The farce that is Afghanistan has reached its epitome. The American-led coalition announced this week that it was severely curtailing its joint operations with Afghan security forces because we just can't trust them anymore. But isn't this the core of our strategy? In addition, the problem of "green-on-blue" attacks (shootings of coalition forces by Afghans) is an insurgent tactic, not the critical underlying deficiency giving the lie to American strategy.
The real problem is that training the Afghans to defend their country was never doable in the first place. A top-to-bottom analysis reveals difficulties that would be hard to surmount individually. As a package, the blocks to American strategy become insurmountable.
Start with the idea of Afghans defending their country. What country? Outside of a few urban centers (sort of), this is a village-based, agrarian society that is seriously fragmented along tribal and ethnic lines. Afghans may not be sophisticates, but they are aware of the government-based corruption and lack of infrastructure that mire the country in misery because they experience the effects every day. We have added to their plight by reversing the normal state of expectation by telling villagers that they must participate in their own defense.
Imagine telling populations in our own small towns that their state police expect them to arm and help fight local gangs and criminals. Afghans may fight to defend their homes, but they will do it for pragmatic reasons, not for us. When it suits them, they will ally with the Taliban.
The Afghan soldiers themselves represent challenges. By and large, they are illiterate. They can't read manuals or orders. Some are brave, and have made the ultimate sacrifice.
Others range from being laggards to being outright infiltrators. We have no good solution for differentiating between the two. (A good friend, a Special Forces officer, told me a short while ago that the Special Forces had indeed figured out how to vet volunteers. The very next day, the first, but unfortunately, not the last, Special Forces soldiers were killed in a green-on-blue attack.) Afghan officers often act like minor warlords, looking for ways to make a buck and are not always interested in doing anything that is either dangerous or unprofitable.
The very idea of training an Afghan army to contend with the insurgents is problematic. What makes the Coalition better than the Taliban when the two sides collide in combat? Our forces are superb, but the insurgents, who are constantly evolving their craft, should not be underestimated. Take away our advantages, and the combat results start to drift toward an even fight. What are those advantages? They include air power, artillery support, control of the night, logistics, and a superb corps of non-commissioned officers. Ask any veteran, and he or she will tell you that non-coms are the backbone of any armed force, but that it takes years for them to develop their skills under the tutelage of other great non-coms. We are going to leave behind an Afghan force that will have none of the skills or advantages that we have developed over two world -- and many lesser -- wars. They have fought for many years, but as guerrillas. They will have to stand off other guerrillas with much greater motivation. And our attempts to impart some of our special skills will simply fail.
Finally, there is the great deception. This originates from the disconnect, whether willful or inadvertent, between senior and junior U.S. military officers. It affects the way generals portray the war in Congressional committee hearings held by admiring senators and congresspeople who want to believe, and who are told repeatedly that things are going terrifically, and "if we only had one more campaign season, we'd turn the tide once and for all, and, by the way, we train greater numbers of competent Afghan security forces every day."
After 11 years of campaign seasons, gains still appear ephemeral, and are based on the very presence of Coalition forces. Worse, discussions with the junior officers who are in the field often disagree totally with characterizations made by senior officers. The forces in the field fight for the same terrain over and over. They never know what villagers really think of them. They are unsure and mistrustful even of those Afghans who appear willing to help. The quality of the Afghan troops they are training is wildly inconsistent, but, as a whole, certainly not capable of having a country handed over with confidence. Many Americans are simply disgusted with the mission, but are too professional to do anything but carry it out, or quit.
There is also the simple fact that reporting up the chain about how the training of Afghans is going is sometimes fudged because no one wants to be the bearer of bad tidings.
If 11 years haven't been enough, how many would be? We keep talking about leaving behind an Afghanistan capable of taking care of itself. What would that look like? We've done our best at a job that no one does well. It's time to accept that.