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Why Spending Billions on the Afghan National Army Could Seriously Backfire

No Afghan national army has ever saved a government, or even tried to. Instead, such an army has either sat on its hands during a coup d’état, or participated in one itself.
 
 
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Recent weeks have brought yet another sad chance to watch badly laid plans in Afghanistan go haywire.  In three separate incidents, allies, most from the Afghan National Army (ANA), allegedly murdered  six Americans -- two of them officers in the high-security sanctum of Kabul’s Interior Ministry.  Marine General John R. Allen, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, even briefly  withdrew NATO advisors and trainers from all government ministries for their own protection. 

Until that moment, the Afghan National Army was the crown jewel of the Obama administration’s strategy for drawing down forces in Afghanistan (without really leaving).   Trained in their hundreds of thousands over the past 11 years by a horde of dodgy private security contractors, as well as U.S. and NATO troops, the Afghan National Army is supposed to  replace coalition forces any day now and defend its own country.

This policy has been the apex of Washington’s Plan A for some time now.  There is no Plan B.

But what to make of the murders in the Ministry?  An AP article  headlined “Acts of Afghan Betrayal Are Poisoning U.S. War Plan” detected “a trend of Afghan treachery.”  This “poisoning” is, however, nothing new.  Military lingo has already long defined assaults on American and NATO soldiers by members of the Afghan National Security Force (a combination of the ANA and the Afghan National Police) as “green on blue incidents.” Since the military started recording them in May 2007, 76 NATO soldiers have been killed and an undisclosed number wounded in 46 recorded “deliberate attacks.”

These figures suggest more than a recent “trend of Afghan treachery” (though Afghans are increasingly blamed for everything that goes wrong in their country).  Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who perversely called the latest green on blue incidents signs of Taliban “weakness,”  told the press: “I’ve made clear and I will continue to make clear that, regardless of what the enemy tries to do to us, we are not going to alter our strategy in Afghanistan.”

This is, of course, the definition of paralysis in Afghanistan, so much easier in the short term than reexamining Plan A.  In other words, as the American exercise in Afghanistan rolls ever closer to the full belly-up position, Plan A remains rigidly in place, and signals that, from Secretary Panetta and General Allen on down, Americans still don’t seem to get what’s going on.

Beware an Afghan Army

Many people who know Afghanistan well, however, have warned from the beginning against this plan to train up an armed force.  I’m among the naysayers, and I’ll tell you why.

First, consider what the plan proposes. The number of Afghan soldiers and police to be trained varies widely from one report to the next, but the last estimate I received directly from the Kabul Military Training Center called for 240,000 soldiers and 160,000 police (who, incidentally, are also called “soldiers” and trained in a similar manner).  That brings the total proposed Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) to approximately four times the number of current coalition troops in the country.

It costs the U.S.  $12 billion annually to train the army alone and the estimated cost of maintaining it beyond 2014 is  $4 billion per year, of which the Afghan government says it can pay no more than 12%.  Clearly, Afghanistan does not need and cannot sustain such a security force.  Instead, the United States will be stuck with the bill, hoping for help from NATO allies -- until the force falls apart.  How then did this security force become the centerpiece of the Obama plan?  And given its obvious absurdity, why is it written in stone?