US-Backed Armies Firing Blanks

Fear of being linked to U.S.-backed regimes that lack authority has inhibited potential recruits in violence-prone Iraq and Afghanistan from heeding calls to join nascent or rebuilding national armies, say U.S. academics and political and military analysts.

"The challenge of creating national armies in both countries is fundamentally linked to the challenge of legitimacy for the new [U.S.-installed] governments," says Margaret Karns, who lectures on international organizations, foreign policy and diplomacy at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

"Low legitimacy" for the governments of President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan and Prime Minister Iyad Allawi of Iraq "translates into limited willingness of individuals to sign up for the military, knowing that they might become targets of groups opposed to either government," Karns told IPS.

Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Washington has been struggling to create a 40,000-strong military force to take over security in the war-torn country.

But according to Brigadier General James Schwitters, who is part of the U.S. command responsible for training Iraq’s new army, only 3,000 of the soldiers could be regarded as having been militarily trained, as of early August.

"Despite over a year and billions of dollars in spending, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and those he appointed for the mission in Iraq have largely failed to reconstitute meaningful security forces and police," says Erik K Gustafson, a veteran of the 1991 Gulf War and director of the Washington-based Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC).

Gustafson also argues that the U.S.- run Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which administered Iraq until June, failed to treat the Iraqi interim government as a full partner or to provide Iraqi police and army forces with the equipment, training, oversight and funding they need to operate effectively.

"The legacy of that failure remains and Iraqis are paying dearly in lost oil revenues, crime, terrorism and other violence," Gustafson told IPS. "Given the scale of failure and loss of lives and property, Rumsfeld should be investigated for criminal negligence," he added.

According to a report released by the CPA on the eve of its hasty retreat from Baghdad, Iraqi forces have 40 percent of the weapons, less than one-third of the vehicles and about 25 percent of the body armor they need to operate as an effective military force.

"I have more hope that Iraq may succeed in spite of the United States," Karns said, because it is not only a more developed country than Afghanistan but it also had a strong national army long before the U.S.-led invasion.

But the new Iraqi government, she said, has to stop the slide toward "Lebanonization," which has resulted in ethnic and religious feuds.

More than 500,000 people were killed in the ethnic and religious battles that characterized the 1975-1991 civil war in Lebanon, most of them Christian Maronites and Muslims.

On Monday, the New York Times reported that U.S. Ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte is urging the White House to reallocate resources from infrastructure building in the occupied country and into improved security and job opportunities for Iraqis.

The U.S. Congress has appropriated about $18 billion for the reconstruction of Iraq, of which only about $600 million have been spent so far, added the Times story.

Negroponte wants a sizable part of the remaining funds re-channeled to help pay for 45,000 new Iraqi police officers, 16,000 border patrol officers, 99 new border outposts and an additional 20 Iraqi National Guard battalions (totaling about 20,000 troops). He is also seeking money for training and new weapons for the army.

In Afghanistan, the United States, with aid from France, has succeeded in training a new national army of more than 13,000 troops, but that is far below the targeted 70,000 soldiers.

Manoel de Almeida e Silva, a spokesman for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), told reporters in August there is a "significant expansion in the size and competence of the Afghan national police force, as well as the Afghan national army."

"This is very important," he said, "but they are not yet there."

"They are not close to reaching their total strength but this is much better than what existed when this phase of Afghan history began two and half years ago," added the spokesman.

Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Munir Akram, told the UN Security Council last week that the Afghan national army is still unable to cope with the security challenges in the country.

"The army suffers from what I would call an ethnic deficit and imbalance," he said. "Until the Afghan national army is in a position to provide credible security, the responsibility of providing security in Afghanistan rests with the international forces, in particular, the International Assistance Force [ISAF]."

The ISAF, a multinational force consisting of about 7,300 troops from the European and North American nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), is confined mostly to the Afghan capital of Kabul. By the end of September, when Italian and Spanish battalions join ISAF, total troop strength is expected to rise to 8,300.

In both Afghanistan and Iraq, attrition rates have also been high, with trained soldiers deserting the military to join insurgencies in the two countries.

"The formation of the army [in Afghanistan] is incredibly slow mainly because there is not much incentive to join what is perceived to be the weakest armed faction in the country [except when the United States decided to back it up with fighter planes]," says James Ingalls, founding director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, who is also working on a book about U.S. policy in Afghanistan.

Ingalls said Washington’s tactic of "buying" warlords to fight the Taliban, then awarding them seats in the government, has entrenched their power. "The lack of a countrywide ISAF deployment and the halfhearted attempts at disarmament have only made this dismal situation worse," he told IPS.

The Taliban, a group of Islamic extremists who ruled Afghanistan during 1996-2001, was ousted from power by U.S. forces when they invaded the country in December 2001. Despite the efforts of thousands of U.S. soldiers since then, Taliban forces have not been driven from the country and appear resurgent, claiming responsibility for a car bomb in the capital Kabul on Sunday that killed about a dozen people.

Taliban forces have also warned Afghans to boycott the Oct. 9 presidential election.

Karns said the difficulties in creating a new national army in Afghanistan are also linked to the fundamental lack of security and the limited number of U.S. and NATO troops to deal with warlords and Taliban outside Kabul.

"I am not optimistic, especially about Afghanistan. We and the Europeans have yet to commit enough military and economic resources to Afghanistan to make a difference, and the situation is clearly deteriorating," she added.

In July, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer warned that both Iraq and Afghanistan would surely end up as failed states if the United States and the international community did not work together to salvage the two nations. The security situation in both countries was dismal, he said.

"Can we afford two failed states in pivotal regions?" he asked. "It’s both undesirable and unacceptable if either Afghanistan or Iraq were to be lost. The international community can’t afford to see those countries going up in flames. There would be enormous repercussions for stability, and not only in those regions."

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Author: Thalif Deen

Thalif Deen writes for Inter Press Service.