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What kind of military are we building in Afghanistan?


 

I don’t buy much of the Afghanistan-is-Vietnam-all-over-again storyline, but on CNN.com today, military historian Andrew Wiest makes a plausible argument for one way in which we might be repeating the same mistakes that were made in Vietnam. The issue is the type of army we’re trying to build over there; as Wiest agues,  the problem is that the Americans tried to train and equip a first-world army in a third-world country that had neither the cash nor the capable manpower to keep it going. And Wiest suggests that we’re making the same mistake this time, trying to mentor along an army that will never be able, on its own, to fight western-style.

I don’t know enough about the training and equipping that is going on in Afghanistan to judge this argument, but there are a few things about what we’re building over there that do concern me. The first is the sheer intended size of the security forces. The goal is to have a combined ANSF/ANP strength of almost 400 000 troops, including almost 270 000 on the military side.

To put that in perspective, Canada has a reg force military strength of 67 000; the total number of police at all levels is about the same. But Canada has a first-world economy, can fund it from an established tax base, and can draw for its personnel on a healthy and literate population. Afghanistan has an agricultural economy, no tax base to speak of, while the population is mostly illiterate and generally in poor health. How can Afghanistan afford this? It can’t. The coalition  plan is to set up a trust fund of some sort that will pay for wages, pensions, equipment, and so forth.

Assuming this can be done, not a lot of consideration seems to have gone into the consequences of building and supplying an army/gendarmerie of 400 000 people in a country sandwiched between Pakistan and Iran. The ANA would quickly become a dominant political power power, as well as an elite institution in the country that might soon come to have little more than contempt for the country’s civilian institutions.

This isn’t armchair speculation — these concerns were raised by a Canadian military official at a briefing in Kabul last week. As he said, people are aware of the problem, but aren’t talking about it much.  As has so often been the case in Afghanistan, when it comes to the military, the long-term danger might not be that we fail in our ambitions, but that we succeed.

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UPDATE: Old-fashioned radios used by both sides enable ANA and Taliban soldiers to trash talk during firefights.


 
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What kind of military are we building in Afghanistan?

  1. This has been the problem all along.

    'As he said, people are aware of the problem, but aren't talking about it much.'

  2. I doubt that the ANA would become a political power – mostly because I doubt it can hang together in any cohesive semblance. Once the constant observation of NATO trainers dissipates, so too will many units of the ANA. They'll float back into their old tribal allegiances, taking their training, experience, and weaponry with them.

  3. You're assuming they won't have formed new allegiances to their other well-trained and well-armed colleagues. They will be in a position of authority as the ANA, with the means to enforce that. You think they'd willingly give that up?

    • I can see the argument – and it makes sense as far as it goes. But I think we underestimate the strength of traditional ethnic and geographic forces.

      Afghanistan is a poor country – as Andrew points out. How will the ANA generals secure the finances they require to pay for their huge army? Besides, I don't see how those in the lower ranks will share in the glory of a powerful ANA. I suspect that the lower-ranked officers and men will be able to benefit to a greater degree from seeking local alliances with warlords.

      I anticipate massive desertion from the ANA following the pullout of NATO.

      • Mm.. possible I guess. I see the ANA using the lower troops to secure the resources with which to pay the men, but you could be correct.

  4. "we might be repeating the same mistakes that were made in Vietnam"

    Gee, ya think?

    • Yeah, they've gone thru the same 'checklist' every time, Vietnam,Iraq, Afghanistan.

      Only thing that ever changes is the terrain.

  5. For context, Afghanistan's nominal GDP per capita, at ~$450, is just over half of Haiti's, and not nearly enough to sustain what we are trying to establish over there.

  6. " The goal is to have a combined ANSF/ANP strength of almost 400 000 troops … The coalition plan is to set up a trust fund of some sort that will pay for wages, pensions, equipment, and so forth …. The ANA would quickly become a dominant political power power"

    I really don't like the sounds of this. I am supporter of mission, trying to introduce democracy to new countries is always a good thing as far as I am concerned, but what Potter writes about makes me very nervous indeed. Tribalism, guns and money. What could possibly go wrong.

    Potter How did you end up on Afghan trip? I don't think of you as international affairs person so I was just wondering how/why you were invited to Afghan. And would you go again if asked?

    • If I recall correctly, Andrew went on his first real trip to Alberta just a short while ago. It would appear he is on a world wide tour starting with the A's.

      • Well, if that's the case I look forward to Potter's reports from Albania and Azerbaijan in the near future.

          • Flamenco dancing or bullfighting?

          • That would be nice. I was in Seville, which is in Andalusia I think, for Champs League match against Arsenal a few years ago. Spain is awesome – great food, maybe best in world.

          • Best meal I've ever had was room service ham at 1am at our hotel in Madrid. I thought I'd died and gone to ham heaven.

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