A US Army soldier discusses operational and quality of life issues with an Afghan National Army soldier.
This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
Recent weeks have brought yet another sad chance to watch badly laid plans in Afghanistan go haywire. In three separate incidents, allies, most from the Afghan National Army (ANA), allegedly murdered six Americans—two of them officers in the high-security sanctum of Kabul's Interior Ministry. Marine General John R. Allen, commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, even briefly withdrew NATO advisors and trainers from all government ministries for their own protection.
Until that moment, the Afghan National Army was the crown jewel of the Obama administration's strategy for drawing down forces in Afghanistan (without really leaving). Trained in their hundreds of thousands over the past 11 years by a horde of dodgy private security contractors, as well as US and NATO troops, the Afghan National Army is supposed to replace coalition forces any day now and defend its own country.
This policy has been the apex of Washington's Plan A for some time now. There is no Plan B.
But what to make of the murders in the Ministry? An AP article headlined "Acts of Afghan Betrayal Are Poisoning US War Plan" detected "a trend of Afghan treachery." This "poisoning" is, however, nothing new. Military lingo has already long defined assaults on American and NATO soldiers by members of the Afghan National Security Force (a combination of the ANA and the Afghan National Police) as "green on blue incidents." Since the military started recording them in May 2007, 76 NATO soldiers have been killed and an undisclosed number wounded in 46 recorded "deliberate attacks."
These figures suggest more than a recent "trend of Afghan treachery" (though Afghans are increasingly blamed for everything that goes wrong in their country). Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who perversely called the latest green on blue incidents signs of Taliban "weakness," told the press: "I've made clear and I will continue to make clear that, regardless of what the enemy tries to do to us, we are not going to alter our strategy in Afghanistan."
This is, of course, the definition of paralysis in Afghanistan, so much easier in the short term than reexamining Plan A. In other words, as the American exercise in Afghanistan rolls ever closer to the full belly-up position, Plan A remains rigidly in place, and signals that, from Secretary Panetta and General Allen on down, Americans still don't seem to get what's going on.
Beware an Afghan Army
Many people who know Afghanistan well, however, have warned from the beginning against this plan to train up an armed force. I'm among the naysayers, and I'll tell you why.
First, consider what the plan proposes. The number of Afghan soldiers and police to be trained varies widely from one report to the next, but the last estimate I received directly from the Kabul Military Training Center called for 240,000 soldiers and 160,000 police (who, incidentally, are also called "soldiers" and trained in a similar manner). That brings the total proposed Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) to approximately four times the number of current coalition troops in the country.
It costs the US $12 billion annually to train the army alone and the estimated cost of maintaining it beyond 2014 is $4 billion per year, of which the Afghan government says it can pay no more than 12 percent. Clearly, Afghanistan does not need and cannot sustain such a security force. Instead, the United States will be stuck with the bill, hoping for help from NATO allies—until the force falls apart. How then did this security force become the centerpiece of the Obama plan? And given its obvious absurdity, why is it written in stone?
Second, take just a moment to do something Washington has long been adverse to—review a little basic Afghan history as it applies to Plan A. Start with the simplest of all facts: in the country's modern history, no Afghan national army has ever saved a government, or even tried. More often, such an army has either sat on its hands during a coup d'état or actually helped to overthrow the incumbent ruler.
Go back nearly a century to the reign of King Amanullah (1919-1929), a modernizing ruler who wrote a constitution, established a national assembly, founded girls' schools, taxed polygamous husbands, and banned conservative mullahs from the country because they might be "bad and evil persons" spreading treacherous foreign propaganda. In 1928, he returned to Afghanistan with his Queen Suraya, who wore European dresses and no veil, from a round of visits to European rulers, bringing guns for his army (though his soldiers would be billed for them) and announced a new agenda of revolutionary reforms. He got a revolution instead, and here's the important point: his newly weaponized army lifted not a finger to save him.
Amanullah's successor, an ex-bandit known as Bacha-i Saqqa, lasted only eight months in office before his successor, Nadir Shah, had him hanged, again without intervention from the Afghan army. Nadir Shah in turn reigned from 1929 to 1933, and although he, like Barack Obama, tried to build up the national army, that force of 40,000 men couldn't help him when he was assassinated by a schoolboy at a high school graduation ceremony.
From 1933 to 1973, Nadir Shah's son, Zahir Shah, presided over gradual social progress. He introduced a new constitution, free elections, a parliament, civil rights, women's rights, and universal suffrage. During his long peaceful reign, his professional spit-and-polish army served him very well on ceremonial occasions. (This is the same popular king who, after the Taliban fell, offered to return and reunite the country; Bush turned him down.)
In 1973, when Zahir Shah went to Italy for medical care, his cousin Daoud Khan—a general, former Commander of the Central Forces, and Minister of Defense—abolished the monarchy and assumed power with the aid of young communists in a bloodless coup. The army was in his pocket, but five years later, in 1978, it fell apart and fought on both sides as the communists overthrew and murdered Daoud. The fractured army could not prevent the Soviet invasion, nor safeguard any of the presidents in power before they came or after they left.
It's worth remembering, too, that every one of these shifts in power was followed by a purge of political enemies that sent thousands of Afghans loyal to the jettisoned ruler to prison, death, or another country in the prolonged exodus that has made the Afghan diaspora the largest in the world drawn from a single country. That diaspora continues today—30,000 Afghans fled last year and applied for asylum elsewhere—and the next purge hasn't even gotten underway yet.
In short, Afghan history is a sobering antidote to the relentless optimism of the American military. Modern Afghan history indicates that no Afghan National Army of any size or set of skills has ever warded off a single foreign enemy or done a lick of good for any Afghan ruler.
As for those Afghan guys who whipped the British three times and the Soviet's Red Army, they were mostly freelancers, attached to the improvised militias of assorted warlords, fighting voluntarily against invaders who had occupied their country. The Taliban, like the mujahidin of the anti-Soviet struggle before them, seem to fight quite successfully without any significant training, armor, or heavy equipment to speak of, except what some Taliban snatch by signing up from time to time for basic training with the ANA (or buy from ANA soldiers).