The Importance of Local Relevance

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by Joshua Foust on 9/20/2009 · 36 comments

This makes for something of a followup of my critique of the Pentagon’s refusal to consider Afghans on their own terms before designing policies for the country. Ann Jones, an activist who normally writes on women’s rights, recently visited a training center for the Afghan National Army and found something striking:

Their American trainers spoke of “upper body strength deficiency” and prescribed pushups because their trainees buckle under the backpacks filled with 50 pounds of equipment and ammo they are expected to carry. All this material must seem absurd to men whose fathers and brothers, wearing only the old cotton shirts and baggy pants of everyday life and carrying battered Russian Kalashnikov rifles, defeated the Red Army two decades ago. American trainers marvel that, freed from heavy equipment and uniforms, Afghan soldiers can run through the mountains all day — as the Taliban guerrillas in fact do with great effect — but the U.S. military is determined to train them for another style of war.

It’s something I’m sure BruceR would find intimately familiar: a refusal at the top to consider Afghans on their own merits. Of course, Ms. Jones has to color her article with (admitted, to her credit) supposition that could be easily fact-checked: there is a functioning ANA in places like Khost and Nangarhar, for example, just not in any great numbers. But it remains a good critique at a high level: we are not training the ANA for the war they have to fight, but the war we’d prefer them to fight… in an unsustainable way, though these days that seems to go without saying.

Photo: Afghan National Army, Kapisa province.

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– 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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anan September 20, 2009 at 7:59 pm

Joshua, you are being much too kind to Ann Jones. Her article is full of “INTENTIONAL” distortions. She claims that a large part of the ANA are Taliban (which is obviously false . . . many advisors have stated as much) and that most ANA soldiers do not return from vacations (obviously false.) The 203rd ANA, despite a formidable opponents and high tempo of operations has extremely low AWOL rates, by far the lowest in the ANA. Ann Jones clearly intended to insult the ANA however she could. How do Afghans like seeing their Army insulted in this fashion? Ann Jones fits into a rich tradition of western ethnocentric “analysts” pretentiously talking down to the locals. Few things irritate and insult South Asians as much as holier than thou Westerners filled with the soft bigotry of low expectations for brown natives.

The ANA has massive problems, but these can be stated in a way that is more respectful to them. If Ann Jones had written an article like this one about the Pakistani Army; many Pakistanis would have wanted to punch in her face if she were a man. Many Indians would react the same way if Ann Jones had skewered the Indian army in such a fashion (even Indians without relatives in the Indian Army.) I know it sounds harsh to state this; but it is really hard for many Americans to understand how much Indians, Pakistanis and Afghans love and admire their armies; even when they aren’t as good as the locals think.

If Ann Jones had any real interest in the ANA, she could have bothered to interview some ANA generals or embedded advisors. She could have discussed why some ANA units perform a lot better than others. She could have at least mentioned how much Afghan civilians admire the ANA (even if the admiration is partially excessive), and how much institutional pride the ANA has in itself (even though it is partly misplaced.) She could have mentioned their loyalty to the chain of command and their commitment to defeating the Taliban (she doesn’t need to trust Bruce, she could ask many other ANA advisors.) She absolutely “SHOULD” write about how much the ANA’s problems are a function of poor ISAF training and advising rather than their own motivation, as Bruce, Kirby, AfghanoldBlue, and many other advisors do; but her entire article was intended to subtly insult the ANA as much as she could before she even started writing it.

She openly claims that the ANA has mostly trained the same soldiers over and over again; and that the ANA only fields a fraction of its assigned soldiers. It is as if she is writing an SNL skit about a fairy tale that plays inside her own head.

I remember many such hatchet jobs written about the IA by American “analysts.” Many Iraqis, being very proud people, felt insulted by the madness.

anan September 20, 2009 at 8:01 pm

Joshua, is there a way to touch base offline?

dennis September 20, 2009 at 11:10 pm

well i would think it would be better,to give them a very basic training plan. then work with ANA nco’s on the advance stuff. i have heard that ANA nco’s and officers are very good. i would think a soled core of nco, officers. can train up there soldiers from there.they then can form a Afghan,national guard. i would hope that’s what happening now.

M Shannon September 20, 2009 at 11:25 pm

This Afghan War is lost. The west will achieve nothing of value for the trillions that will be spent or the thousands of casualties. Even if the Taliban were to surrender three years from now we’ll have simply done ourselves a serious injury without improving our security one iota. This is the strategic outcome of the foolish war of attrition we’ve been tricked into. Even the most optimistic supporters of COIN are silent on how long it will take to build ANSF capable of operating without NATO support. Decades? A generation? And when we’ve spent 4 trillion dollars to build ANSF when will the first coup d’etat be?

