With the Qur’an-burning scandal, the Panjwai massacre, repeated demonstrations against the United States, and Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai’s increasingly strident anti-American pronouncements, it seems clear that the US is likely to be withdrawing from that country soon. The Obama administration, its “counter-insurgency” strategy crafted by current CIA head David Petraeus in flames, still hopes for a soft landing. Republican candidates have shown no appetite for staying in Afghanistan either (Newt Gingrich says that Afghans should be ‘left to their miserable lives,’ presumably as punishment for their ingratitude at being militarily occupied by the US and its western allies for over a decade).
I haven’t seen good recent reporting, however, on what seem to me the key elements in a successful US withdrawal, i.e. one that does not lead to another Afghan civil war, one that doesn’t leave the country a playground for regional interests, one that does not result in a takeover by the Taliban.
The centerpiece of US policy is the building up of the Afghanistan National Army, with a target set by President Obama of 260,000. This troop level cannot be sustained by the Afghan government budget, and so guarantees that foreign sources will be necessary to fund the army for years and perhaps decades to come. Is that course really plausible?
What is the current troop strength? How much of the country is the ANA responsible for now (the US and NATO have been turning provinces over to it one by one)? How many tanks does the ANA now have? How many helicopter gunships? What is the ethnic composition of the officer corps now? How loyal are they to Karzai? Who is the army chief of staff and how good is he?
Well, the easy part is that the army chief of staff is General Sher Mohammad Karimi, who is a very worried man. He was graduated from Britain’s prestigious Sandhurst military academy, but also studied in Egypt and Russia. He is worried about US hamfistedness, as with the scandal over the burning of the Qur’an, or the video of US troops pissing on fallen Taliban warriors’ bodies, and the way the Taliban are taking full propaganda advantage. He is worried about presiding over hundreds of thousands of largely illiterate, poorly trained troops (Afghanistan’s literacy rate is 28%, the troops’ literacy rate is about 10%).
Karimi is also concerned about the scaling down of US and NATO plans for support of his military, with recent maximum troop strength now being pegged at 230,000. He wants a bigger army and wants ongoing artillery and close air support. If I were Karimi, I’d get NATO to buy me as many tanks and artillery pieces as they would right now, and train the men on them like crazy. Afghanistan in 2016 may not be a budget priority. And the country cannot hope to support this enormous military establishment all by itself. It would swallow up the whole national budget.
The recruitment drive for the army had stalled out at 170,000 by last September. There were enormous numbers of troops going AWOL in 2010.
Reporting on the ANA performance on the ground is sketchy. Karimi alleges that 60% of military operations are now carried out by the ANA independently of NATO, but I doubt very many important battles are pursued without Western support. It is being alleged that an operation led by ANA forces and supported by Afghanistan National Security Forces and a British unit against Taliban in Gereshk, Helmand, went well, with the fundamentalist guerrillas scattering before the ANA advance. If this report is true, and if it is representative, it would indicate progress in ANA capabilities, but obviously they still needed British backup.
It is the cohesiveness, efficiency, and counter-insurgency capabilities of the Afghanistan National Army that will go a long way toward determining the future of the country. We need more good reporting about what exactly is going on with the ANA.
What I can find out on the web suggests to me that the troops need more education. Why not a University of Maryland type educational program for them such as US GIs have access to? They need better armor and training on it. They need better esprit de corps.
The US public is uninterested in or tired of Afghanistan. Obama should give up on a US-led attempt at counter-insurgency (winning hearts and minds, indeed) and instead put all its eggs in the basket of ensuring that the ANA and the national police have the capacity to do their jobs.