Getting A Broader Perspective (Updated)

by Joshua Foust on 5/8/2009

Bing West wants the ANA to take over governance outreach.

The second option is to expand the role of the Afghan army to act as the facilitators and watchdogs of governance. Today, American commanders like Capt. Howell routinely participate in shuras or councils. They can gradually hand off such governance-related tasks to Afghan officers.

To do so requires funding a military pension plan conditioned upon retiring a generation of superannuated senior Afghan officers and promoting the younger generation. Afghan battalions would remain in set locales for years instead of rotating every few months as many now do. By homesteading, the Afghan army would develop sources to make arrests or deals beyond our ken. Unlike the police, they could ward off retaliatory attacks. In a de facto way, the military — the most respected institution in Afghanistan — would become the real backbone connecting the locals to the central government.

This doesn’t sound patently foolish, until one realizes he is writing this from the Korengal Valley. While West notes up front that the Korengal is a uniquely violent exception to the rest of Afghanistan, he still draws his conclusions about “how to win,” it seems, based on a quick embed in the Korengal and reading some press statements by CJTF-101 commander Major General Schloesser.

It’s also worth noting that “homesteading” Afghan Army troops is no more sustainable or feasible than doing the same with American troops, considering they are forced to serve away from their homes to minimize corruption. Similarly, West writes off the role of the police, when THEY should be fixed and made the foremost governance institution of the Afghan government. Lastly, he seems to think all you need to do is devise a “military pension plan” that’s all about helping senior ANA officers retire in comfort.

I’m guessing he’s not spent much time examining life away from the FOBs? There is no money within Afghanistan itself to do any of this, and the cost to the International community of funding lifetime retirement and healthcare for retired troops—a huge number of whom have serious injuries and drug addictions—is enormous, even by American standards.

Let us not forget Afghanistan’s MANY other institutions, all of which will be necessary for building some sort of sustainable culture. In the U.S., these institutions—from something as simple as trash collection to enforceable regulation to manufacturing to law enforcement—function almost invisibly, so it’s easy for Americans to forget just how complex they are (watch an episode of How It’s Made, for example, and see the invisible effort that goes into making even basic things work). Even in Iraq, many of these institutions existed before and during Saddam Hussein’s rule, so it was relatively easier to build them back up after his fall—even if the U.S. did so poorly, they still existed, and there was recent-enough memory of those institutions for Iraqis themselves to remember how the worked. Simply expanding the Army in Afghanistan ignores the very serious problem of Afghanistan’s rotten institutions.

So, why is Bing West wishing for ponies from an aberration? He needs to visit places where the counterinsurgency is working—places like Alasay or maybe even Garmser now. The soldiers in north-central Kunar face enormous risks, but no other unit in the country has even a remotely similar threat profile. West needs to visit Kabul, too—not Camp Eggers or whatever happens to be hosting the VIPs this week, but the mid-levels of the Ministries of Interior, Education, Border and Tribal Affairs, and the Wolesi Jirga. That is ultimately where Afghanistan’s future will be built.

Advocating policy based on outliers is a very bad idea, one guaranteed to lead to half-baked ideas. West can do better.

Update: As Christian helpfully reminded me, West also commits the cardinal sins of mercilessly referencing Kipling and Native American Indians in his quest to analogize his thinking into relevance. We don’t need to rehash Kipling or Apaches again. But Christian has video evidence for why the ANA is totally unsuited for West’s plan. Argh. It’s like he did no research for that op-ed aside from what some dude in a cut off FOB told him this one time.


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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 Registan.net. 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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