Meet the Afghan Army
The Invisible Men
What is there to show for all this remarkably expensive training? 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 US 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 percent of men are unemployed, joining the ANA for ten 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 mujahideen--the Islamist fundamentalists the US once paid to fight the Soviets--and many are undoubtedly Taliban.
American trainers have taken careful note of the fact that, when ANA soldiers were given leave after basic training to return home with their pay, they generally didn't come back. To foil paycheck scams and decrease soaring rates of desertion, they recently devised a money-transfer system that allows the soldiers to send pay home without ever leaving their base. That sounds like a good idea, but like many expensive American solutions to Afghan problems, it misses the point. It's not just the money the soldier wants to transfer home, it's himself as well.
Earlier this year, the US training program became slightly more compelling with the introduction of a US-made weapon, the M-16 rifle, which was phased in over four months as a replacement for the venerable Kalashnikov. Even US trainers admit that, in Afghanistan, the Kalashnikov is actually the superior weapon. Light and accurate, it requires no cleaning even in the dust of the high desert, and every man and boy already knows it well. The strange and sensitive M-16, on the other hand, may be more accurate at slightly greater distances, but only if a soldier can keep it clean, while managing to adjust and readjust its notoriously sensitive sights. The struggling soldiers of the ANA may not ace that test, but now that the US military has generously passed on its old M-16s to Afghans, it can buy new ones at taxpayer expense, a prospect certain to gladden the heart of any arms manufacturer. (Incidentally, thanks must go to the Illinois National Guard for risking their lives to make possible such handsome corporate profits.)
As for the police, US-funded training offers a similar revolving door. In Afghanistan, however, it is far more dangerous to be a policeman than a soldier. While soldiers on patrol can slip away, policemen stuck at their posts are killed almost every day. Assigned in small numbers to staff small-town police stations or highway checkpoints, they are sitting ducks for Taliban fighters. As representatives of the now thoroughly discredited government of President Hamid Karzai, the hapless police make handy symbolic targets. British commanders in Helmand province estimated that 60 percent of Afghan police are on drugs--and little wonder why.
In the Pashtun provinces of southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban is strong, recruiting men for the Afghan National Police is a "problem," as an ANP commander told me. Consequently, non-Pashtun police trainees of Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek or other ethnic backgrounds are dispatched to maintain order in Pashtun territory. They might as well paint targets on their foreheads. The police who accompanied the US Marines into Helmand Province reportedly refused to leave their heavily armed mentors to take up suicidal posts in provincial villages. Some police and army soldiers, when asked by reporters, claimed to be "visiting" Helmand province only for " vacation."
In many districts, the police recently supplemented their low pay and demonstrated allegiance to local warlords by stuffing ballot boxes for President Karzai in the presidential election. Consider that but one more indication--like the defection of those great Islamist fundamentalist mujahideen allies the US sponsored in the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s who are now fighting with the Taliban--that no amount of American training, mentoring or cash will determine who or what Afghans will fight for, if indeed they fight at all.
Afghans are world-famous fighters, in part because they have a knack for gravitating to the winning side, and they're ready to change sides with alacrity until they get it right. Recognizing that Afghans back a winner, US military strategists are now banking on a counterinsurgency strategy that seeks to "clear, hold and build"--that is, to stick around long enough to win the Afghans over. But it's way too late for that to work. These days, US troops sticking around look ever more like a foreign occupying army and, to the Taliban, like targets.
Recently Karen DeYoung noted in the Washington Post that the Taliban now regularly use very sophisticated military techniques--"as if the insurgents had attended something akin to the US Army's Ranger school, which teaches soldiers how to fight in small groups in austere environments." Of course, some of them have attended training sessions that teach them to fight in "austere environments," probably time and time again. If you were a Talib, wouldn't you scout the training being offered to Afghans on the other side? And wouldn't you do it more than once if you could get well paid every time?
Such training is bound to come in handy--as it may have for the Talib policeman who, just last week, bumped off eight other comrades at his police post in Kunduz Province in northern Afghanistan and turned it over to the Taliban. On the other hand, such training can be deadly to American trainers. Take the case of the American trainer who was shot and wounded that same week by one of his trainees. Reportedly, a dispute arose because the trainer was drinking water "in front of locals," while the trainees were fasting for the Muslim holy month of Ramazan.
There is, by the way, plenty of evidence that Taliban fighters get along just fine, fighting fiercely and well without the training lavished on the ANA and the ANP. Why is it that Afghan Taliban fighters seem so bold and effective, while the Afghan National Police are so dismally corrupt and the Afghan National Army is a washout?
When I visited bases and training grounds in July, I heard some American trainers describe their Afghan trainees in the same racist terms once applied to African slaves in the United States: lazy, irresponsible, stupid, childish, and so on. That's how Afghan resistance, avoidance and sabotage look to American eyes. The Taliban fight for something they believe--that their country should be freed from foreign occupation. "Our" Afghans try to get by.
Yet one amazing thing happens to ANA trainees who stick it out for the whole ten weeks of basic training. Their slight bodies begin to fill out a little. They gain more energy and better spirits--all because, for the first time in their lives, they have enough nutritious food to eat.
Better nutrition notwithstanding--Senator Levin, Senator McCain--"our" Afghans are never going to fight for an American cause, with or without American troops, the way we imagine they should. They're never going to fight with the energy of the Taliban for a national government that we installed against Afghan wishes, then more recently set up to steal another election, and now seem about to ratify in office, despite incontrovertible evidence of flagrant fraud. Why should they? Even if the US could win their minds, their hearts are not in it.
One small warning: Don't take the insecurity of the Afghan security forces as an argument for sending yet more American troops to Afghanistan. Aggressive Americans (now numbering 68,000) are likely to be even less successful than reluctant Afghan forces. Afghans want peace, but the kharaji (foreign) troops (100,000, if you include US allies in NATO) bring death and destruction wherever they go. Think instead about what you might have won--and could still win--had you spent all those military billions on food. Or maybe agriculture. Or healthcare. Or a civilian job corps. Is it too late for that now?