Maybe Moving Beyond Platitudes, Soon

by Joshua Foust on 12/11/2008

Kevin Drum links to a fun pair of stories. The first is an interview with John Nagl, pushing his usual plan for magically conjuring hundreds of thousands of extra security forces to fix Afghanistan:

Winning in Afghanistan, he realized, would take more than “a little tweak,” as he put it to me from back in Washington a few weeks later, when he was still shaking off the gritty “Kabul crud” that afflicts traveler’s lungs. It would take time, money, and blood. “It’s a doubling of the U.S. commitment,” Nagl said. “It’s a doubling of the Afghan army, maybe a tripling. It’s going to require a tax increase and a bigger army.”

Right. We talked about the problem with ponies before; maybe, if Nagl went somewhere outside of Kabul on his trip, he might have a different idea of what’s really needed there. Just a thought. But Drum also goes out to well known Afghanistan expert Joe Klein, dutifully quoting the Brits training cops in Helmand:

Almost all the recruits were illiterate. “They’ve had no experience at learning,” Armour said. “You sit them in a room and try to teach them about police procedures — they start gabbing and knocking about. You talk to them about the rights of women, and they just laugh.”

….The war in Afghanistan — the war that President-elect Barack Obama pledged to fight and win — has become an aimless absurdity….The far more serious problem is Pakistan, a flimsy state with illogical borders, nuclear weapons and a mortal religious enmity toward India, its neighbor to the south. Pakistan is where bin Laden now lives, if he lives.

This raises some questions. The first is kind of obvious: training police is hard. Even in the U.S., it is a difficult task, and our police academies are actually pretty tough to work through. Complaining about illiterate Afghan recruits joking around and not caring about equality for women is completely unreasonable. What do they expect, a bunch of Eton grads, fresh from the fields of Lashkar Gah and eager to learn the intricacies of Western law-givin’? Some people might point to the decision early on to allow the Germans to train the police—a disaster if ever there was one—even now, there are people, Americans and Canadians it mostly seems, who do put in the many long hours to train the Afghan police (see here for an example of the superhuman patience required).

But why, seven years on, has no one thought to set up an indigenous training element? The ANA is getting there, in fits and starts—by most press accounts, it continues to improve in professionalism and accountability. The EU, meanwhile, struggles to find 180 foreign trainers, and can barely find 90 Afghans able to train. That is just unacceptable.

Then again, the job of the ANP is supremely difficult. Even when they’re not getting caught in friendly fire incidents, they’re left patrolling a hostile human landscape as the pointy, barely armed end of the spear in the counterinsurgency:

Two days later, Vollick, sitting in the base’s kitchen, with his back to a wall of M.R.E.s and granola bars, described the operation as a success. Police had subsequently picked up a suspected insurgent leader in the area, and Vollick ascribed the capture to Taliban panic resulting from the ambush. “We hit them when we chose, and they had no idea who did it or how,” he said. When he said “we,” he gestured to the Hazaras’ sleeping quarters, twenty feet away. “It was a psychological victory.” The Hazaras I spoke with described the sprint back to the base, easily the most dangerous moment of the ambush, with nonchalance. Muhammad Hussein—the boy who killed the first Talib—chain-smoked as he described it. “It wasn’t that serious,” he said. “They launched one rocket, but it was far from us.” But Vollick, a professional warrior, remembered the sprint differently. “We were running for our fucking lives,” he said.

That’s Kandahar, where Graeme Wood followed around a Hazara police unit. Unbelievable. But absolutely vital. I hope the issues with Joe Klein blaming all of our problems on Pakistan instead of our own mistakes are obvious enough not to need repeating for the nth time (though for starters you could try going here, here, or here).

As of late, I’ve become convinced that the real key to success in Afghanistan isn’t necessarily flooding the country with troops as Nagl suggests, or pretending like our own failures in the country don’t matter while blaming it all on Pakistan like Klein, but rather in fanning out into the countryside, in small units embedded at the hyper-local level: industrializing the ETT/PMT model, as it were. Platoon-sized units acting as embedded units, camped out at strategic villages, providing permanent presence and mentoring. We’ve done it before; there’s no real reason we can’t do it again.

It is a radical change, one I doubt an Army still adverse to change would be willing to undertake on the necessary scale. But what is needed when thinking about Afghanistan and what we might do to reverse our slide into defeat is to think creatively, beyond body counts and shallow cultural stereotypes. The police are one way in which this can be made not only more effective by being more local, but also more Afghan, which should be the point of the counterinsurgency anyway. So here’s hoping someone out there is listening…

Extra Reading:
Sustainability Problems in ANSF Expansion
Are More Troops the Answer?
On the Necessity of Security
Is the “How Many” What’s Wrong with the ANA?

Outside Reading:
Long Warrior: From the Jaws of Victory

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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