Tag: military

Pervasive Illiteracy in the Afghan National Army

Afghan_SigmaMatt Yglesias has a lot of smart things to say about the pervasive illiteracy plaguing the Afghan National Army. Upwards of 75 to 90 percent (according to varying estimates) of the ANA is illiterate.

As Ted Galen Carpenter and I argue in our recent Cato white paper Escaping the Graveyard of Empires: A Strategy to Exit Afghanistan, this lack of basic education prevents many officers from filling out arrest reports, equipment and supply requests, and arguing before a judge or prosecutor. And as Marine 1st Lt. Justin Greico argues, “Paperwork, evidence, processing—they don’t know how to do it…You can’t get a policeman to take a statement if he can’t read and write.”

Yglesias notes:

This strikes me as an object lesson in the importance of realistic goal-setting. The Afghan National Army is largely illiterate because Afghanistan is largely illiterate…we just need an ANA that’s not likely to be overrun by its adversaries. But if we have the more ambitious goal of created [sic] an effectively administered centralized state, then the lack of literacy becomes a huge problem. And a problem without an obvious solution on a realistic time frame [emphasis mine].

Such high levels of illiteracy serves to highlight the absurd idea that the United States has the resources (and the legitimacy) to “change entire societies,” in the words of retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel John Nagl. Eight years ago, Max Boot, fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, likened the Afghan mission to British colonial rule:

Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets…This was supposed to be ‘for the good of the natives,’ a phrase that once made progressives snort in derision, but may be taken more seriously after the left’s conversion (or, rather, reversion) in the 1990s to the cause of ‘humanitarian’ interventions. [emphasis mine]

But as I highlighted yesterday at the Cato event “Should the United States Withdraw from Afghanistan?” (which you can view in its entirety here), policymakers must start narrowing their objectives in Afghanistan, a point Yglesias stresses above. Heck, as I argued yesterday, rational people in the United States are having difficulty convincing delusional types here in America that Barack Obama is their legitimate president. I am baffled by people who think that we have the power to increase the legitimacy of the Afghan government. It’s also ironic that many conservatives (possibly brainwashed by neo-con ideology) who oppose government intervention at home believe the U.S. government can bring about liberty and peace worldwide. These self-identified “conservatives” essentially have a faith in government planning.

Yet these conservatives share a view common among the political and military elite, which is that if America pours enough time and resources—possibly hundreds of thousands of troops for another 12 to 14 years—Washington could really turn Afghanistan around.

However, there is a reason why the war in Afghanistan ranks at or near the bottom of polls tracking issues important to the American public, and why most Americans who do have an opinion about the war oppose it (57 percent in the latest CNN poll released on Sept. 1) and oppose sending more combat troops (56 percent in the McClatchy-Ipsos survey, also released on Sept. 1). It’s because Americans understand intuitively that the question about Afghanistan is not about whether it is winnable, but whether it constitutes a vital national security interest. An essential national debate about whether we really want to double down in Afghanistan has yet take place. America still does not have a clearly articulated goal. This is why the conventional wisdom surrounding the war—about whether we can build key institutions and create a legitimate political system—is not so much misguided as it is misplaced.

The issue is not about whether we can rebuild Afghanistan but whether we should. On both accounts the mission looks troubling, but this distinction is often times overlooked.

Afghanistan Now Is Truly Barack Obama’s War

Afghanistan is voting for president. Unfortunately, the outcome, even if a fair result, is unlikely to matter much. The war will continue.

In 2008 President Barack Obama was seen as the anti-war candidate.  In fact, his reputation reflected his prescient opposition to the Iraq war, but he said little to suggest that he was out of sync with Washington’s interventionist consensus.

We see his status quo foreign policies with his support for continued NATO expansion as well as maintaining American garrisons around the globe, including in South Korea and Japan.  But his escalation in Afghanistan most obviously demonstrates that he is a man of the interventionist left.

He is now making it clear that Afghanistan is his war.  Reports Reuters:

President Barack Obama will seek to shore up U.S. public support for the war in Afghanistan on Monday just days before an Afghan presidential election widely seen as a major test of his revamped strategy.

Obama will address a military veterans group in Phoenix at a time when U.S. combat deaths are rising amid a troop buildup against a resurgent Taliban, and polls show a softening of public backing for the eight-year-old war.

Hoping to reassure Americans, Obama is expected to sketch out why he believes the Afghanistan policy he unveiled earlier this year is working and why the United States must remain committed to stabilizing the war-ravaged country.

