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