Ahad Abdurahmon September 21, 2009 at 3:55 am

Times have changed, Afghanistan is not Japan, and Eisenhower is long gone. So I agree with the author.
But at the same time, there must be a way for improving this country and its people’s live. Collaborate with Russia, China, India, whoever cares and is willing to. Do something for real, not just throwing those expensive bombs bought from military contractors.

M Shannon September 21, 2009 at 4:45 am


ANSF officers and NCOs are rarely even mediocre. That’s the problem. If the majority were good NATO ground forces could leave.

Most educated Afghans won’t have anything to do with the security forces. Plans to double ANSF in size don’t address the problems caused when the leadership pool is diluted and don’t explain where quality recruits will come from.

David M September 21, 2009 at 10:04 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 09/21/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Mack September 21, 2009 at 12:23 pm

This smacks of classical ideological populism in the development milieu – on one hand it’s a mistake to devalue indigenous knowledge, on the other, it is perhaps a greater mistake to unduly privilege and elevate that knowledge. Sure there is something to be learned from the tactics of the anti-Soviet Mujaheddin but we all know that asymmetric warfare is generally engaged in out of necessity not purely by choice.

anan September 21, 2009 at 12:31 pm

-Some parts of the ANP have major problems and many educated Afghans want nothing to do with them. The same is not true for the ANA or the ANCOP within the ANP
-Even the ANP only hires a fraction of qualified motivated applicants
-There is so much demand to join the ANA, that nepatism/Croynism/Corruption plays a big role in who gets to join
-Finding quality (if less educated) highly motivated recruits for the ANSF isn’t now nor has ever been a challenge
-The ANA has many very talented and capable NCOs and junior officers. Unfortunately, many of its senior and mid grade officers are horrible and need to be replaced with junior officers ASAP.
-Mid grade officers refuse to allow any initiative or responsibility on the part of the ANA’s many high quality NCOs. Hell, they don’t even allow responsibility and initiative on the part of their lieutenants and second lieutenants.
-Many of the ANA’s senior and mid grade officers need to be bribed with early retirement . . . it would lead to a quantum leap in the capability of the ANA.
-Many different countries are involved with the ANA. The ANA’s commanding generals have publicly demanded that the ANA be trained according to a single challenge and doctrine (it ain’t happening right now. . . but ISAF + non ISAF trainers can at least try a little.)
-Cheney and Rumsfeld refused to pay to educate the ANA. As a result, the ANA only has 84 lieutenants who have graduated 4 year academy. The 4 year academy “plan” is to produce 3,000 2nd Lieutenants a year. Several times 3,000 qualified high school graduates want to join every year (Shannon, the ANA is flooded with highly motivated Pashtu applicants who are not accepted.) However, the Bush (Cheney) administration in its amazing wisdom only decided to accept 300 students in the last class that started this past January. They are complete idiots. They won’t accept more Indian officers at the academy because it offends Pakistan. They won’t accept Russian officers at the academy for God knows what reason. They don’t ask the Chinese to contribute . . . for what reason exactly? Obviously US officers are needed in Iraq and US combat units; not to train ANA officers (don’t ask me to explain why.) Why can’t US Lietenants and Captains command US companies, Majors command battalions, lietenant colonels command brigades to free up talented US officers for 2 years Pashtu immersion language training followed by deployments as embedded advisors and trainers?

The Bush administration didn’t allow this type of thing to be considered because it was preoccupied with Iraq. I hope the Obama administration behaves differently.

dennis, I could give you a lot more info and what it looks like McChrystal’s ANSF strategy will be; but I tire.

For now, let me suggest that one allied division HQs be super embedded in Major General Aminullah Karim’s Afghan National Army Training Command. If no ISAF division HQs is available, then let India contribute it. Heavily involve the Russians and Chinese with the Afghan National Army Training Command (they are involved in limited, uncoordinated dysfunctional ways right now.)

By the way, CSTC-A has been officially renamed “CSTC-A/NTM-A”, and the two organizations have been merged as of September 10th, 2009 (it only took eight years to realize that there should be a single ISAF training organization for the ANSF.) CSTC-A/NTM-A needs to be renamed NTM-A (talk about excessive acronym overload) and needs to be a full blown division HQs.

I also think that Indonesia should be asked to contribute heavily to the MoI’s training and doctrine command. It also probably needs one allied division HQs to super embed in it.

‘nough ranting for now.

anan September 21, 2009 at 12:44 pm

Shanon, ANA 2-201 that operates in Nangarhar province is one of the worst brigade in the ANA. It isn’t representative of the ANA. You are a wee bit excessively pessimistic about the ANA’s chances me things. BTW, I was told by one ANA embedded advisor that 2-201 ANA’s brigade commander was pretty good; but that at least on of the battalion commanders was complete crap. I have asked you this before; but why is 2-201 so much worse than other ANA brigades? I should probably ask this question to a 2-201 embedded advisor.

