverbial economist’s can opener."

Currently, some 94,000 Afghan National Army (ANA) troops have been trained by the U.S., and Gen. Stan McChrystal wants to bring that number up to 134,000 by next October, and eventually to 240,000. Leaving aside the fact that McChrystal is envisaging an army on a scale that the Afghan state could never afford to maintain, there’s plenty of evidence that the "Afghanization" strategy which will form the centerpiece of Obama’s rationale for escalation is just as fictitious as the "Vietnamization" strategy of four decades ago.

In a blunt assessment of official statistics, Gareth Porter points out that one in four combat soldiers of the ANA have left the force in the past year. Of the 94,000 already trained, only 39,000 are deemed combat ready, and of those, a lot fewer are ready to stand and fight against the Taliban. Ann Jones offers some lively insights into men joining up for the pay and weapon they get from ten weeks training, then going home to their villages — although sometimes they return for another bout of salaried training, under a different name:

"Although in Washington they may talk about the 90,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army, no one has reported actually seeing such an army anywhere in Afghanistan. When 4,000 U.S. Marines were sent into Helmand Province in July to take on the Taliban in what is considered one of its strongholds, accompanying them were only about 600 Afghan security forces, some of whom were police. Why, you might ask, didn’t the ANA, 90,000 strong after eight years of training and mentoring, handle Helmand on its own? No explanation has been offered. American and NATO officers often complain that Afghan army units are simply not ready to ‘operate independently,’ but no one ever speaks to the simple question: Where are they?

"My educated guess is that such an army simply does not exist. It may well be true that Afghan men have gone through some version of ‘Basic Warrior Training’ 90,000 times or more. When I was teaching in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006, I knew men who repeatedly went through ANA training to get the promised Kalashnikov and the pay. Then they went home for a while and often returned some weeks later to enlist again under a different name.

"In a country where 40% of men are unemployed, joining the ANA for 10 weeks is the best game in town. It relieves the poverty of many families every time the man of the family goes back to basic training, but it’s a needlessly complicated way to unintentionally deliver such minimal humanitarian aid. Some of these circulating soldiers are aging former mujahidin — the Islamist fundamentalists the U.S. once paid to fight the Soviets — and many are undoubtedly Taliban."

The idea that there are 240,000 Afghans out there with the hearts and souls of Prussian military cadets, who simply need U.S. training in order to turn into the politically neutral professional military who will put their lives on the line for the Karzai state and its infidel patrons is, to put it mildly, somewhat fanciful.

Don’t take my word for it, check out this video made by a Guardian crew of an Afghan military unit being mentored by Marines.

To the extent that the ANA can yield professional fighting forces, most of them are ethnic Tajiks. Indeed, much of the ANA’s leadership is Tajik, and fought under the rubric of the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. And as Gareth Porter points out, they see the Pashtun population as supporting the Taliban — and are viewed with suspicion and hostility by the Pashtuns. Porter argues that building up the ANA on the basis of the present political battle lines is a recipe for a rerun of the intra-mujahedeen ethnic civil war that followed the collapse of the Soviet backed regime in 1992.

The idea that there is a professional military willing to fight the Taliban on behalf of the new state at any time in the foreseeable future is wishful thinking, yet it’s the centerpiece of Obama’s new strategy.

Related myths abound: My favorite is the idea that Pakistan is only coddling the Afghan Taliban because it fears that the U.S. is going to once again abandon Afghanistan, and that therefore, if America signals "resolve", the generals in Rawalpindi will go to war against the Afghan Taliban. That, too, derives from an inability of the U.S. leadership to see itself as those in the region see it: Pakistan’s leadership sees the American presence as the problem, not the solution. The generals who run Pakistan want the U.S. to leave, although not precipitously, because that’s the key, in their minds, to tamping down their own domestic Taliban insurgency. Even if they did want the Americans to stay, moreover, the Pakistani leadership understands all too well that no foreign army is going to stay in Afghanistan forever. America’s long-term economic slide makes expeditionary wars an increasingly untenable burden.

Pakistan will continue to nurture the Afghan Taliban precisely because it remains their preferred option for exerting long-term influence in Afghanistan. That much should have been abundantly clear to all but the most deluded in Washington by now.

Instead, it looks like we’re going to be fed a pile of myths about the Afghans taking responsibility yada yada yada. Nothing like this is going to happen. What’s Obama going to be saying a year from now?

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