Playing the Game in Afghanistan
Recent weeks have brought yet another sad chance to watch badly laid plans in Afghanistan go haywire. In three separate incidents, allies, most from the Afghan National Army (ANA), allegedly murdered six Americans — two of them officers in the high-security sanctum of Kabul’s Interior Ministry. Marine General John R. Allen, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, even briefly withdrew NATO advisors and trainers from all government ministries for their own protection.
Until that moment, the Afghan National Army was the crown jewel of the Obama administration’s strategy for drawing down forces in Afghanistan (without really leaving). Trained in their hundreds of thousands over the past 11 years by a horde of dodgy private security contractors, as well as U.S. and NATO troops, the Afghan National Army is supposed to replace coalition forces any day now and defend its own country.
This policy has been the apex of Washington’s Plan A for some time now. There is no Plan B.
But what to make of the murders in the Ministry? An AP article headlined“Acts of Afghan Betrayal Are Poisoning U.S. War Plan” detected “a trend of Afghan treachery.” This “poisoning” is, however, nothing new. Military lingo has already long defined assaults on American and NATO soldiers by members of the Afghan National Security Force (a combination of the ANA and the Afghan National Police) as “green on blue incidents.” Since the military started recording them in May 2007, 76 NATO soldiers have been killed and an undisclosed number wounded in 46 recorded “deliberate attacks.”
These figures suggest more than a recent “trend of Afghan treachery” (though Afghans are increasingly blamed for everything that goes wrong in their country). Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who perversely called the latest green on blue incidents signs of Taliban “weakness,” told the press: “I’ve made clear and I will continue to make clear that, regardless of what the enemy tries to do to us, we are not going to alter our strategy in Afghanistan.”
This is, of course, the definition of paralysis in Afghanistan, so much easier in the short term than reexamining Plan A. In other words, as the American exercise in Afghanistan rolls ever closer to the full belly-up position, Plan A remains rigidly in place, and signals that, from Secretary Panetta and General Allen on down, Americans still don’t seem to get what’s going on.
Beware an Afghan Army
Many people who know Afghanistan well, however, have warned from the beginning against this plan to train up an armed force. I’m among the naysayers, and I’ll tell you why.
First, consider what the plan proposes. The number of Afghan soldiers and police to be trained varies widely from one report to the next, but the last estimate I received directly from the Kabul Military Training Center called for 240,000 soldiers and 160,000 police (who, incidentally, are also called “soldiers” and trained in a similar manner). That brings the total proposed Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) to approximately four times the number of current coalition troops in the country.
It costs the U.S. $12 billion annually to train the army alone and the estimated cost of maintaining it beyond 2014 is $4 billion per year, of which the Afghan government says it can pay no more than 12%. Clearly, Afghanistan does not need and cannot sustain such a security force. Instead, the United States will be stuck with the bill, hoping for help from NATO allies — until the force falls apart. How then did this security force become the centerpiece of the Obama plan? And given its obvious absurdity, why is it written in stone?
Second, take just a moment to do something Washington has long been adverse to — review a little basic Afghan history as it applies to Plan A. Start with the simplest of all facts: in the country’s modern history, no Afghan national army has ever saved a government, or even tried. More often, such an army has either sat on its hands during a coup d’état or actually helped to overthrow the incumbent ruler.
Go back nearly a century to the reign of King Amanullah (1919-1929), a modernizing ruler who wrote a constitution, established a national assembly, founded girls’ schools, taxed polygamous husbands, and banned conservative mullahs from the country because they might be “bad and evil persons” spreading treacherous foreign propaganda. In 1928, he returned to Afghanistan with his Queen Suraya, who wore European dresses and no veil, from a round of visits to European rulers, bringing guns for his army (though his soldiers would be billed for them) and announced a new agenda of revolutionary reforms. He got a revolution instead, and here’s the important point: his newly weaponized army lifted not a finger to save him.
