About those large and growing Afghanistan security forces…

Our war strategy in Afghanistan rests on two pillars:

  1. Building up a vastly larger, more skilled and better equiped Afghanistan police and army,
  2. Using NATO troops to train and supplement them.

Two recent articles cast doubt on both of these.

  1. Afghan police: More foreign troops not the answer“, AP, 21 September 2009
  2. Meet the Afghan Army“, Ann Jones, TomDispatch, 20 September 2009 — “Is It a Figment of Washington’s Imagination?”

Excerpts

(1)  Afghan police: More foreign troops not the answer“, AP, 21 September 2009 – Excerpt:

Police officials from some of Afghanistan’s most violent regions questioned the need for more American troops, saying Monday it would increase the perception the U.S. is an occupying power and the money would be better spent on local forces.

The police were responding to an assessment from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, that warned the war was getting worse and could be lost without more troops.

… “It is very hard for local people to accept any foreigners who come to our country and say they are fighting for our freedom,” said Gen. Azizudin Wardak, the police chief in Paktia province. “To give the idea that they are not invaders, that they are not occupiers, is very difficult.”

Mohammad Pashtun, the chief of the criminal investigation unit in southern Kandahar province, the Taliban’s heartland, said that the money would be better off going to Afghan forces. “Increasing international troops is not useful,” he said. “For the expense of one American soldier, we can pay for 15 Afghan soldiers or police.”

… The Afghan army is trying to build a force of 134,000 soldiers by fall 2010, but McChrystal’s assessment said the target should be 240,000, though it did not give a date. It said the police force must grow from a current 92,000 to 160,000.

(2)  Is there an Afghanistan Army?

Meet the Afghan Army“, Ann Jones, TomDispatch, 20 September 2009 — “Is It a Figment of Washington’s Imagination?” — Excerpt posted with permission.

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt

In Washington, calls are increasing, especially among anxious Democrats, for the president to commit to training ever more Afghan troops and police rather than sending in more American troops. Huge numbers for imagined future Afghan army and police forces are now bandied about in Congress and the media — though no one stops to wonder what Afghanistan, the fourth poorest country on the planet, might actually be like with a combined security force of 400,000. Not a “democracy,” you can put your top dollar on that.

And with a gross national product of only $23 billion (a striking percentage of which comes from the drug trade) and an annual government budget of only about $600 million, it’s not one that could faintly maintain such a force either. Put bluntly, if U.S. officials were capable of building such a force, a version of Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule for Iraq would kick in and we, the American taxpayers, would own it for all eternity.

On the other hand, not to worry. As Ann Jones makes clear in her revelatory piece below, the odds on such an Afghan force ever being built must be passingly close to nil. Such a program is no more likely to be successful than the massively expensive Afghan aid and reconstruction program has been. In fact, for all the talk about the subject here, it’s remarkable how little we actually know about the staggering expensive American and NATO effort to train the Afghan army and police.

Stop and think for a moment. When was the last time you read in any U.S. paper a striking account, or any account for that matter, in which a reporter actually bothered to observe the training process in action? Think how useful that might have been for the present debate in Washington.

Fortunately, TomDispatch is ready to remedy this. Site regular Jones, who first went to Afghanistan in 2002 and, in an elegant memoir, Kabul in Winter, has vividly described her years working with Afghan women, spent time this July visiting U.S. training programs for both the Afghan army and police. She offers an eye-opening, on-the-spot look at certain realities which turn the “debate” in Washington inside out and upside down.

Excerpt (although I recommend reading this in full)

The big Afghanistan debate in Washington is not over whether more troops are needed, but just who they should be: Americans or Afghans — Us or Them. Having just spent time in Afghanistan seeing how things stand, I wouldn’t bet on Them.

Frankly, I wouldn’t bet on Us either. In eight years, American troops have worn out their welcome. Their very presence now incites opposition, but that’s another story. It’s Them — the Afghans — I want to talk about. …

So who are these security forces?

… Almost eight years and counting since the “mentoring” process began, officers at the Kabul Military Training Center report that the army now numbers between 88,000 and 92,000 soldiers, depending on who you talk to; and the basic training course financed and led by Americans, called “Basic Warrior Training,” is turning out 28,800 new soldiers every year, according to a Kabul Military Training Center “fact sheet.” The current projected “end strength” for the ANA, to be reached in December 2011, is 134,000 men; but Afghan officers told me they’re planning for a force of 200,000, while the Western press often cites 240,000 as the final figure.

The number 400,000 is often mentioned as the supposed end-strength quota for the combined security forces — an army of 240,000 soldiers and a police force with 160,000 men. Yet Afghan National Police officials also speak of a far more inflated figure, 250,000, and they claim that 149,000 men have already been trained.

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 U.S. 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% 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 mujahidin — the Islamist fundamentalists the U.S. 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. …

Training Day

… Recently Karen DeYoung noted in the Washington Postthat the Taliban now regularly use very sophisticated military techniques — “as if the insurgents had attended something akin to the U.S. 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 which 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 offeight 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 woundedthat 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 a washout? …

Conclusions

“{O}ur” 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 health care. Or a civilian job corps. Is it too late for that now?

Copyright 2009 Ann Jones

About the author

Ann Jones is the author of Kabul in Winter(Metropolitan, 2006) and writes often about Afghanistan for TomDispatch and the Nation. War Is Not Over When It’s Over, her new book about the impact of war on women, will be published next year.

Afterword

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 word max), civil and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling). 

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the following:

Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.

Some posts about the war in Afghanistan:

  1. Why are we are fighting in Afghanistan?, 9 April 2008 — A debate with Joshua Foust.
  2. Real experts review a presentation about the War (look here, if you’re looking for well-written analysis!), 21 June 2009
  3. The Big Lie at work in Afghanistan – an open discussion, 23 June 2009
  4. “War without end”, a great article by George Wilson, 27 June 2009
  5. The trinity of modern warfare at work in Afghanistan, 13 July 2009
  6. Powerful insights about our war in Afghanistan, part 1, 18 July 2009
  7. We are warned about Afghanistan, but choose not to listen (part 2), 19 July 2009
  8. Powerful insights about our war in Afghanistan, part 3, 20 July 2009
  9. You can end our war in Afghanistan, 20 August 2009
  10. “Afghanistan by the Numbers – Measuring a War Gone to Hell”, by Tom Engelhardt, 9 September 2009
  11. How many troops would it take to win in Afghanistan?, 15 September 2009
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3 thoughts on “About those large and growing Afghanistan security forces…

  1. The absence of an Afghan army have been the main reason I see no successful outcome in Afghanistan for USA/NATO. It’s shouldn’t have taken more than six month to mobilize a substantial Afghani force.

    In the Afghani case there were/are plenty of competent commanders from their internal fighting. Training would have been the “learning by doing” method under Afghani leadership. Their army, their culture, their training.

    Actual NATO training only for specialists a la mortar & heavy weapons crews. To give our Afghani allies an edge. Are there even trained Afghani mortar crews?

    The missing ingredients is motivated manpower. AFTER eight years I doubt we are going to see any. Any government who is unable to mobilize an army in a civil war is doomed.

    Like

  2. Not just unable to mobilize an army in 8 years, but unable to mobilize an army in a country with no economic opportunities and a metric F-load of money from the occupying power.

    Like

  3. I seem to recall that the South Vietnamese government had a similar problem, a lack of willing soldiers… but there’s no comparison between Vietnam and Afghanastan, right?

    Like

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