BruceR September 21, 2009 at 12:56 pm

Anand, Jones clearly did talk to trainers at KMTC, and with at least one ANP senior officer, and also visited an ANP training facility. She has lived in Kabul, herself, for many years. And she says she knew actual soldiers who did the “revolving door training” thing to get money from the ANA without having to deploy.

There is certainly some element of serial desertions in the current delta between ANA effective strength and troop strength. I agree with you that there are other reasons, as well, but there is undeniably a delta all the same. For instance, units closer to Kabul tend to do better in AWOL, because those in Herat and Kandahar and Helmand when they go on leave to “give their families money”, have to get on a plane to Kabul first, and then disperse to their homes, which are still largely in the north of the country. They then claim they couldn’t get back for weeks on end because of weather, lack of planes, etc. There’s no one in Kabul who keeps tabs on these things, apparently, and no real working ANA military justice system that could ever chase down an AWOL soldier, so they all would have the option of changing their name and disappearing at this point, too, if they were so inclined. The fact that most don’t is salutary. But the kind of scheme that Jones reports would be easily achievable. I find that part of her assessment quite creditable.

anan September 21, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Bruce, AWOL rates are closely tracked and publicly available. AWOL rates for the ANA are amazingly low, given the very real challenges you discuss; especially once you exclude 205th ANA. In fact, they are lower now than they have been in many years on the aggregate. The ANA clearly do show up to work after returning home to pay their family, unlike what Jones implies. The last section 1230 discusses AWOL rates. If soldiers show up late from their vacations, then they are AWOL. {The time it takes to pay soldiers families is one reason why assigned/authorized ratios need to be a lot higher.}

BTW, some Iraqi Army divisions use to have 3 weeks of work followed by two weeks of vacation (because their families were far away and needed to be paid.) Others had 4 weeks of work and two weeks of vacation. This was established policy. Those who arrived late were AWOL.

Jones, clearly insinuated things about the ANA she must have known were false. She also didn’t distinguish between ANA and ANP or different ANA units. She clearly insinuated that much of the ANA is Taliban, which has no basis in fact.

Bruce, there are many individual cases of soldiers doing revolving door training, but they are a small percentage of the total. Otherwise the ANA wouldn’t have the “assigned” rate that it does, or the low “AWOL” rate that it does. To determine this only takes a slight amount of math, of which Jones is more than capable of. Her intentional desire to deceive reflects negatively on her. She can cite some anecdotal cases she is aware of if she wants; but why not mention:
-number of trained
-number of currently assigned
-AWOL rate
-infinite series calculator to account for the ending of 3 year deployment contracts (reenlist rates are also publicly available)
-casualties (also publicly available)
Then she could calculate what percentage of the originally trained serve out their three years subject to injuries and see that it is very high.

Whenever you write any “analysis” a bit of due diligence should be required. She should clearly enunciate “anecdotal” cases as anecdotal, stating that she doesn’t know how representative they are. She should also clearly state that such and such ANSF unit is such and such, without trying to imply that other ANSF units are such and such. Why is she trying to insult the entire ANA when she met a bunch of ANP trainers (she is actually right about some of the ANP . . . although there are many exceptions . . . even in Kandahar where you were)?

When MJT, Bill Roggio and Michael Yon embedded in local security units, they clearly designated which unit they were with, without implying that their unit was representative of other units. Jones didn’t seem to embed in any ANA unit; and seems to have little first hand knowledge of them. How many ANA embedded advisors or ANA senior officers did she interview for her piece? If she didn’t interview them, she should at least admit as much, and limit her observations to the ANP.

omar September 21, 2009 at 4:19 pm

Anan, Forget about journalists with racist agendas (mostly talking about leftwing racism here, which tends to be unconscious and even sillier than the rightwing variety), but you yourself say that the Bush administration made a hash of things and you have a long line of complaints about the situation even today. My question is: if the US seriously wants the ANA to win this war, shouldnt it be doing a much better job? why are several different countries charged with different levels of the training system? Why doesnt the US sort out the obvious problems you mention? Could it be that you have the right ideas, but your expectations OF THE US are too high? That the US, at some institutional level, is not even capable of doing what you would like them to do? Or do you think that is too pessimistic an assessment (I am genuinely curious; I have no inside knowledge and dont know if the US is or is not capable of carrying this off; I hope it is, but have recurring doubts).

BruceR September 21, 2009 at 6:59 pm

Anand, I would resist putting total faith in ANA AWOL numbers. If you’re AWOL, you’re not paid; so if you disappear and an ANA leader wants to keep pocketing your salary, you’re not getting added to the AWOL count if anyone can help it. It’s not like there’s mentors out there doing headcounts at all levels.

