Is the Afghan Army a Figment of Washington's Imagination?

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.

Afghans are Afghans. They have their own history, their own culture,
their own habitual ways of thinking and behaving, all complicated by a
modern experience of decades of war, displacement, abject poverty, and
incessant meddling by foreign governments near and far -- of which the
United States has been the most powerful and persistent. Afghans do not
think or act like Americans. Yet Americans in power refuse to grasp
that inconvenient point.

In the heat of this summer, I went out to the training fields near
Kabul where Afghan army recruits are put through their paces, and it
was quickly evident just what's getting lost in translation. Our
trainers, soldiers from the Illinois National Guard, were masterful.
Professional and highly skilled, they were dedicated to carrying out
their mission -- and doing the job well. They were also big, strong,
camouflaged, combat-booted, supersized American men, their bodies
swollen by flack jackets and lashed with knives, handguns, and god only
knows what else. Any American could be proud of their commitment to
tough duty.

The Afghans were puny by comparison: Hundreds of little Davids to
the overstuffed American Goliaths training them. Keep in mind: Afghan
recruits come from a world of desperate poverty. They are almost
uniformly malnourished and underweight. Many are no bigger than I am
(5'4" and thin) -- and some probably not much stronger. Like me, many
sag under the weight of a standard-issue flack jacket.

Their American trainers spoke of "upper body strength deficiency" and
prescribed pushups because their trainees buckle under the backpacks
filled with 50 pounds of equipment and ammo they are expected to carry.
All this material must seem absurd to men whose fathers and brothers,
wearing only the old cotton shirts and baggy pants of everyday life and
carrying battered Russian Kalashnikov rifles, defeated the Red Army two
decades ago. American trainers marvel that, freed from heavy equipment
and uniforms, Afghan soldiers can run through the mountains all day --
as the Taliban guerrillas in fact do with great effect -- but the U.S.
military is determined to train them for another style of war.

Still, the new recruits turn out for training in the blistering heat
in this stony desert landscape wearing, beneath their heavy uniforms,
the smart red, green, and black warm-up outfits intended to encourage
them to engage in off-duty exercise. American trainers recognize that
recruits regularly wear all
their gear at once for fear somebody will steal anything left behind in
the barracks, but they take this overdressing as a sign of how much
Afghans love the military. My own reading, based on my observations of
Afghan life during the years I've spent in that country, is this: It's
a sign of how little they trust one another, or the Americans who gave
them the snazzy suits. I think it also indicates the obvious: that
these impoverished men in a country without work have joined the Afghan
National Army for what they can get out of it (and keep or sell) -- and
that doesn't include democracy or glory.

In the current policy debate about the Afghan War in Washington, Senate
Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin wants the Afghans to
defend their country. Senator John McCain, the top Republican on the
committee, agrees but says they need even more help from even more
Americans. The common ground -- the sacred territory President Obama
gropes for -- is that, whatever else happens, the U.S. must speed up
the training of "the Afghan security forces."

American military planners and policymakers already proceed as if,
with sufficient training, Afghans can be transformed into scale-model,
wind-up American Marines. That is not going to happen. Not now. Not
ever. No matter how many of our leaders concur that it must happen -- and ever faster.

"Basic Warrior Training"

So who are these security forces? They include the Afghan National Army
(ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP). International forces and
private contractors have been training Afghan recruits for both of them
since 2001. In fact, the determination of Western military planners to
create a national army and police force has been so great that some
seem to have suppressed for years the reports of Canadian soldiers who witnessed members of the Afghan security forces engaging in a fairly common pastime, sodomizing young boys.

Current training and mentoring is provided by the U.S., Great Britain,
France, Canada, Romania, Poland, Mongolia, New Zealand, and Australia,
as well as by the private for-profit contractors MPRI, KBR (formerly a division of Halliburton), Pulau, Paravant, and RONCO.

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. Police training has always proven
problematic, however, in part because, from the start, the European
allies fundamentally disagreed with the Bush administration about what
the role of the Afghan police should be. Germany initiated the training
of what it saw as an unarmed force that would direct traffic, deter
crime, and keep civic order for the benefit of the civilian population.
The U.S. took over in 2003, handed the task off to a private for-profit
military contractor, DynCorp,
and proceeded to produce a heavily armed, undisciplined, and thoroughly
venal paramilitary force despised by Kabulis and feared by Afghan
civilians in the countryside.

