The news from Afghanistan continues to range from bad to awful. The Taliban are still carrying out deadly attacks, American relations with Hamid Karzi are increasingly testy and, in case you missed the recent announcement, the US and its NATO allies have officially turned over security responsibility for the country to Afghan forces.
The security transfer is a major event that deserves ongoing media coverage and analysis but that's not happening. The news cycle has moved on to other stories with more immediate excitement like the travels of accused NSA leaker Edward Snowden and various controversies swirling around the Internal Revenue Service. Meanwhile, President Karzi continues to insist that his military forces are fully capable of defending the country. Recent history presents a more ominous reality.
Last October the New York Times reported that chronic desertion and low re-enlistment rates were forcing the Afghan army to replace a third of its troops every year. Deserters were said to be unhappy about corrupt officers, inferior equipment, bad food, and other problems driving down morale. But the one complaint that caught my attention was "a lack of belief in the army's ability to fight the insurgents after the American military withdraws."
That lack of belief is alarming but definitely not surprising. Putting a bunch of guys into new uniforms and teaching them how to march in formation and fire weapons doesn't make an army. Sooner or later each one of those soldiers is going to ask, "Why am I in this organization and what am I fighting for?" When you consider the human factor, the notion of stepping into a chaotic foreign environment like Afghanistan and creating a functional, effective military force from scratch is a massive example of wishful thinking.
The contrast between the Afghan recruits and our troops assigned to train them couldn't be more vivid. The American military has a clearly defined identity. This country was founded on principles that are established in the Constitution and maintained by the democratic process and respect for the rule of law. Our shared heritage of the past 250 years is a powerful unifying force.
Afghanistan has never had a collective identity. Loyalty is based on family, ethnic, and tribal connections. Since 1979 the population has experienced repeated cycles of brutal warfare and political repression. It's a place where the intangible elements that unify and motivate a national fighting force are all missing and no amount of target practice or tactical training will change that fact. But the training goes on and the US timetable is still aimed at having all our combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
What the Afghan army looks like at that point is anybody's guess right now. President Karzai doesn't seem worried but he probably has contingency plans that will maintain his personal security even if his government falls apart. Another recent story that zipped through the news cycle and quickly vanished explained how Karzai has received tens of millions of dollars from the CIA during the past decade, much of it dropped off at the presidential offices in suitcases or plastic bags. Sources say the cash is intended to guarantee CIA access to Karzai's inner circle and is also used for payoffs to politicians and warlords.
With so much attention these days focused on federal spending and cost cutting you'd think somebody in Congress would be thoroughly outraged and call for a special investigation to find out why millions of our tax dollars are disappearing into the dark corners of Kabul without a trace.
I wish we could divert some of that money into the hands of more worthy recipients like the American troops who are putting their lives on the line every day trying to build a solid, reliable Afghan army while one third of the trainees are bailing out each year.
There should be a law that we give our military people a generous cash bonus each time they get sent off on a real life version of Mission Impossible.