ANA ghost soldiers are very difficult to track. Mentors are often told that missing soldiers are “in hospital,” or “can’t get back from leave” or “on special duty,” or “back at the main base.” In Kandahar Province, the paper strength of the ANA brigade was 2,400 personnel. We were never able to positively confirm the presence of more than 1,600 at a time. That doesn’t mean they were all imaginary, but our stated AWOL rate wasn’t 33% either. It would take total dedication for mentors to cut through all the paperwork (literally, there are no computers involved) and often there are other priorities, and the incentives run the wrong way for mentors in this respect, as well. (Jones doesn’t mention the other reason the U.S. is moving to direct deposit for ANA: it’s also an anti-ghost measure.)

I guess what I’m saying is a low official AWOL rate could possibly mean a particularly dedicated Afghan unit, sure. Conversely, a high official AWOL rate could indicate a mentor team that wouldn’t put up with the usual bull.

anan September 21, 2009 at 7:14 pm

Omar, the answers to your question is complicated:

1) The US and allies can significantly improve the ANSF if they choose. The ANSF doesn’t have to become as good as the Iraqi Security Forces (Iraqi Security Forces) to win. If MNF-I could help develop the ISF, why can’t the same be done in Afghanistan?
2) There is great strategic confusion in different parts of the US gov’t and the US polity on Afghanistan. Ditto with many other allied countries.
3) CSTC-A/NTM-A still gets a fraction the resources of the MNSTC-I and the ETTs under MNC-I get in Iraq. President Bush decided in late 2006, to do whatever it took to train the ISF. President Obama has “YET” to decide to do this in Afghanistan
4) The ANSF is completely funded by the international community, both in the short and the long run. Therefore, a long term funding pipeline (grants to the ANSF over decades) needs to be committed before a particular capability can be added to the ANSF in a planned way.
5) In Iraq, the US runs the training mission, unlike the polyglot in Afghanistan;
6) President Bush wanted an international mission rather than a US mission in Afghanistan, and didn’t allow the US military to exercise leadership over the coalition in how the ANSF was trained, lest allied sensibilities be offended;
7) Without naming names, some prominent members on Holbrook’s team in 2008 called for a much smaller ANSF because they felt that funding it was unsustainable long term; some people close to Obama are arguing for a “SMALLER” ANSF as we speak.
7a) There remain huge differences between different parts of the US government and the international community about what the ANSF end state capacity should be and how best to achieve it and pay for it long term;
8) A good primer on the ANSF is Bruce’s latest article.

This is just for starters. I think that if America and the international community is serious about winning the war, they should state that the ANSF will cost $120 billion in international grants over 20 years. I have some cashflow spreadsheet models for calculating some options on the ANSF end state and how much those options will cost. One model that I would suggest projects $103 billion over the next 20 years.

However, this doesn’t include the long term economic development funding Afghanistan will need to have a prayer to balance their budget deficit. I think Afghanistan will need a total of $250 billion in international grants over the next 20 years to facilitate enough economic growth to generate $10 billion a year in GIRoA revenue in 20 years.

anan September 21, 2009 at 7:23 pm

Bruce, if an ANA soldier works for 4 weeks and then takes 2 weeks vacation, this would result in a 2/3rds steady state/assigned ratio. This was standard for many Iraqi Army divisions. Some of the best had a 75% ratio. Typically each soldier needed a ten day vacation in Iraq (since travel inside Iraq was unsafe and slow); although some had 2 week vacations.

The autodeposit system is now used for most ANA soldiers. 205th ANA had the highest AWOL rate of any ANA Corps. {The Canadian brief discussed it I believe.} Not a criticism; 205 ANA also had the highest tempo and the highest casualties.

This said, I am suspicious about how 203 ANA corps could have such low AWOL rates given their high tempo of operations. I am suspicious of their numbers.

M Shannon September 21, 2009 at 9:44 pm

Anan. Recruits who can’t read are not “high quality”.

I wouldn’t trust any numbers coming from ANSF. The ANP were happy stuffing ballot boxes. Why do you think they wouldn’t lie about how many people they had or where they were? Why do you think NATO mentors wouldn’t turn a blind eye?

anan September 21, 2009 at 11:15 pm

Shannon, the numbers on the ANP are a disaster. Less than 10% of Afghan districts have CM1/CM2 police.

I’ll challenge you on the ANA however. There are ways to fact check on the ANA.

It is unfair to allege that advisors turn a blind eye. Rather they have so many priorities that this isn’t top of their list. The ANA logistics is a tangled web of paperwork. Why should mentors spend their time sorting through it.

On education; have you met a 2nd Lietenant in the ANA who can’t read? There are many senior and mid level ANA officers who can’t read. Many of them need to be rewarded with lucrative retirement.