Contradicting that widespread public view, an Afghan commanding
officer of the ANP assured me that today the police are trained as
police, not as a paramilitary auxiliary of the ANA. "But policing is
different in Afghanistan," he said, because the police operate in
active war zones.

sends mixed messages on this subject. It farms out responsibility for
the ANP to a private contractor that hires as mentors retired American
law enforcement officers -- a Kentucky state trooper, a Texas county
lawman, a North Carolina cop, and so on. Yet Washington policymakers
continue to couple the police with the army as "the Afghan security
forces" -- the most basic police rank is "soldier" -- in a merger that
must influence what DynCorp puts in its training syllabus. At the
Afghan National Police training camp outside Kabul, I watched a squad
of trainees learn (reluctantly) how to respond to a full-scale ambush.
Though they were armed only with red rubber Kalashnikovs, the exercise
looked to me much like the military maneuvers I'd witnessed at the army
training camp.

Like army training, police training, too, was accelerated months ago to
insure "security" during the run-up to the presidential election. With
that goal in mind, DynCorp mentors shrunk the basic police training
course from eight weeks to three, after which the police were
dispatched to villages all across the country, including areas
controlled by the Taliban. After the election, the surviving
short-course police "soldiers" were to be brought back to Kabul for the
rest of the basic training program. There's no word yet on how many

You have to wonder about the wisdom of rushing out this half-baked
product. How would you feel if the police in your community were turned
loose, heavily armed, after three weeks of training? And how would you
feel if you were given a three-week training course with a rubber gun
and then dispatched, with a real one, to defend your country?

Training security forces is not cheap. So far, the estimated cost of training and mentoring the police since 2001 is at least $10 billion.
Any reliable figure on the cost of training and mentoring the Afghan
army since 2001 is as invisible as the army itself. But the U.S.
currently spends some $4 billion a month on military operations in Afghanistan.

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.

Earlier this year, the U.S. training program became slightly more
compelling with the introduction of a U.S.-made weapon, the M-16 rifle,
which was phased in over four months as a replacement for the venerable
Kalashnikov. Even U.S. trainers admit that, in Afghanistan, the
Kalashnikov is actually the superior weapon. Light and accurate, it
requires no cleaning even in the dust of the high desert, and every man
and boy already knows it well. The strange and sensitive M-16, on the
other hand, may be more accurate at slightly greater distances, but
only if a soldier can keep it clean, while managing to adjust and
readjust its notoriously sensitive sights. The struggling soldiers of
the ANA may not ace that test, but now that the U.S. military has
generously passed on its old M-16s to Afghans, it can buy new ones at
taxpayer expense, a prospect certain to gladden the heart of any arms
manufacturer. (Incidentally, thanks must go to the Illinois National
Guard for risking their lives to make possible such handsome corporate

As for the police, U.S.-funded training offers a similar revolving
door. In Afghanistan, however, it is far more dangerous to be a
policeman than a soldier. While soldiers on patrol can slip away,
policemen stuck at their posts are killed almost every day. Assigned in
small numbers to staff small-town police stations or highway
checkpoints, they are sitting ducks for Taliban fighters. As
representatives of the now thoroughly discredited government of
President Hamid Karzai, the hapless police make handy symbolic targets.
British commanders in Helmand province estimated that 60% of Afghan police are on drugs -- and little wonder why.

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."

Training Day

In many districts, the police recently supplemented their low pay and
demonstrated allegiance to local warlords by stuffing ballot boxes for
President Karzai in the presidential election. Consider that but one
more indication -- like the defection of those great Islamist
fundamentalist mujahidin allies the U.S. sponsored in the anti-Soviet jihad
of the 1980s who are now fighting with the Taliban -- that no amount of
American training, mentoring, or cash will determine who or what
Afghans will fight for, if indeed they fight at all.

Afghans are world famous fighters, in part because they have a knack
for gravitating to the winning side, and they're ready to change sides
with alacrity until they get it right. Recognizing that Afghans back a
winner, U.S. military strategists are now banking on a
counterinsurgency strategy that seeks to "clear, hold, and build" --
that is, to stick around long enough to win the Afghans over. But it's
way too late for that to work. These days, U.S. troops sticking around
look ever more like a foreign occupying army and, to the Taliban, like

Recently Karen DeYoung noted in the Washington Post
that 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 off
eight 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 wounded
that 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?

When I visited bases and training grounds in July, I heard some
American trainers describe their Afghan trainees in the same racist
terms once applied to African slaves in the U.S.: lazy, irresponsible,
stupid, childish, and so on. That's how Afghan resistance, avoidance,
and sabotage look to American eyes. The Taliban fight for something
they believe -- that their country should be freed from foreign
occupation. "Our" Afghans try to get by.

Yet one amazing thing happens to ANA trainees who stick it out for the
whole 10 weeks of basic training. Their slight bodies begin to fill out
a little. They gain more energy and better spirits -- all because for
the first time in their lives they have enough nutritious food to eat.

Better nutrition notwithstanding -- Senator Levin, Senator McCain --
"our" 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?

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