The political risks for him are enormous.  Anything bad that happens in Iraq can be blamed on George W. Bush.  But any failure in America’s nation-building mission in Afghanistan – and failure is the most likely outcome in any nation-building in Afghanistan – will be seen as his responsibility.

And American and other coalition military personnel, as well as the Afghan people, will pay the price.

Even as America’s Troops Leave Iraq, the Waste Goes On

The U.S. government has been providing so-called foreign aid for decades, but the waste never stops.  So it is in Iraq.

Reports Stars & Stripes:

Provincial reconstruction teams in Iraq are scrambling to submit a large number of multimillion-dollar aid project proposals by July 15, something critics suggest will result in a rash of big construction projects they were never intended to run.

Further, they say, big-budget projects are being put forward too quickly, are too ambitious given the scheduled 2011 withdrawal from Iraq and are crowding out simpler schemes.

“Our goal is not necessarily to help [Iraqis] with building projects,” said Rick Gohde, an engineer with the Diwaniyah provincial reconstruction team, known as PRT. “We are supposed to be beyond that. We are supposed to be training them to sustain themselves as we are getting ready to leave.”

Capt. Doug Weaver, 28, a civil affairs soldier who acts as a liaison between the military and the Diwaniyah PRT, said Monday that close to $600 million of military aid funding was made available to the PRTs last month countrywide through the Commanders Emergency Relief Program, or CERP. The funds, made available by Congress, are only available through September 30 and the deadline for project proposals exceeding $1 million is next Wednesday, officials said.

Weaver, who studied industrial engineering before he deployed, identified numerous big projects in Diwaniyah vying for CERP funds, including new electrical substations ($1 million to $1.5 million), city sewers ($750,000 to $1.25 million), an agricultural school dormitory ($1.2 million), women’s centers to provide job training for divorcees and widows ($2 million), vocational schools ($500,000 each) and upgrades to Iraqi government communications networks.

Iraqi contractors will bid for the construction work, which is expected to employ more than 1,000 local laborers in Diwaniyah alone.

But Gohde said the PRTs are not supposed to be involved in the sort of “bricks and mortar” construction that most of the big budget projects involve.

In southern Afghanistan, construction projects supported by foreign aid, such as schools and medical clinics, stand as empty shells because Taliban militants have frightened students and patients away.

“There’s been some of that in this country,” Gohde said. “I’ve heard of schools being built with no furniture or teachers. There are projects that are constructed with the best of intentions that are not utilized in the original intent or utilized at all,” he said.

Oh, well.  It’s only money, as they say.   And with Uncle Sam running a roughly $2 trillion deficit this year, what’s a few wasted millions (or even hundreds of millions) among friends?  I’m sure next time the government will get it right!

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Moment in Afghanistan

In yesterday’s Washington Post, veteran newsman Bob Woodward recounts a recent meeting between National Security Advisor James Jones and a few dozen Marine officers in Afghanistan’s Helmand province under the command of Marine Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson. 

The subject on everyone’s mind: force levels. Saying that he was “a little light,” Nicholson hinted that he could use more forces, probably thousands more. “We don’t have enough force to go everywhere,” Nicholson said.

Of course he doesn’t. One senior military commander confided, in Woodward’s telling, ”that there would need to be more than 100,000 troops to execute the counterinsurgency strategy of holding areas and towns after clearing out the Taliban insurgents. That is at least 32,000 more than the 68,000 currently authorized.”

So, Nicholson and other commanders were asking: Can we expect to receive additional troops in Afghanistan any time soon?

Jones’s answer: don’t bet on it.

The retired Marine Corps general reminded his audience in Helmand that Obama has approved two increases already. Going beyond merely an endorsement of the outgoing Bush admiministration’s decision to more than double the force in Afghanistan, Obama accepted the recommendation of his advisers to send an additional 17,000, and then shortly thereafter another 4,000.

Well, Jones went on, after all those additional troops,…if there were new requests for force now, the president would quite likely have “a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment.” Everyone in the room caught the phonetic reference to WTF – which in the military and elsewhere means “What the [expletive]?”

Nicholson and his colonels – all or nearly all veterans of Iraq – seemed to blanch at the unambiguous message that this might be all the troops they were going to get.

Nicholson and his Marines should be concerned. But so should all Americans. The men and women in our military have been given a mission that is highly dependent upon a very large number of troops, and they don’t have a very large number of troops. The clear, hold and build strategy is dangerous and difficult – even when you have the troop levels that the military’s doctrine recommends: 20 troops per 1,000 indigenous population. In a country the size of Afghanistan (with an estimated population of 33 million), that wouldn’t be 100,000 troops, that would be 660,000 troops.

