Left Out: How to Grow the Afghan Army

  • Share
  • Read Later
Manpreet Romana / AFP / Getty

Afghan soldiers march during a graduation ceremony in Kabul on Oct. 18, 2008

President Barack Obama has tied his decision to order 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan to a pledge that they'll start returning home in 2011. But the President's West Point speech Dec. 1 was mute on his plans for the growing Afghan army, which remains the best — some would say only — way to bring home American personnel. His vagueness on the question of increasing the Afghan forces was understandable: the U.S. and its allies have already boosted target troop levels for the Afghan army four times, and the U.S. commander there, General Stanley McChrystal, wants the target number doubled yet again.

There's no sign, at least publicly, of a surge in growth of the Afghan army. Obama on Tuesday night steered clear of dealing with McChrystal's August call to hike the combined size of the Afghan army and national police to 400,000. Current plans call for the boosting of the Afghan army to 134,000 troops and the national police force to 82,000 by 2011. McChrystal warned that those totals were insufficient and called for boosting the army to 240,000 ("to increase pressure on the insurgency in all threatened areas in the country") and the police to 160,000.

On Tuesday afternoon, a senior White House official who declined to be quoted by name dismissed McChrystal's call for a bigger Afghan force. "We know that number's out there," the official said, without mentioning that it was put out there by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. James Dubik, a retired Army general who trained the Iraqi military and is now a senior fellow at the independent Institute for the Study of War, argues that the Obama Administration needs to embrace McChrystal's goal. "There's a significant psychological effect on the Taliban if we announce we're going to build an Afghan security force of 400,000," says Dubik. "We're going to miss that opportunity."

Obama's message to West Point cadets was less specific: "We must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future." McChrystal issued a statement endorsing Obama's plan, saying its push to train Afghan fighters "will be the main focus of our campaign in the months ahead." The Afghan national army, which jumped from 6,000 troops in 2003 to 24,000 in 2004, has been growing by about 1,500 troops monthly over the past year. (Iraq's security forces, protecting a smaller population than Afghanistan's, now total 600,000 men.)

But the challenges of rebuilding an Afghan national army of any size — for the fourth time in 150 years — are daunting. Afghanistan, torn by war over a generation, has missed the computer revolution that most militaries now take for granted. The Hindu Kush mountain range splinters much of the country into isolated valleys run by warlords, marginalizing any central government authority. And as the 219th poorest nation among the world's 229, Afghanistan simply can't afford to pay for a big military. Afghan forces today are largely slipshod and corrupt, U.S. officers who have served with them say. Technically they seem capable of doing little more than basic daytime operations, and they have yet to master the bookkeeping vital for any military force to keep track of itself.

In fact, say many U.S. officers, the Afghan mindset works against building a military force. Afghans have a "God-willing mentality" that "delays progress for all routine and major actions," U.S. Army Colonel Scot Mackenzie wrote in a study for the Army War College last year. Information is power, and senior leaders hold on to it tightly. They prefer faxes to e-mails because they like "paper in their hands, as opposed to data on a disk," Mackenzie said. Such tendencies freeze "subordinates into doing nothing until specifically ordered," he added. "Taking risk or initiative has historically been seen as a good way to wind up in prison or dead."

Joint U.S.-Afghan operations are plagued by mistrust, with the living quarters of allied and Afghan troops separated by walls, razor wire, guarded gates and machine-gun nests. "Currently, coalition forces eat, sleep and play in separate spaces from the people they are trying to train," U.S. Marine Captain Jason Moore noted in a report earlier this year for the Corps' Command and Staff College at Quantico, Va. In part, that's because Taliban sympathizers in the Afghan military have shot and killed U.S. troops. "Intentional or not, it conveys a sense of distrust, hostility and disrespect to their hosts."

While President Obama is setting timetables for Afghanistan, hoping to start bringing U.S. troops home by 2011, Mackenzie's words note that the very concept of deadlines is largely foreign to Afghans. "Time is not seen as a valuable resource in Afghan society," he wrote. "Correspondingly, the use of calendars at all levels is virtually nonexistent."