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.
2. Non-Exit strategies: Now, let’s wade a little deeper into the strangeness of what Whitlock reported by taking up the question of when we’re actually planning to leave Afghanistan. Consider this passage from the Whitlock piece: "US military officials have estimated that the Afghan air force won’t be able to operate independently until 2016, five years after President Obama has said he intends to start withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan. But [US Air Force Brig. Gen. Michael R.] Boera said that date could slip by at least two years if Congress forces the Afghans to fly US choppers."
In other words, while Americans argue over what the president’s July 2011 drawdown date really means, and while Afghan President Hamid Karzai suggests that Afghan forces will take over the country’s security duties by 2014, Whitlock’s anonymous "US military officials" are clearly operating on a different clock, on, in fact, Pentagon time, and so are planning for a 2016–2018 target date for that force simply to "operate independently" (which by no means indicates "without US support.")
If you were of a conspiratorial mind, you might almost think that the Pentagon preferred not to create an effective Afghan air force and instead—as has also been the case in Iraq, a country that once had the world’s sixth-largest air force and now, after years of US mentoring, has next to nothing—remain the substitute Afghan air force forever and a day.
3. Who Are the Russians Now?: Okay, let’s move even deeper into American strangeness with a passage that makes up most of the twentieth and twenty-first paragraphs of Whitlock’s twenty-five-paragraph piece: "In addition," he reports, "the US Special Operations Command would like to buy a few Mi-17s of its own, so that special forces carrying out clandestine missions could cloak the fact that they are American. ‘We would like to have some to blend in and do things,’ said a senior US military official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the clandestine program."
No explanation follows on just how—or where—those Russian helicopters will help "cloak" American Special Operations missions, or what they are to "blend" into, or the "things" they are to do. There’s no further discussion of the subject at all.
In other words, the special op urge to Russianize its air transport has officially been reported, and a month later, as far as I know, not a single Congressional representative has made a fuss over it; no mainstream pundit has written a curious, questioning, or angry editorial questioning its appropriateness; and no reporter has, as yet, followed up.
As just another little factoid of no great import buried deep in an article focused on other matters, undoubtedly no one has given it a thought. But it’s worth stopping a moment and considering just how odd this tiny bit of news-that-won’t-ever-rise-to-the-level-of-news actually is. One way to do this is to play the sort of opposites game that never quite works on this still one-way planet of ours.
Just imagine a similar news item coming out of another country.
* Hot off the wires from Tehran: Iranian special forces teams are scouring the planet for old American Chinook helicopters so they can be well "cloaked" in planned future forays into Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province.
* The People’s Daily reports: Chinese special forces operatives are buying relatively late model American helicopters so that… Well, here’s one problem in the opposites game, and a clue to the genuine strangeness of American activities globally: why would the Chinese need to do such a thing (and, in fact, why would we)? Where might they want to venture militarily without being mistaken for Chinese military personnel?
That might be a little hard to imagine right now, but I guarantee you one thing: had some foreign news source reported such a plan, or had Craig Whitlock somehow uncovered it and included it in a piece—no matter how obscurely nestled—there would have been pandemonium in Washington. Congress would have held hearings. Pundits would have opined on the infamy of Iranian or Chinese operatives masking themselves in our choppers. The company or companies that sold the helicopters would have been investigated. And you can imagine what Fox News commentators would have had to say.
When we do such things, however, and a country like Pakistan reacts with what’s usually described as "anti-Americanism," we wonder at the nationalistic hair-trigger they’re on; we comment on their over-emotionalism; we highlight their touchy "sensibilities"; and our reporters and pundits then write empathetically about the difficulties American military and civilian officials have dealing with such edgy natives.
Just the other day, for instance, the Wall Street Journal’s Barnes reported that US Special Operations Forces are expanding their role in the Pakistani tribal borderlands by more regularly "venturing out with Pakistani forces on aid projects, deepening the American role in the effort to defeat Islamist militants in Pakistani territory that has been off limits to US ground troops." The Pakistani government has not been eager to have American boots visibly on the ground in these areas, and so Barnes writes: "Because of Pakistan’s sensitivities, the US role has developed slowly."
Imagine how sensitive they might prove to be if those same forces began to land Russian helicopters in Pakistan as a way to "cloak" their operations and blend in? Or imagine just what sort of hair-trigger the natives of Montana might be on if Pakistani special operations types were roaming Glacier National Park and landing old American helicopters outside Butte.
Then consider the sensitivities of Pakistanis on learning that the just appointed head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service turns out to be a man of "impeccable credentials" (so says CIA Director Leon Panetta). Among those credentials are his stint as the CIA station chief in Pakistan until sometime in 2009, his involvement in the exceedingly unpopular drone war in that country’s tribal borderlands, and the way, as the director put it a tad vaguely, he "guided complex operations under some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable."
Here’s the truth of the matter, as Whitlock’s piece makes clear: we carry on in the most bizarre ways in far-off lands and think nothing of it. Historically, it has undoubtedly been the nature of imperial powers to consider every strange thing they do more or less the norm. For a waning imperial power, however, such an attitude has its own dangers. If we can’t imagine the surpassing strangeness of our arrangements for making war in lands thousands of miles from the United States, then we can’t begin to imagine how the world sees us, which means that we’re blind to our own madness. Russian helicopters, that’s nuthin’ by comparison.