Pacifying all of Afghanistan would be nearly impossible with one half that number of troops. It is foolhardy to even attempt such a mission with less than a sixth that many.

So, what gives? (Or, as the military folks might say, “Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot?”)

It is doubtful that anyone in the White House, the Pentagon, or on Capitol Hill honestly believes that 70,000 U.S. troops can turn Afghanistan into a central Asian version of Alabama – or even Algeria, for that matter. They might reasonably object that they aren’t trying to pacify the whole country, but rather the most restive provinces in the south and east. Perhaps barely 10 million people live there (which my calculator says would require a force of 200,000). Besides, they might go on, the 20 per 1,000 figure is just a guideline, just a rule-of-thumb. Some missions have succeeded with fewer than that ratio of troops, just as other missions have failed with troop ratios in excess of 20 : 1,000.

These seem to be nothing more than thin rationalizations. They reflect the fact that the American public would not support an open-ended mission in Afghanistan that would occupy essentially all of our Marine and Army personnel for many years. The “70,000 troops for who knows how long” is a political statement. They are pursuing a strategy shaped by focus groups and polls, rather than by doctrine and common sense.

No, that is not an argument for more troops. It is not an argument for ignoring public sentiment. It is an argument for a different mission.

The public’s growing ambivalence about the war in Afghanistan reflects a well-placed broader skepticism about population-centric counterinsurgency that are heavily dependent upon very large concentrations of troops staying in country for a very long period of time. Americans don’t support such missions, because the benefits don’t outweigh the costs. And they likely never will. They are equally skeptical of COIN’s intellectual cousin, ambitious nation-building projects.

And if I’m right, and if no one actually believes that killing suspected Taliban, destroying fields of poppies, building roads and bridges,  establishing judicial standards and training Afghan police is actually going to work, then, well,….

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

The mission in Afghanistan, especially the troop increases, appear more and more as face-saving gestures. A show of wanting to do something, even if policymakers doubt that it will actually succeed. It is a delaying action, a postponing of the inevitable, a kicking the can down the road.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope that a miracle happens. I hope that the Taliban disappears. That Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mullah Mohammed Omar, Jalaluddin Haqqani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and every other bad guy I can name winds up dead on an Afghan battlefield. Tomorrow, preferably. I hope that all Afghans (girls and boys) get an education and earn a decent living. I hope that Hamid Karzai learns how to govern, Afghan judges learn how to judge, and that the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police quickly learn how to defend their own country.

In short, I hope that the people who are crafting our Afghan strategy know something that I don’t.

I fear, however, that the deaths and grievous injuries endured by our military personnel during this interim period, which may run for years or even decades, as we seek “peace with honor” or “a decent interval” (or pick your own favorite Vietnam cliche), will weigh heavily on the consciences of policy makers if, in the end, they have merely burdened these men and women with an impossible task.

Ask Robert McNamara how that feels.

New Government of Honduras Takes a Wrong Turn

Facing mounting international pressure to reinstall a would-be despot, the provisional government of Honduras is taking a very wrong turn by asking the National Assembly to temporarily extend curfew powers and limit basic individual liberties.

The government claims that the measures, which will be in place for 72 hours, are justified to prevent any civil unrest given the imminent return of former president Manuel Zelaya to the country.  However, the provisional authorities are actually undermining the rule of law and constitutional liberties that they claimed to be protecting when removing Zelaya from power last Sunday.

The individual rights and liberties that would be affected: the inviolability of homes, the right to protest peacefully, the guarantee against being held for more than 24 hours without charges, and the freedom to move around the country undisturbed.

These actions are unjustified. By moving to take away civil liberties from Hondurans, the provisional government undercuts its moral standing vis-à-vis the increasingly autocratic rule of Manuel Zelaya it came to replace. Even if these measures are meant to be temporary, history shows that once a government claims emergency powers, it is very hard to completely relinquish them once the “emergency” is gone.

Moreover, these restrictions do little service to the argument of the new Honduran government that Zelaya’s removal was not a military coup d’état. Having the army policing the streets and curbing the free movement of people and their right to protest peacefully gives the impression that the military is in charge and calling the shots.

The Honduran government should scrap these measures and reassure the population that their individual rights and liberties guaranteed under the Honduran constitution will be fully respected.

Appointing Another Supreme Commander of NATO

The Obama administration has just carried out one of its standard rituals – choosing a new commander of NATO.  But why are we still in NATO?

