What Marjah Says About American Neglect in Afghanistan
As far as I can tell, the mainstream media has done a pretty good job covered the Marjah military offensive. Wire services like Reuters and the Associated Press have reporters on the front-lines as we speak. Newspapers like the New York Times and magazines like Newsweek are providing the world with up-to-the-minute developments on the battle; the largest joint U.S./NATO/Afghan ground campaign since the initial invasion in November 2001. And of course, embedded journalists are jotting down notes on their twitter feeds, giving readers vivid descriptions as if they were part of the operation (speaking of which, I’m going to plug my own tweeter feed, @mideastblogger).
But there is one element that has been absent from the wires as of late (the Economist is an exemption). While reporters and military analysts are constantly reminding us that this is the most significant U.S. operation in the last eight years, many have failed to mention that the battle for Marjah is also the first true test for the Afghan National Army (again, the Economist is an exception. They had a great article last week about this entire affair). And unfortunately, when journalists ignore the contributions of the Afghan Security Forces, they also bypass a major part of the Afghan debate; what is the best way to increase the size of the Afghan National Army?
And this leads me to my point. Despite the brave participation of Afghan soldiers in the battle for Helmand Province (a main Taliban stronghold and opium den), U.S. policy is still based on a quick-fix solution: ‘The sooner we build an Afghan army, the sooner U.S. troops can return home.’
Now take it from me. If I understood how to build an army, I would probably be working for some sort of think tank in Washington D.C. at the moment…not sitting in a college library blogging about “what ifs.” But like every political science student in the country, I do have some thoughts.
I have heard rumors that some U.S. policymakers are considering conscription as a way to boost the size of the Afghan National Army, the reason being that the U.S. only has a little over a year to train Afghans before they withdraw entirely. And to be honest, enacting an Afghan draft makes sense, especially if the main goal of the U.S. right now is centered on building a formidable Afghan Army.
But if the United States truly wants to leave behind some semblance of a professional security force prior to withdrawal, forced integration seems counterproductive. With skill and morale already extremely low, conscription is a strange way to accomplish the goal of an Afghanistan that can defend itself from foreign enemies and domestic rivals.
Yes, the rank-and-file of the Afghan Security Service is still well-below what it needs to be. And yes, many Afghan soldiers and policemen are deserting, hooked on drugs, or abusing their power on the civilian population. But forcing more Afghans to participate in the armed-services will simply replace deserters with more corrupt security personnel.
The United States and the Karzai Government are focusing way too much on the quantity of the ASF rather than the quality. Increasing membership to 171,000 by 2011 is all well and good…that is if Afghans really wanted to fight for their country. But it should be quite clear that Afghanistan is not a typical nation-state. Tribal and ethnic loyalties are much more important to Afghans than a strong central government. Afghanistan has never had a functioning central authority that its civilians respect and admire. And pretending like the United States is the one actor that can change this historical precedent is naïve.
With this in mind, introducing more Afghan soldiers into the fray will not automatically translate into more victories on the battlefield. One of the main reasons why the Taliban insurgency is continuing to draw recruits is due to the ineffectiveness and downright brutal corruption of the Afghan Police force. In some areas- such as Helmand and Kandahar Province- the locals trust the Taliban more than they trust their own government. I am not convinced that a western-imposed draft system will solve this problem.
To the contrary; introducing more dispassionate young men into the army will only revamp corruption when the United States is trying desperately to diminish it. And with more corruption, physical abuse will run rampant and draw ever-more civilians into the arms of the enemy.
There’s something to the old adage “quality over quantity.”
-Daniel R. DePetris
**Comments courtesy of the Economist**