Afghan education:
-entire nation in 2001 had just over 1 million boys in school and almost no girls in school
-today 2.6 million girls in school and 4.4 million boys in school {I have questions about the quality of many of these new schools.}
-entire nation in 2001 had about 1,000 college freshman, all male
-today 45,000 college freshman, many woman. {I have questions about the quality of many of these new colleges.}

Because of the large shortage of educated Afghans, educated Afghans can make several times as much in the NGO industrial complex or private sector as they can make in the ANA. The entire pay scale for the ANA and ANP by officer/NCO rank and years in service is available in the latest section 1230 report from July, 2009. Funding for the ANA would cause a flood of college educated ANA applicants overnight . . . but what country will pony up the long term ANA personnel costs?

“I wouldn’t trust any numbers coming from ANSF.” Sounds like conspiracy theories to me. What specific data point would you question? I am asking you seriously. The rumor mill is often exaggerated and wrong in developing countries.

BruceR September 22, 2009 at 8:21 am

Anand, just for the record that 1,600 number I gave counted the ones that we could confirm were on their official “red cycle” leave block, as well. (Official leave for the ANA is more like one month every six months, btw.) The delta between the 2,400 on paper and the 1,600 we could confirm was not purely a vacation/no-vacation issue (although certainly accounting irregularities or special cases related to leave did account for some of the gap). Cheers.

omar September 22, 2009 at 12:01 pm

You are laying out what would be needed but my question was more about “does the US have the money AND the will AND the institutional ability to get this job done? If not, then it may be more useful to spend some time thinking up alternatives that do the least harm (all will do harm, REAL harm to the local population and some mix of symbolic harm and “real harm” to the US. I use the scare quotes because there will be some debate about whether the US can or cannot survive without being world policeman). The bottom line is: the steps you outline (and they all look sensible) CAN lead to an effective ANA, capable of holding Afghanistan against the Taliban, but “CAN” is some distance from “WILL”. Maybe the US can get it done if it commits 250 billion dollars and lots of hard work. But does it have either the money or the will to do so? Maybe it does and maybe it does not, but that was the question, not the details of the training and support needed.

anan September 22, 2009 at 12:53 pm

“does the US have the money AND the will AND the institutional ability to get this job done?” Absolutely yes. Keep in mind that the US does not have to do it alone. Many other countries (Russia, China, India just to cite three non NATO examples) also want a capable ANSF. If the US could help build the Iraqi Security Forces in a short period of time in a country far less pro American and which had deep internal conflict in 2006, America could build the ANSF by itself if it chose. {Many countries are willing to help with the ANSF.}

“If not, then it may be more useful to spend some time thinking up alternatives that do the least harm (all will do harm, REAL harm to the local population and some mix of symbolic harm and “real harm” to the US.” Omar, if the ANA is defeated, it would be a complete disaster for the world. That is the dooms day scenario. I would point out that the ANA hasn’t yet lost a company level engagement with the Taliban, Haqqani or Hekmatyur (thanks to close air support and ISAF QRFs.)

“Maybe the US can get it done if it commits 250 billion dollars and lots of hard work. But does it have either the money or the will to do so?” America has the money and then some. The ANSF by itself will need $5 billion a year (assuming 170,000 ANA, 120,000 ANP, and $1.5 billion per year on ANAAC.) Ending aid to Israel (which I support) will generate $3.5 billion of that.

I don’t follow what you are saying about being the world’s policeman. Global security is a public good that benefits everyone, including those who do not contribute towards it. The world would greatly suffer (lower living standards) without global security. Ideally, countries other than the US contribute most of it.

“The bottom line is: the steps you outline (and they all look sensible) CAN lead to an effective ANA, capable of holding Afghanistan against the Taliban, but “CAN” is some distance from “WILL”.” Everything in this universe is “CAN” versus “WILL.” The ANA is motivated and loyal to its chain of command. With $100 billion over 20 years, the ANSF will almost certainly hold on to the West and North and Kabul. It will temporarily lose the south and parts of the east. I think the ANSF will gradually reconquer the east and south over more than a decade. This is the most likely scenario. Keep in mind that the Taliban is viewed unfavorably by 91% of Afghans; whereas the ANA is extremely popular and respected among even Pashtun Afghans.

