Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

What Marjah Says About American Neglect in Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Central Asia by Dan on February 23, 2010

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

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**Comments courtesy of the Economist**

8 Responses

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  1. funnyabalone said, on February 23, 2010 at 2:52 am

    It is pretty sad to see photos of the region, people are so poor and even the clothing seems to be centuries behind, this is not precision strikes and sheer military power can overcome, as long as people breed there is recruiting ground (and people to be killed as terrorist).

    We are lucky that this time there is no other super power working with the enemy and supplying them with latest weaponry, or it surely will be another Vietnam.

  2. jomellon said, on February 23, 2010 at 2:53 am

    What nonsense – the Afghans will do as all insurgent armies do, that is mount enough resistance to hurt the invaders, while keeping their heads down.

    Their best source of soldiers and arms will be from Karzai’s army.

    After the hot phase they will pull their weapons out of hiding and start opportunistic attacks.

    They have no loyalty to the Tajik puppet installed by the CIA, only to their clans and families.

    Also Obama has already written the script: military escalation for show followed by retreat. (The same as in Iraq). The locals know that and will just do enough to embarrass the invaders while avoiding getting hit themselves.

    What on earth is some poor squady from Leeds doing there getting his ass shot off in order to give Obama a plausible story for the mid-term elections?

  3. happyfish18 said, on February 23, 2010 at 2:53 am

    Just like Bush, it may be too early to declare victory because the insurgent Talibans will just melt away into the villagers.

    • joski65 said, on February 23, 2010 at 2:54 am

      The reading of the situation is all wrong, the Afghans are the original guerrillas, their strategy is never to hold territory but attrition…for the NATO troops, the real war will be the war of nerves that will follow now as one by one they lose men, the occasional fiyadeen attack…as the resolve of the troops as well as Obama gets tested
      @ Happy Fish: Nato troops do not have the carte blanch that Fonseka’s troops did. In Sri Lanka, the army destroyed entire villages including civilians…which is unfortunately how this war too has to be won. Otherwise given the porous Afpak border, the Afghan fighters really are under little pressure plus given Obama’s 2 year deadline, the Talibans return to power is inevitable.

  4. Occam@DR said, on February 23, 2010 at 2:54 am

    I hope all of those that do no to support the US/NATO efforts in the Iraq / Afganisthan AO´s raise the same objections to the religious police of the Universal Califate, when they come to behead them for not having a beard, listening to jazz, play soccer, drink alcohol, smoke marijuana, read not coranic books, oppose any policies of the Imans, Ayatholahs etc. (All activities that the previous comentators I imagine enjoy in their respective judeo-christian / democratic countries). So either, migrate to islamic countries, join your respective armed forces, request posting it the Iraq / AF AO´s or shut up!

  5. Mike Etc said, on February 23, 2010 at 2:55 am

    I’m finding it hard to believe the definiton of “success” when it comes to Afghanistan.

    Maybe the US needs to sit down and look it up in the dictionary.

  6. Mel Blitzer said, on February 23, 2010 at 2:56 am

    “Successful” PR…oops war strategy: Announce loudly through the world press your huge “take them by surprise” operation in Helmand Province to clear a town that had been “cleared” of undesirable elements before..

    The terrorists melt away and surprise, marine commanders find less resistance than expected! Some collateral damage is inflicted on the local population and NATO then declares the operation a success and announces their intention to stay and hold the territory. They may indeed stay and hold what has been gained but the Taliban is, if nothing else, patient and persistent. They can wait the requisite 10 or 12 or 48 months necessary before they quietly return the status quo.

  7. Woodrow Scott said, on February 23, 2010 at 2:56 am

    First, both Nad-i-Ali and Marja are agricultural districts of some 30-40,000 acres of irrigated land, not towns or cities. When settled in the 1950s, Nad-i-Ali was set up with some 5 compact villages built with US funding including the village mosque. The farmers were to walk to their fields each day. This pattern began to change during the Soviet occupation when the villages began to be targeted, so some of the farmers moved out to their landholdings. By the time Marja was developed 3-5 years after Nad-i-Ali, it was decided that each family needed a bit more land and that the settlement pattern should be for each farmer to live on his land…not like Nad-i-Ali.Thus Marja is an area where most of the farmers live on their land with several farmers’ markets (bazaars) scattered through the area including the one that had the District Officer’s (Wolis Wol) office in it.Perhaps the district of Marja has 80-100,000 people.

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