Clueless in Afghanistan—and Washington
This piece was originally published at TomDispatch.
Have you ever thought about just how strange this country's version of "normal" truly is? Let me make my point with a single, hardly noticed Washington Post news story that's been on my mind for a while. It represents the sort of reporting that, in our world, zips by with next to no reaction, despite the true weirdness buried in it.
The piece by Craig Whitlock appeared on June 19 and was headlined, "US military criticized for purchase of Russian copters for Afghan air corps." Maybe that's strange enough for you right there. Russian copters? Of course, we all know, at least vaguely, that by year's end US spending on its protracted Afghan war and nation-building project will be heading for $350 billion dollars. And, of course, those dollars do have to go somewhere.
Admittedly, these days in parts of the United States, state and city governments are having a hard time finding the money just to pay teachers or the police. The Pentagon, on the other hand, hasn't hesitated to use at least $25-27 billion to "train" and "mentor" the Afghan military and police—and after each round of training failed to produce the expected results, to ask for even more money, and train them again. That includes the Afghan National Army Air Corps which, in the Soviet era of the 1980s, had nearly 500 aircraft and a raft of trained pilots. The last of that air force—little used in the Taliban era—was destroyed in the US air assault and invasion of 2001. As a result, the "Afghan air force" (with about 50 helicopters and transport planes) is now something of a misnomer, since it is, in fact, the US Air Force.
Still, there are a few Afghan pilots, mostly in their forties, trained long ago on Russian Mi-17 transport helicopters, and it's on a refurbished version of these copters, Whitlock tells us, that the Pentagon has already spent $648 million. The Mi-17 was specially built for Afghanistan's difficult flying environment back when various Islamic jihadists, some of whom we're now fighting under the rubric of "the Taliban," were allied with us against the Russians.
Here's the first paragraph of Whitlock's article: "The US government is snapping up Russian-made helicopters to form the core of Afghanistan's fledgling air force, a strategy that is drawing flak from members of Congress who want to force the Afghans to fly American choppers instead."
So, various Congressional representatives are upset over the lack of a buy-American plan when it comes to the Afghan air force. That's the story Whitlock sets out to tell, because the Pentagon has been planning to purchase dozens more of the Mi-17s over the next decade, and that, it seems, is what's worth being upset about when perfectly good American arms manufacturers aren't getting the contracts.
But let's consider three aspects of Whitlock's article that no one is likely to spend an extra moment on, even if they do capture the surpassing strangeness of the American way of war in distant lands—and in Washington.
1. The Little Training Program That Couldn't: There are at present an impressive 450 US personnel in Afghanistan training the Afghan air force. Unfortunately, there's a problem. There may be no "buy American" program for that air force, but there is a "speak American" one. To be an Afghan air force pilot, you must know English—"the official language of the cockpit," Whitlock assures us (even if to fly Russian helicopters). As he points out, however, the trainees, mostly illiterate, take two to five years simply to learn the language. (Imagine a US Air Force in which, just to take off, every pilot needed to know Dari!)
Thanks to this language barrier, the United States can train endlessly and next to nothing is guaranteed to happen. "So far," reports Whitlock, "only one Afghan pilot has graduated from flight school in the United States, although dozens are in the pipeline. That has forced the air corps to rely on pilots who learned to fly Mi-17s during the days of Soviet and Taliban rule." In other words, despite the impressive Soviet performance in the 1980s, the training of the Afghan Air Force has been re-imagined by Americans as a Sisyphean undertaking.
And this offers but a hint of how bizarre US training programs for the Afghan military and police have proven to be. In fact, sometimes it seems as if exactly the same scathing report, detailing the same training problems and setbacks, has been recycled yearly without anyone who mattered finding it particularly odd—or being surprised that the response to each successive piece of bad news is to decide to pour yet more money and trainers into the project.
For example, in 2005, at a time when Washington had already spent $3.3 billion training and mentoring the Afghan army and police, the US Government Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report indicating that "efforts to fully equip the increasing number of [Afghan] combat troops have fallen behind, and efforts to establish sustaining institutions, such as a logistics command, needed to support these troops have not kept pace." Worse yet, the report fretted, it might take "up to $7.2 billion to complete [the training project] and about $600 million annually to sustain [it]."
In 2006, according to the New York Times, "a joint report by the Pentagon and the State Department…found that the American-trained police force in Afghanistan is largely incapable of carrying out routine law enforcement work, and that managers of the $1.1 billion training program cannot say how many officers are actually on duty or where thousands of trucks and other equipment issued to police units have gone." At best, stated the report, fewer than half of the officially announced number of police were "trained and equipped to carry out their police functions."
In 2008, by which time $16.5 billion had been spent on Army and police training programs, the GAO chimed in again, indicating that only two of 105 army units were "assessed as being fully capable of conducting their primary mission," while "no police unit is fully capable." In 2009, the US special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction reported that "only 24 of 559 Afghan police units are considered ready to operate without international help." Such reports, as well as repeated (and repetitive) news investigations and stories on the subject, invariably are accompanied by a litany of complaints about corruption, indiscipline, illiteracy, drug taking, staggering desertion rates, Taliban infiltration, ghost soldiers and a host of other problems. In 2009, however, the solution remained as expectable as the problems: "The report called for more US trainers and more money."
This June, a US government audit, again from the special inspector general, contradicted the latest upbeat American and NATO training assessments, reporting that "the standards used to appraise the Afghan forces since 2005 were woefully inadequate, inflating their abilities." The usual litany of training woes followed. Yet, according to Reuters, President Obama wants another $14.2 billion for the training project "for this year and next." And just last week, the Wall Street Journal's Julian Barnes reported that new Afghan war commander General David Petraeus is planning to "retool" US strategy to include "a greater focus on how Afghanistan's security forces are being trained."
When it comes to US training programs then, you might conclude that Afghanistan has proved to be Catch-22-ville, the land where time stood still—and so, evidently, has the Washington national security establishment's collective brain. For Washington, there seems to be no learning curve in Afghanistan, not when it comes to "training" Afghans anyway.
And here is the oddest thing of all, though no one even bothers to mention it in this context: the Taliban haven't had tens of billions of dollars in foreign training funds; they haven't had years of advice from the best US and NATO advisors that money can buy; they haven't had private contractors like DynCorp teaching them how to fight and police; and strangely enough, they seem to have no problem fighting. They are not undermanned, infiltrated by followers of Hamid Karzai, or particularly corrupt. They may be illiterate and may not be fluent in English, but they are ready, in up-to-platoon-sized units, to attack heavily fortified US military bases, Afghan prisons, a police headquarters and the like, with hardly a foreign mentor in sight.
Consider it, then, a modern miracle in reverse that the United States has proven incapable of training a competent Afghan force in a country where arms are the norm, fighting has for decades seldom stopped and the locals are known for their war-fighting traditions. Similarly, it's abidingly curious that the United States has so far failed to train a modest-sized air force, even flying refurbished Italian light transport planes from the 1980s and those Russian helicopters, when the Soviet Union, the last imperial power to try this, proved up to creating an Afghan force able to pilot aircraft ranging from helicopters to fighter planes.