Afghan Army MIA

by , October 27, 2009

The U.S. Marine grumbled like a high school teacher beset with the burden of having to play hall monitor on his lunch break.

Bawling out a group of Afghan soldiers squatting in the dirt, he demanded, "Who’s smoking hashish around here? … We’re gonna find ‘em."

After finding a suspect, the Marine barked, "What kind of cigarette is that? Why are you throwing away your cigarette? Aren’t cigarettes worth a lot of money here? Hashish? … You smell this and you tell me that’s not hashish."

"It’s like having 26 kids to have to watch after – it really is," said the exasperated Marine.

Except this wasn’t high school, or even ROTC. This was Afghanistan, and the Marine was an embedded technical trainer (ETT) tasked with training Afghans so that they can eventually secure their own country. Forget initiation into the finer points of tactical operations – these Marines were having a hard enough time ensuring their wards had their helmets on correctly and weren’t quibbling over whether to leave hot tea behind.

"I give a f—k about your chai! I care about the mission," one Marine shouted to an apparently poky Afghan.

"I think if they introduced drug testing to the Afghan army, we would lose probably three-quarters to maybe 80, 85 percent of the army," said another ETT. The series of interviews, captured by reporter John McHugh for the Guardian newspaper, was broadcast online in March.

Fast forward 90 days to the most ambitious military campaign of the still nascent Obama administration: the July incursion of U.S. Marines into the Taliban stronghold of Helmand province. Afghan assistance still left much to be desired. The frustration of U.S. and British leaders was in full view, raising the question: where was the Afghan army?

Considering the cloud of consternation – and stinky hashish – hanging over the embedded technical teams just three months before, was anyone surprised?

Now it is autumn – one preposterously flawed presidential election and 280 coalition fatalities later – and it is still not clear where the Afghan army is.

"My educated guess is that such an army simply does not exist," said Ann Jones, author of Kabul in Winter, in a blistering critique of the U.S./NATO training effort last month.

"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 10 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 mujahedin – the Islamist fundamentalists the U.S. once paid to fight the Soviets – and many are undoubtedly Taliban."

Forget what seems to be quite an open secret in Afghanistan. Every impulse on the part of the military establishment, its think-tank surrogates, Capitol Hill, and even the White House is to convince the American people that not only is building a formidable Afghan army doable, it is the only way out of there, however long it takes. This mighty goal seems less grounded in reality every day, but that fact appears perversely lost in the surge-or-not-to-surge debate going on in Washington right now.

That’s probably because both sides desperately need to believe in the future success of the Afghan security forces in order to maintain their respective briefs for or against escalation. On one side, lawmakers like Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who does not support a U.S. troop increase, want to concentrate all resources on training the Afghan National Army (ANA) to lead instead.

"[My] focus is to try to help the Afghans succeed by a much greater effort of training larger numbers [of Afghans] … for their army and by focusing on equipping that army. We ought to have a plan in place for a real surge – not just of Afghans into their army, but a surge of equipment to that army," he said to reporters in October.

Agreed, say counterinsurgents loyal to Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Stanley McChrystal. But in order to train a surge of Afghan soldiers and police – there are supposedly some 90,000 ANA and 80,000 Afghan National Police (ANP) now – the U.S. will need to deploy thousands of more trainers, they say, plus forces to support and protect those trainers.

"To field Afghan troops quickly without breaking them in the process requires close partnership on the battlefield, with experienced Western combat units that provide on-the-job training, mentoring, confidence-building, fire support, and stiffening in actual combat. And this requires Western troops, in large numbers, living and fighting together with Afghan forces at all levels of command. The faster the Afghans are to be fielded, the more Western combat forces are needed. …

"In the meantime, someone must protect not just key population centers but also the recruitment centers, supply depots, bases, and transportation connections needed to create the new Afghan formations in the first place. Close partnership with expanded indigenous forces is indeed the best way to pursue counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. But this is not a plausible route to reducing U.S. combat activity or troop strength there any time soon."

So argued Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations in his most recent hand-wringing endorsement of Surge II in Afghanistan.

Biddle was part of a small coterie of insiders who served on McChrystal’s summer advisory team, which helped to craft his October assessment of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, Biddle’s personal arguments are no different from McChrystal’s bottom line: that "accelerating the growth" of the ANA and ANP is "part of a vital strategy to create the conditions for sustainable security and stability in Afghanistan," requiring the coalition to provide sufficient "partnering, enabling, and mentoring capabilities" until Afghan security forces are able to do it on their own.

McChrystal suggested that the current proposal to grow the ANA to 134,000 be accelerated to October 2010. In fact, ANA end-strength should be double that – at least 240,000 "COIN capable" Afghan troops "in order to increase pressure on the insurgency in all threatened areas of the country," he wrote.

"The forces generated during this phase will have sufficient training, capability, and equipment to conduct effective COIN operations and to generate momentum," McChrystal asserted. "Tighter, restructured training programs will deliver an infantry-based, COIN capable force in a shorter period of time with the capability of conducting ‘hold’ operations with some ‘clear’ capability while closely partnered with coalition forces."

Experts who spoke with Antiwar.com wondered openly what the commander was smoking.

