We Can’t “Train” Our Way Out of Afghanistan

Drill-InstructorAccording to a BBC news report, last week in Kabul “an American service member and an Afghan police officer got into an argument because the American was drinking water in front of the Afghan police, who are not eating or drinking … because of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan … (The policeman) shot the American and seriously wounded him, while other American troops responded by seriously wounding the (policeman).”

This depressing vignette spotlights the problem for American troops in Afghanistan. And it shows the problems Afghans have with ignorant foreigners whose boorish insensitivity would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous.

A perceptive American military officer told The Washington Post that “Having US troops enforcing martial law where they don’t understand the people or speak the language — this is a recipe for disaster.” Quite so, although using the phrase “martial law” is a bit disconcerting.

The same applies to training the Afghan army and police, a key component of President Obama’s escalation. Training and “mentoring” of Afghan troops and police by Americans – lush with shades of Vietnam-era condescension – won’t work and we can’t “train” our way out of the country.

Sounds Like “Stripes”
To begin with, along with the US Army, training is conducted by different nations, none of which use similar methods. Indeed, NATO and troops from other nations don’t have compatible rules of engagement, communications or logistics systems, equipment, command structures or domestic political pressures. NATO and the “International Security Assistance Force” have some 65,000 troops there. About half are American, but more than 30,000 other US troops operate under entirely US command, having nothing to do with NATO.

To say this is fucked-up is being polite. Here are the lordly superior nations of the West, intent on bringing law, order and clean government to Afghanistan – a land where none of the three has ever existed – and they do not have a single headquarters responsible for commanding all military operations.

If a young captain at West Point proposed such a structure in a term paper, he would flunk out of the academy. It all sounds like a scene from the Bill Murray and Harold Ramis film, Stripes. Except Stripes was a comedy and we’re talking about the real world.

There is no overall Mission Statement for the 100,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan. As the war intensifies, it is likely that national contingents now operating in comparatively safe areas will be subjected to action by warlords, Taliban, drug barons and other criminal thugs. If this happens – and we’re beginning to see some of it already in the previously peaceful north – there will be even more chaos.

Fiasco Looms
The US says that training soldiers is the responsibility of the Afghan army with our assistance. True, as far as it goes. But at least six countries are involved in training Afghans, a surefire recipe for confusion. So last April, realising that the training process had failed, NATO announced it would create a Training Mission with “a single commander for both the US-led Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan and the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan.”

Good luck trying, but it won’t work. What is needed is a stand-alone training system that could be designed in detail by a competent major in about a week.

One reason the US Army is so good is because all recruits are functionally literate and speak English, along with whatever other language they may command. The dedication and ingenuity of the instructors is utterly amazing. The logistics system is, for the most part, staggeringly efficient. A former Army drill instructor once told me about one of his fresh-faced recruits with size 16 feet who showed up at basic training. The Army doesn’t stock size 16 boots so the quartermaster phoned the boot supplier; two pairs arrived the next day.

Afghanistan doesn’t have supply lines efficient enough to deliver food around the country, let alone a constant stream of goods and ammunition to troops in remote outposts.

Beyond supplies, it takes at least a year to produce a reasonably efficient soldier — and that’s with an almost perfect system. It would be criminal to ask a soldier to hazard his or her life before they were competent.

But Afghan army training is only 10 weeks, and 90% of recruits are illiterate. Worse, they seldom speak the same language as either their peers or the foreigners instructing them. Afghan instructors are keen but barely effective. US and other foreign instructors may be good but most are depressingly ignorant ofAfghanistan’s language, culture and customs. Moreover, with a desertion rate of 25%, the country’s troops and police have a turnover rate that would cripple even the best training regimen.

Fighters Diverted To Training
It’s reported that, as part of Obama’s surge, one brigade of the 82nd Airborne will be deployed to serve as trainers.. But the 82nd Airborne is a regular Army brigade trained hard and tough to fight; unit members are not trained to train.

What a farce.

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The training system in Afghanistan won’t work, nor will the absurdly complex new command arrangements being put in place. For example, there will be a “new ISAF Upper Command Structure, (which) will consist of a higher operational Headquarters, ISAF HQ commanded by a 4-star General, and a subordinate 3-star HQ called ISAF Joint Command (IJC) HQ. Both will be located in Kabul …” And so on.

In a marvellous piece of military speak, another bulletin announces that “COMIC-J (emphasis mine) will be exclusively a NATO Commander, as opposed to COMNTM-A who will be double-hatted as NATO/ISAF Commander and Commander of the US-led Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A).”

COMIC? I couldn’t make it up. But it’s all too real, if barely believable.

Heaven help Afghanistan, our soldiers sent to fight and die there for no good reason, and the rest of us.

Charley James

The Progressive Curmudgeon


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Published by the LA Progressive on December 1, 2009
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About Charley James

If you are born in Milwaukee, chances are you're born a Democrat. So, I gravitated naturally to liberal politics as an activist and a journalist. I've been writing since I was eight and, after working in newsrooms for far too long, I have devoted much of the past decade as an independent investigtative jouralist. For much of the past year, I've been writing about homelessness - America's immorality play.