To those who think the ANSF would fold up, I would ask: “when is the last time an ANA company ran from the enemy?” “When is the last time an ANA company was over run? “

omar September 22, 2009 at 4:06 pm

My remark about “world policeman” was not meant to include any moral judgment about whether policing the world is good or bad. I agree that a well-policed world is a “public good”, but history provides many examples where groups of human beings did NOT pick the most rational alternative or things did not turn out as sensible good people wanted them to turn out.
About India and China and so on, certainly they want to avoid a taliban victory, but I think only India is unequivocally in that corner. The Chinese and Iranians and Russians may not be totally averse to dragging this out… And nations can miscalculate this fine balance…In any case, I would not assume that the US is necessarily going to make all the right choices either. And getting India and China to cooperate, is that as easy as you imply?
Stopping aid to Israel? how likely is that?
Sure, the US “can” do this. But will they? if they can fix ANA training tomorrow, why have they not done so? what is stopping them?
My questions are meant to clarify things in my own mind. I have not made up my mind, but I am not totally convinced when you say the US can do all this and more. Again, I am just trying to figure this out….I will be happy to be proved wrong.

anan September 22, 2009 at 8:01 pm

Why would Russia risk a Haqqani or Quetta Shura Taliban victory in Afghanistan? They arguably pose a greater threat to Russia than to NATO?

omar September 22, 2009 at 9:56 pm

I agree, but I imagine the best possible outcome for Russia would be COSTLY US victory (and best of all, one in which the US has to beg and cajole Russia to help out for a stiff price), not an easy US victory…

anan September 22, 2009 at 11:18 pm

Ruskies be strange. Me attempt at SNLII type Yoga haiku.

Cyrus September 23, 2009 at 12:51 pm

Anan, you stated in several variations,

“Few things irritate and insult South Asians as much as holier than thou Westerners filled with the soft bigotry of low expectations for brown natives.”

Are you, perhaps viewing Afghanistan through the prism of a “South Asian” perspective? Is this why you support in fact direct Indian military participation and action in Afghanistan? I personally view that as a military disaster in the making, for many reasons. After all, what would be achieved for the people of Afghanistan, for example? More troops, like their largely NATO counterparts? More targets for the Pashtuns to shoot at? More chances for war crimes, and civilians to get killed, this time by Indian soldiers? Due you believe that Indian(or even Pakistani) forces would somehow be “welcomed” to a larger degree than say ISAF forces already there? Why would this be? Would you simply attribute that to “brown skin”? What, from your perspective, would the Indians actually have in common with the various Afghan ethnic groups they would encounter? Not very much, me thinks…

Also, I noticed that Iran is almost always left out of these “foreign” discussion. Yet, their influence and “soft power” in Herat, for example, cannot be ignored. Why is this? Is the focus solely on the Pashtun dominated regions and areas of activity in the country? If so, then that should very much become the focal point of any Afghan discussion.

anan September 23, 2009 at 3:42 pm


You miss the point. The Afghan National Army is by far the most beloved and respected institution in Afghanistan. Look at any of the public opinion polls done since 2001. Afghan reverence for their army is out of proportion to the actual capabilities and quality of the ANA, but that does not make it any less real. Far more Afghan Pashtun want to join the ANA than the ANA has funding to hire. Afghan Pashtun are loyal to the chain of command and Afghan government, as well as committed to defeating the Taliban.

I would love to discuss Afghan history with you. How familiar with it are you? Afghan culture and language (Pashtun and Dhari) derive from the Vedic Samhitha pre Sanskrit Aryan base that South Asia and Persia share.

Cyrus is a Pharsi name. Are you aware that until recently the primary language of business, law and nobility in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan was Pharsi? Persian influence in Bangladesh and India is pervasive, as is Mongol influence.

You should read about the history of Cyrus II, your namesake. He formed the first global empire or confederation of states that we have retained historical accounts of. Many countries joined Cyrus II’s federation. They retained local autonomy and some wielded great influence within the confederation that Cyrus headed. Many South Asian countries (or countries from Bharat was it was then known) joined Cyrus’ confederation. Among these nations were Uzbechistan/Mazar e Sharif (ancient Keykaya), Afghanistan (then called Gandhara), Lahore/Punjab, Baluchistan, Sindh. In these nations (which were allied to Cyrus the Great), a great deal of pluralism, freedom of religion, and prosperity was encouraged (Zorastrians, Hindus and many other faiths practiced side by side.) In fact, when Cyrus called for his Bharat or Indus armies, many huge contingents would go to fight for him. These contingents would be lead by South Asian generals and fight South Asian style.

The final battle that lead the the end of the Persian empire/confederacy was the Battle of Gaugamela. In this battle, the South Asian armies played a very large role. In fact, they nearly defeated Alexander after the main Persian contingent was defeated. Alexander had to let the Persian emperor go, and rush back to try to save his army (which Alexander succeeded in doing.) Unlike Babylon which loved Alexander and chaffed under the Persian crown, South Asians liked the plural multinational Persian empire and supported it against Alexander.

