Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Obama's West Point Speech...

What to say? Yawn? You've already got one Noble Peace prize for making a speech? Obama's can opener problem?

At the heart of Obama's Afghan policy (I refuse to use the risible AfPak term) lies the political need to plan for an exit to avoid open-endedness and the disastrous effects that situation would have on approval ratings. And that plan relies of course on the not-so-fabled Afghan Security forces (Army and Police). It appears that building this fighting force that would have to be ready and willing to take on the Taleban forces and win that engagement in some eighteen months from now, is running hopelessly behind schedule, if it's really happening at all.

Ann Jones in "Meet the Afghan Army (Is It a Figment of Washington's Imagination?)" is on a lively debunking tour of some of the myths that surrounds this thus far not so great fighting force:

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 flak 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.


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.


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 returned.

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?


At 7:30 AM, Blogger Emmanuel said...

The whole Afghan situation scares me. I don't think sending in 30,000 troops is the answer, but I don't know what is. Pulling out now isn't really an option either, with the danger of the Taliban or Taliban-like forces taking over Pakistan and its nukes.

What's wrong with the term AfPak?

At 3:47 PM, Blogger Gert said...

Well, remember that the surge is designed to get us through to draw down, in some 18 months from now. So basically we recognise we don't want to/can't stay forever.

Having acknowledged that we would do better to withdraw sooner rather than later. We are without doubt part of the problem.

The real alternative is to get stuck forever in Afghan desert sand with an ever broader range of 'reviewed strategies', ultimately to have to declare defeat (although I'm sure we'll find a way to blame the Afghans). The US and UK public will not stand for this nonsense for much longer, IMHO.

I don't believe leaving will cause the Taleban/al Qaeda to start bombing us (I reject the 'fight them over there, because otherwise we have to fight them over here' thesis - it's illogical). Our presence in any case, with its clumsy bombing campaigns and cultural insensitivity, is a recipe for breeding a few suicide bombers each day.

Building democracy in Afghanistan? Good luck with that: in the West it took us a few hundred years to achieve that, don't expect a country that's never experienced central government in its history to go democratic overnight. Democracy is a lot more than a few elections: it's a way of life. The drive for Afghan democracy has to come primarily from within, no amount of Western templating can change that. And already we're supporting a government whose legitimacy is strongly in doubt: our people isn't learning, is it?

I believe the nukes are safe in the hands of the Pakistani army.

AfPak: it's a condescending term, strongly resented by a lot of Pakistanis. A clumsy way of lumping together problems that are related yet separate at once. 'PowerPoint presentation' stuff... Very 'us'...

At 6:25 PM, Blogger Emmanuel said...

Bush had delusions of democratization. I don't think Obama shares that view. I just searched through a transcript of his speech for the words "democracy" and "democratic" and found that he used the term only twice, referring to Pakistan, not Afghanistan.

I'm not an expert on Pakistan, so I don't know if the nukes are really safe with the Pakistani army. In my mind, the question isn't whether the Pakistani army is trustworthy, it's whether or not it may one day be defeated by the Taliban.

"I don't believe leaving will cause the Taleban/al Qaeda to start bombing us (I reject the 'fight them over there, because otherwise we have to fight them over here' thesis - it's illogical). Our presence in any case, with its clumsy bombing campaigns and cultural insensitivity, is a recipe for breeding a few suicide bombers each day."

I agree. I think the best way to protect ourselves from terrorist attacks isn't by being in Afghanistan, but by having better and smarter airline and border security in our own countries. If it weren't for my nuke-related concerns, I'd say the United States and its allies should leave as soon as possible.

By the way, the verification word I got below is "prous", which amused me. Your blog isn't exactly "pro-US" :)

At 11:04 AM, Blogger Gert said...

Whether Obama mentioned democratisation of Afghanistan or not really doesn't matter (I kept nodding off during the speech): anyone else who's pro-surge mentions it, it's part of the paradigm.

Between Bush and Obama's foreign policy there's really not much difference up to now. A 'change in tone' (not w/o importance), yes, but not much else. Wait and see, I guess...

I'm opposed to much of the US's foreign policy, not sure what that makes me.


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