Amanullah’s successor, an ex-bandit known as Bacha-i Saqqa, lasted only eight months in office before his successor, Nadir Shah, had him hanged, again without intervention from the Afghan army. Nadir Shah in turn reigned from 1929 to 1933, and although he, like Barack Obama, tried to build up the national army, that force of 40,000 men couldn’t help him when he was assassinated by a schoolboy at a high school graduation ceremony.
From 1933 to 1973, Nadir Shah’s son, Zahir Shah, presided over gradual social progress. He introduced a new constitution, free elections, a parliament, civil rights, women’s rights, and universal suffrage. During his long peaceful reign, his professional spit-and-polish army served him very well on ceremonial occasions. (This is the same popular king who, after the Taliban fell, offered to return and reunite the country; Bush turned him down.)
In 1973, when Zahir Shah went to Italy for medical care, his cousin Daoud Khan — a general, former Commander of the Central Forces, and Minister of Defense — abolished the monarchy and assumed power with the aid of young communists in a bloodless coup. The army was in his pocket, but five years later, in 1978, it fell apart and fought on both sides as the communists overthrew and murdered Daoud. The fractured army could not prevent the Soviet invasion, nor safeguard any of the presidents in power before they came or after they left.
It’s worth remembering, too, that every one of these shifts in power was followed by a purge of political enemies that sent thousands of Afghans loyal to the jettisoned ruler to prison, death, or another country in the prolonged exodus that has made the Afghan diaspora the largest in the world drawn from a single country. That diaspora continues today — 30,000 Afghans fled last year and applied for asylum elsewhere — and the next purge hasn’t even gotten underway yet.
In short, Afghan history is a sobering antidote to the relentless optimism of the American military. Modern Afghan history indicates that no Afghan National Army of any size or set of skills has ever warded off a single foreign enemy or done a lick of good for any Afghan ruler.
As for those Afghan guys who whipped the British three times and the Soviet’s Red Army, they were mostly freelancers, attached to the improvised militias of assorted warlords, fighting voluntarily against invaders who had occupied their country. The Taliban, like the mujahidin of the anti-Soviet struggle before them, seem to fight quite successfully without any significant training, armor, or heavy equipment to speak of, except what some Taliban snatch by signing up from time to time for basic training with the ANA (or buy from ANA soldiers).
The Afghan National Game
Another objection to spending billions on training an Afghan National Army is this: you never know whom they will shoot. The problem is not the odd rogue soldier or Talib infiltrator. The problem is that the Afghan moral code is different from ours, though still apparently invisible to our military and political leaders.
Many years ago, an American Foreign Service officer in Afghanistan fell in love with the place and went sort of rogue himself. Whitney Azoy resigned to become an anthropologist and in 1982 published an enchanting scholarly bookabout the Afghan sport of buzkashi, in which mounted horsemen vie for possession of a dead goat or calf.
His book became a bible for visiting journalists who soon made a cliché of the game, comparing the dead goat to the country of Afghanistan, torn apart throughout its history by competing foreign powers: England and Russia, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the U.S. and Pakistan. Journalists compared the game to polo, apparently never having seen a game of polo. Take my word for it: it is not like polo. Anyway, that’s not the point.
What many missed is the bigger picture: that all the chapandazan (horsemen) ride for a sponsor, who may be the wealthy landowning host of the day’s competition, or perhaps another large landowner living some distance away. Chapandazan compete not for the calf, but for the favor of the sponsoring khan who will bestow upon the winners the turban cloths that mark their public stature and the money that will support their families. Here’s the point: if a sponsor fails in his obligations — if he loses the ability and wherewithal to honor, protect, and support his chapandazan — they will switch to the man who can.
In short, for their own safety and advancement, Afghans back a winner, and if he goes into decline, they ditch him for a rising star. To spot that winner is the mark of the intelligent survivor. To stick loyally to a losing cause, as any patriotic American would do, seems to an Afghan downright stupid.