That capable Afghan national forces, loyal to Kabul, could be drawn in such large numbers from the complicated ethnic and regional mosaic of the land to do as McChrystal wishes is "a truism that isn’t true," said Robert Young Pelton, war correspondent and author of Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror. "There aren’t enough qualified young men in Afghanistan to make that come true."

Especially if "qualified" means faithful to the central government. Today, that would mean the leadership of President Hamid Karzai, whose low public approval ratings rival those of Dick Cheney. Unlike the fulminating ex-vice president, Karzai still maintains a firm grip on power. But people in the southern provinces, home to the Taliban and the Pashtun people (an estimated 45 percent of the Afghan population) and where the greatest concentration of instability and fighting now takes place, think Karzai is a puppet of the West.

"There are almost no recruits from the south," said Gen. Ali Ahmed to the Observer in July, noting that when villagers do come in contact with ANA, the Pashtuns see them as an "army of occupation" primarily composed of ethnic Tajiks. Indeed, the majority of ANA officers are Tajik, noted Pelton.

"You can pay 50,000 men to wear a uniform and all that, but you can’t expect them to continue on and to work for Hamid Karzai or some other illegitimate power broker," Pelton added. Take a look at the war footage (when you can find it). "It isn’t Afghans fighting the Taliban. Most of the casualties are from IEDs and Americans fighting Taliban. When is the last time you saw a story about Afghan villagers fighting the Taliban? You don’t."

These challenges were duly outlined in a study released by the conventional and typically politic establishment researchers at RAND in May:

"The ANA is on track to reach its near-term manpower goals, but there are some hurdles to achieving the increased force size. The force is not ethnically balanced now, and recruiting in Pashtun areas has been difficult. The ability to pay the salaries of an additional 40,000 soldiers is also an issue. Afghanistan’s GDP is only $11 billion, and the annual federal budget is $4 billion, much of which is foreign aid. Increasing the army by one-third will strain an already-stretched budget. It is likely that an international commitment will be necessary to ensure that soldiers get paid. … This is not to say that the force cannot be expanded to the new number, but doing so will not be easy. The issues sketched out here must be addressed for it to happen at all."

Ann Jones, in her own critique, pointed out similar problems with the national police (which has the double strike of being one of the most corrupt institutions in the country):

"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 U.S. 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.'”

"I think there is absolutely no question about that – the police and army are a reflection of the society, and the society is dominated by ethnic rivalry that infuses all politics in Afghanistan," said Gareth Porter, journalist for Inter Press Service, in an interview with Antiwar.com. "Everything is based on that."

"I would say the non-Pashtun military forces are still more conscious of being Hazara and Tajik than being loyal to an Afghan government, and for the Pashtuns, even more so," Porter added. "It’s a complete failure."

Pepe Escobar, who writes “The Roving Eye” dispatches for Asia Times Online, said in an interview with Antiwar.com that he "posed the same question to Karzai himself way back in 2002."

"He digressed," said Escobar. "There’s virtually no way a significant number of Pashtuns will be part of the army. They’d rather pledge allegiance to their local warlords – and the pay and the perks are better. It’s a mirage to believe in an Afghan army equally divided between Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and Pashtuns. They’d be mostly Tajiks. As far as most of the Pashtun lands are concerned, this is an anathema."

The August election, the results of which have been deemed fraudulent enough to require a runoff between President Karzai and his runner-up, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah (who told Fox News on Sunday that without the infusion of more American troops, his country could be overtaken by the Taliban), has only exacerbated recruiting problems across the board. See this report from Jerome Starkey on the Afghan National Police:

"Afghanistan’s security forces are faltering as potential recruits refuse to sign up and thousands of trained men leave, amid spiraling Taliban violence and ongoing political instability linked to the unresolved election.

"About one in three policemen quits the force each year, The Scotsman has learned, while the country’s largest training center is operating at quarter capacity."

“‘We simply can’t recruit enough police,’ said Gen. Khudadad Agha, the officer in charge of training countrywide. ‘The salary is low and the job is very dangerous.’"

As for cultivating "friendly" militias to fight the enemy instead, that’s "generally considered a non-starter" by most objective experts, said Porter, because it would introduce the same uncertainty about the militias’ loyalty to Kabul and their Western benefactors.

So where does this leave the American effort, the "way forward"? The Obama administration has already dismissed a reduction in the number of troops, much less a withdrawal, as a viable alternative. He, too, is banking on the ghostly Afghan security forces to ease the burden there.

Thus is the disconnect between rhetoric and reality. Unless all of the above-mentioned issues are magically resolved, there will be no Afghan security forces strong enough to "hold and build" even if coalition forces are able to "clear" the Pashtun strongholds of Taliban in the near future. Even Marines who say they’ve made some progress securing areas in Helmand don’t believe it can last without help from the people.

There is no better illustration of this disconnect than the aforementioned ETTs being forced to play high-school task masters. One sounded eerily like a frustrated guidance counselor as he spoke to an Afghan officer: "You have to figure out what motivates your soldiers. You need to get that sense of nationalism. You know, that Afghanistan can be a good country that will play on a global scale with all these other countries … and be the Afghanistan of history."

Whatever that might be. The Afghan officer, fully aware what he was up against, sat impassively, as if just biding his time.

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos