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Nick Mills Headshot

Few Comforts or Surprises

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The Wikileaks avalanche of tens of thousands of classified documents relating to the war in Afghanistan is rumbling around the globe, and has triggered waves of denials, damnations, I-told-you-so's, oh-ho!'s and aha!'s. The White House and the Pentagon have naturally condemned the release of the documents and have begun criminal investigations to track down the leakers. Some of the documents appear to unveil U.S. military coverups of incidents in the field where civilians were killed, and a lack of candor, shall we say, about the capabilities of the insurgents and the incapability of the Afghan National Army and Afghan police, upon which billions of dollars have been lavished for training and equipment. The Pakistani government is strenuously denying one of the most disturbing revelations of the documents, that its military intelligence branch, the ISI, has been working with the Taliban and other insurgents to defeat the U.S. military occupation of Afghanistan. NATO governments say they are shocked -- shocked! -- to learn of possible Pakistani collusion with the Taliban, when this has been one of the dirty little not-so-secrets of the war for years. After all, the ISI, which is controlled mostly in theory by the Pakistani government, played a major role in the creation of the Taliban.

So what have we learned from the document deluge that we didn't already know?

For one thing, we learned that the Taliban are using Stinger missiles, or their updated successors, to shoot down U.S. aircraft. Those of us with long memories will recall -- aided, perhaps, by Charlie Wilson's War -- that in the late 1980s the U.S. supplied the Afghan mujaheddin with Stinger missiles to shoot down Soviet helicopters and low-flying fighter-bombers. Because the U.S. support for the mujaheddin was supposed to be clandestine, the Stingers officially did not exist, but the Afghan journalists I helped train in those days had video footage of resistance fighters firing Stingers at Soviet aircraft.

So if the Taliban are using sophisticated heat-seeking missiles to shoot down U.S. aircraft, where are the missiles coming from? The Taliban are not building them in their mountain caves. Either they are leftovers from the 1980s, meaning that we are being hoist by our own petard, or some other country is supplying new missiles. Hmmm. Some other country. Who might that be? The Taliban are based in Pakistan. The missiles would have to be transported through Pakistan. In the 1980s it was the Pakistani ISI that doled out the Stingers to their favored mujaheddin factions...so?

Another widely-known failing of the U.S. effort, backed up by the leaked documents, is the Afghan National Army (ANA), which has been built up from virtually zero to a "strength" of more than 112,000 troops at a cost of between $2-3 billion per year, all costs borne by the U.S. government. The linchpin of the U.S./NATO strategy in Afghanistan is to get the ANA trained, equipped and staffed (the goal is to roughly double the current troop numbers) so that they can carry on after the Western armies leave. But analyst Antonio Giustozzi of the respected British think tank, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) writes in the RUSI Journal that "at the end of 2009, the Afghan army is beset by a host of problems including widespread illiteracy, ethnic rivalries, drugs use and poor combat effectiveness."

The British tried to train a professional Afghan army in the 19th century; the Soviets tried it in the 20th, and the U.S. is having another whack at it in the 21st. The first two attempts failed and the third is failing. Why? One reason is the ethnic tension within the ANA. The Pashtuns hate the Tajiks and the Uzbeks and they all hate the Hazaras. Left to their own devices they will probably fight each other, as they did in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal. Another reason is corruption in the ranks -- a soldier is lucky if any of his promised pay actually winds up in his pocket, after his superiors have taken their cuts. And a third reason is that the soldiers of the ANA think the Taliban will eventually win, as the mujaheddin did in the 1980s, and they don't want to meet the same bloody fate the Soviet-trained Afghan army met back then.

The leaks provided few real surprises, and even less comfort. What the leaked documents did was to underscore yet again the need for the U.S. and the Kabul government to negotiate a resolution to the war, and for the U.S. military to pack up and leave.

Note: I borrowed the title of this entry from an old photographer friend, Eugene Richards, who produced a book of the same name about the lives of poor sharecroppers in the Mississippi delta.

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