Now, apply this to the ANA as American and NATO troops draw down in 2014. Any army intended to defend a nation must be loyal to the political leaders governing the country. Estimates among Afghan experts of how long the ANA would be loyal to Afghan President Hamid Karzai start at two weeks, and remember, 2014 is a presidential election year, with Karzai barred by the constitution from seeking another term. In other words, Obama’s Plan A calls for urgently building up a national army to defend a government that will not exist before our own combat troops leave the country.
And if that election is riddled with fraud, as the last one was? Or inconclusive? Or violently contested? Has President Obama or Secretary of Defense Panetta or anyone else given any thought to that?
These days, as Afghan men, mostly in army and police uniforms, shoot and kill NATO soldiers on a remarkably regular basis, the American military still publicly writes off the deaths as “isolated incidents.”
But the isolation may be an American one. The connections among Afghans are evident to anyone who cares to look. When I was at a forward operating base with the U.S. Army in Kunar province in 2010, for instance, Afghan soldiers were relegated to an old base next door. Armed American soldiers guarded the gate in between, and ANA leaders were shadowed everywhere by an armed U.S. sergeant who tried unconvincingly to give the impression he was just out for a stroll. What struck me most was this: while the Americans on their base recoiled under daily Taliban shelling, the Afghan watchman at the nearby ANA post, perhaps privy to some additional information, slept peacefully on a cot on the roof of his office with his teakettle by his side. The military has long called this a “partnership.”
But now the numbers are adding up to something else entirely. While some commentators speak of Afghan treachery and others detect a Taliban plot to infiltrate the security forces, I suspect something quite different. Malcolm Gladwell might call it a tipping point. What we are watching unfold in Afghanistan is the desertion of chapandazan who have already found a new khans.
Security Force: An Oxymoron
All along, however, I’ve had a bigger objection to spending tens of billions of dollars training a vast Afghan National Security Force. And it couldn’t be more basic: armies and war are never good for women, children, or civilians in general.
To redeem the disastrous invasion of Afghanistan and improve the quality of life of its people, we should have invested early, under Afghan guidance, in electricity, clean water, and sanitation. After two decades of almost constant war and civil war, we should have demined the precious fields in this agricultural country and supported Afghan farmers and laborers as they tried to repair crucial bombed-out irrigation systems. These measures were never jobs for the U.S. military, but they might have won peace and saved soldiers’ lives in the bargain. After all, soldiers have actually died by falling into broken irrigation tunnels and wells, even more by treading on mines.
Note, too, that the expense of training and supporting soldiers to wage war is bad for both sides. The trillions spent on our own forces and weapons systems is money we might have spent to improve the quality of American lives. And keep in mind that the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will not peak until mid-century, so expensive is the lifelong aftercare of our own ruined soldiers.
To keep the chapandazan, or the Afghan people and their problematic army, on your side, you have to offer the symbols and substance of normal life. But being Americans, we think that “national security” means armies and night vision goggles and drones and “strategic partnerships,” even with a reluctant, exhausted, angry, and grief-stricken people.
To the normal world — that is, the world not in thrall to American militarism — “national security” means something quite different. It means all those big and little things that enable people to feel relatively calm and cared for in their daily lives. That would be food, water, shelter, jobs, health care, schools for the kids, domestic police to keep the peace, and maybe even some firefighters — all those things we fail to attend to there, or increasingly here.
As things stand today, as International Women’s Day is celebrated around the world, women in Afghanistan contemplate the withdrawal of some American and NATO troops with both relief and fear. They fear the Taliban. They fear President Karzai’s endorsement of new, Taliban-like (and unconstitutional)“guidelines” for women that would confine them again. They fear the Afghan National Army, the heroes of Plan A, and the countless thousands of deserters who joined up to get a gun and went home.
Civilians live in dread of the legacy of the Obama strategy: the presence of half a million gunmen on the loose, in search of a sponsoring khan.
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.