Reports the New York Times:

When Adm. James G. Stavridis took over the military’s Southern Command in late 2006, his French was excellent but he spoke no Spanish. Not content to rely on interpreters, he put himself on a crash course to learn the language.

Over the next three years, his fluency was measured not only in the high-level meetings he conducted in the native tongue of his military hosts. He also read the novels of Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel laureate from Colombia, in the original rich and lyrical Spanish.

Now Admiral Stavridis’s boss, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, has given him a new assignment, which starts Tuesday.

“Jim must also learn to speak NATO,” Mr. Gates said.

As the new American and NATO commander in Europe, Admiral Stavridis, 54, becomes the first naval officer appointed to a position previously held by famed ground-warfare generals.

It is two jobs in one, as he oversees all American forces under the United States European Command and — far more important today — serves as the supreme allied commander, Europe, NATO’s top military position. He takes the NATO command as the future viability of the alliance is tested by whether he can rally members to make good on their promises to the mission in Afghanistan.

Adm. Stavridis obviously is a talented officer.  Alas, his chance of winning more meaningful support from the Europeans for the mission in Afghanistan is nil.  The Europeans don’t want to fight, especially in a conflict which they don’t view as their own.

But the most important question these days should be:  why does NATO still exist – at least, a NATO dominated by America?  No one, not even Russia, threatens “Old Europe.” 

Moreover, Europe is well able to defend itself.  The continent has a collective GDP more than ten times that of Russia, and even larger than that of America.  Europe’s population, too, is bigger than those of both Russia and the U.S.  The Europeans needed America’s military aid during the Cold War.  But no longer.

What of the Eastern Europeans, who worry more about Moscow?  We should wish them well, but we have no cause to threaten war on their behalf.  Security guarantees should not be distributed like party favors, inexpensive gifts for friends and acquaintances alike.  Rather, security guarantees should be issued to defend America.  It is hard to make the argument that, say, Albania, is relevant to America’s security, let alone vital to it.  Two decades after the end of the Cold War, we should start reshaping our alliance commitments to reflect our vital interest.

Iraq’s Future Is Up to Iraqis

The U.S. is not yet out of Iraq, but American forces have pulled back from Iraqi cities.  Iraq’s future increasingly is in the hands of Iraqis.  And most Iraqis appear to be celebrating.

Reports the Washington Post:

This is no longer America’s war.

Iraqis danced in the streets and set off fireworks Monday in impromptu celebrations of a pivotal moment in their nation’s troubled history: Six years and three months after the March 2003 invasion, the United States on Tuesday is withdrawing its remaining combat troops from Iraq’s cities and turning over security to Iraqi police and soldiers.

While more than 130,000 U.S. troops remain in the country, patrols by heavily armed soldiers in hulking vehicles as of Wednesday will largely disappear from Baghdad, Mosul and Iraq’s other urban centers.

“The Army of the U.S. is out of my country,” said Ibrahim Algurabi, 34, a dual U.S.-Iraqi citizen now living in Arizona who attended a concert of celebration in Baghdad’s Zawra Park. “People are ready for this change. There are a lot of opportunities to rebuild our country, to forget the past and think about the future.”

On Monday, as the withdrawal deadline loomed, four U.S. troops were killed in the Iraqi capital, the military announced Tuesday. No details about the deaths were provided. Another soldier was killed Sunday in a separate attack.

The Bush administration never should have invaded Iraq.  The costs have been high: more than 4,000 dead American military personnel.  Tens of thousands more have been injured, many maimed for life.  Hundreds more military contractors and coalition soldiers have died.  And tens of thousands of Iraqis – certainly more than 100,000, though estimates above that diverge wildly. 

The U.S. has squandered hundreds of billions of dollars and the ultimate cost is likely to run $2 trillion or more, as the government cares for seriously injured veterans for the rest of their lives.  America’s fine fighting men and women have been stretched thin and America’s adversaries, most notably Iran, have been strengthened.  Yet another cause has been added to the recruiting pitch of hateful extremists seeking to do Americans and others harm.

Nevertheless, let us hope that Iraqis take advantage of the opportunity they now enjoy.  It will take enormous statesmanship and restraint to accommodate those of different faiths and ethnicities, forgive past crimes committed by Sunni and Shia forces, eschew violence for retaliation and revenge, resolve even bitter disagreements peacefully, and accept political defeat without resort to arms.

Other peoples who have suffered less have failed to surmount similar difficulties.  But it is no one’s interest, and especially that of the Iraqis, to lapse back into sectarian conflict and political tyranny.  Let us hope – and dare I suggest, pray? – that they prove up to the challenge.