Most recently Afghanistan from 1700 to 1747 was part of the Persian empire. The eastern part of Persia split off and was called “Afghanistan.” For two centuries before 1700, most of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh were part of the Mongol Seljik Turk Moghul Empire. This was a Pharsi empire. Hence the close connections and similarities between Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

You might be aware that at Bonn in 2001 and again thereafter, Iran offered to train 20,000 ANA under US command. This offer was not accepted. It was a big mistake. I advocated Iran joining the CSTC-A/NTM-A in training, equipping and funding the ANSF until 2008. Now, Iran is in flux since very smart people are no longer sure what power the various Iranian factions will have relative to each other a month from now. For this reason, negotiating with Iran is difficult at the moment. I think other countries such as China (already doing this to a small symbolic degree), Russia (already doing this to a small degree), India (already doing this . . . but can do much more) and Indonesia should also contribute to the ANSF train/equip effort.

Cyrus, there is broad popular support among Afghans for the international community doing more to train, equip and pay for the ANA. In fact, even among Pashtu, there was strong support for more ISAF/NATO troops until 2008. In the most recent public opinion poll from June, 2009, 68% of all Afghans said that sending more foreign troops was a high priority. Among Afghan Pashtu the percentage was a lot lower. This was down quite a bit from the wide spread support for foreign troops that existed in early 2008 among Afghan Pashtu. However, support for training and equipping the ANA is higher than support for foreign troops.

anan September 23, 2009 at 3:53 pm

For the record, pretentious western academics looking at Iranians through western ethnocentric eyes is also a major problem. What these western academics need is a little more intellectual humility, the understanding that “brownies” have agency and that they too through their own actions transform the world rather than have things done unto them. The “darkies” are far more self confident and capable than the oppressed victims and helpless abused huddled masses that many Western academic imagine.

Cyrus September 24, 2009 at 9:10 am

Thank you for the response.

Very interesting reply, and I will have to respond later to day. Very detailed, indeed.

Cyrus September 27, 2009 at 1:49 pm

You know, as I read through your post, I could not help but realizing one little notion.

I get REALLY skeptical when one brings up terms like “Bharat” in the modern world. Especially when dealing with subjects involving Afghanistan and Central Asia. I’m afraid it smacks of Indian irredentism.

anan September 27, 2009 at 2:35 pm

Cyrus, substitute South Asia for “Bharat.” I try to generally use “south asia” to avoid offending people. I don’t think the term is Indian irredentism. Maybe you meant Hindu irredentism?

I was using the ancient name that was used before the Persian empire in a historical context.

South Asia has ancient Itihasas (Sanskrit word for histories.) Many call them legends or myths, even though many Hindus believe that they are mostly historic accounts with some permutations and distortions that have crept in over time.

One of the Itihasas is called “Ramayana” Two of the main characters in this story are Kaikayi and her son “Bharata.” Kaikayi is the princess of Kaikaya, which use to be North of Gandhara, or Northern Afghanistan, southern former USSR.

Another of the Itihasas is called “Maha Bharata” or Great Bharata. It’s central event is a major war that involved countries from far way, including Kaikaya, Gandhara, Tibet, and some countries that arrived by ship. Almost every soldier in all the armies is killed.

Cyrus, are you familiar with the Harappa and Mohendro-daro civilization? It extended across much of India, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and the former USSR. They used similar currency, technology, architectural styles; and the same written script. If you prefer, we can call it the Harappa Indus valley civilization that Pharsis, Afghans, Central Asians, Pakistanis and Indians share. The reason I don’t use it is because it is a lot longer to write than “Bharat” or “South Asian” :LOL:

Again, didn’t intend to offend you Cyrus. Look forward to learning more from you.

Cyrus September 27, 2009 at 4:23 pm

Look pal, I have dealt with way too many nationalist Indian types in my life. It is wonderful and all, and I am not judging you personally. What I am trying to tell you is, what you are saying has virtually no relevance today. Even if the historical aspect that you are presenting were accurate enough, and I have definite issues with that. The original point that you made was that Indian troops should be committed to Afghanistan right along side NATO forces, and that they would have some kind if advantage. I say, they would have zero advantage, and would actually be much easier targets for the “Taliban”, or Pashtun fighters, or whatever they are being called/calling themselves this week. They will not view Indian soldiers as “brothers”, and I do not see Indian soldiers viewing them as humans. End result? Plenty of more killing and human suffering to come. Nothing gained.

The solution to this lies somewhere else, and I do not see NATO, or the Afghan “government”, or Indians or Pakistanis(God help us) finding a solution anytime soon, if ever. It is a bottomless pit for outsiders, Afghanistan is, like it has always been.

As far as Indian interest in Central Asia…Well, again, no real historical connection there, either. Indian interests in the region is no different than China, the U.S, or Russia. Empire, geopolitical chess, and the control of resources. It is that simple. Nothing more, nothing less.

anan September 27, 2009 at 5:29 pm

Cyrus, I didn’t say ancient history mattered. I like your name “Cyrus.” It is a common name among India’s large Parsi community. So I detoured into Cyrus the Great’s history. Sorry to bore you. 😉

For the record I was brought up American. My exposure to India comes from many visits and reading many history books and academic papers. This said, there are certain points you make I couldn’t disagree more with:

“It is a bottomless pit for outsiders, Afghanistan is, like it has always been.” Any historical evidence for this? I guess a Pashtun insurgency weakened the Seljik Turk Mongol Mughal emperor Aurangzeb around 1700 AD. So Afghanistan was conquered by Persia. The Persian experience of 1700-1747 was hardly a “bottomless pit.” For most of Afghan history, it has been allied or joined to larger regional powers.

Nor was the Durrani emperor’s (who we should remember was a leading Persian general) reign of Afghanistan a “bottomless pit.” His progeny ruled Afghanistan successfully until 1818. The Barakzai dynasty seemed to rule Afghanistan pretty well between 1826 and 1973.

Why the cynical phrase “Afghan “government””?

“Empire, geopolitical chess, and the control of resources. It is that simple. Nothing more, nothing less.” I have no idea what you are talking about. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries on earth. In the planet that I am from, the vast majority of people from the vast majority of countries share common interests and values. Why do you assume that any large country doesn’t benefit from a strong and successful Afghanistan? The only people who may not want this are some old dinosaurs in the Pakistani security establishment; because of some perverted notions of strategic depth that makes no rational sense. However the large majority of Pakistanis no longer believe that kind of crap in public opinion polls, and time is taking care of the remaining old Pakistani Army, ISI and Takfiri extremist fossils.

Therefore why wouldn’t Iran, Russia, China, India, the 5 Stans, ISAF and the Afghans work together to achieve common interests in ways that are consistent with common values. In the past year, Pakistan has transformed in positive ways. This more than anything else gives me hope for Afghanistan.

Yes there is a Pashtu civil war going on on both sides of the Durand line. But I believe that Pashtun reconciliation is achievable. I also believe that Afghan Pashtu see their fellow Hazara Shia, Turkmen, Pharsi, Uzbech and Tajik Afghans as their own family and want peace and cooperation with them. Why would someone think otherwise?

The immense popularity of the ANA among Afghan Pashtu is another reason for hope.

Cyrus September 27, 2009 at 6:48 pm

“Therefore why wouldn’t Iran, Russia, China, India, the 5 Stans, ISAF and the Afghans work together to achieve common interests in ways that are consistent with common values.”

Simple. They all have competing interests, for the most part. It is childish to imagine that these nations are spending, or will spend billions upon billions of dollars in Afghanistan, simply out if good will. No, there is a reason they are there. For the U.S, it is location, location, location. Strategically speaking, of course. All you need to do, is look at a map.

“I also believe that Afghan Pashtu see their fellow Hazara Shia, Turkmen, Pharsi, Uzbech and Tajik Afghans as their own family and want peace and cooperation with them. Why would someone think otherwise?”

Simple. I have experience. 🙂

“The immense popularity of the ANA among Afghan Pashtu is another reason for hope.”

Uhm…No. It is the Pashtuns who are SHOOTING at the Afghan National Army as we speak. So, I am not seeing this pride thing at all. In fact, you comparison of the ANA and the “Afghan” love of it, to that love of Indians and Pakistanis to their own militaries, is well…Fantasy. It just does not exist, and there is not even a basis for comparison. Historically, functionally, culturally, etc.

anan September 27, 2009 at 7:01 pm

In what way do “Iran, Russia, China, India, the 5 Stans, ISAF and the Afghans” interest diverge? For that matter, why do Pakistani interests diverge with the nations above, despite what some Pakistani extremists think? Afghanistan is obviously about location. It is adjacent Pakistan. The main reason all of these countries care about Afghanistan is because of extremist Takfiri networks that threaten everyone. This is their shared interest.

Do you think anything can be done to manage the Pashtun civil war on both sides of the Durand line? Why are you so pessimistic about it?

What is your experience about the hostility that Afghan Pashtu feel toward non Pashtu Afghans?

I will challenge you on the ANA. 40% of it is Pashtun. The Pashtun volunteers for the ANA are loyal to the chain of command, and motivated to defeat the Taliban. The ANA only accepts a fraction of Pashtun applicants because of a funding shortage. Could you please provide evidence that the ANA isn’t popular and respected among Afghan Pashtu?

Ahad Abdurahmon September 28, 2009 at 12:51 am

Pashtun nationalism in any form, be it ANA or Taliban, will not contribute in any positive way for present-day Afghanistan.
anan, it is UZBEK, not uzbech. Sorry to tell you this, but I see you are very good at spelling, but repeatedly failing on this one.

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