Over at Foreign Policy’s AfPak blog, Sameer Lalwani offers a reply to my queries about why it should be so difficult for us to train an Afghan army capable of fighting the Taliban when (a) we seemed to have one in the winter of 2001-2002 and (b) the Taliban doesn’t need an outside great power to train it. First he says we shouldn’t overestimate what the Northern Alliance was able to achieve “it’s clear that the decisive element in the 2001 conflict that tipped the balance of power was American precision airpower that decimated the Taliban positions.”
That’s fine, but I don’t think it contradicts my point. My point is simply that in 2001 there were already in place Afghan forces that were capable of beating the Taliban with less direct American military support than we’re currently providing. Given that, it seems baffling to me that the US military seems to think there’s no middle ground between “let the Taliban take the country over” and “send tens of thousands of soldiers for many years to fight the Taliban.”
He also says we shouldn’t underestimate the Taliban:
Today’s battle-hardened Afghan Taliban “core” (that number around 8,000 to 10,000 according to counterinsurgency specialist David Kilcullen, a figure likely rising with Taliban gains) are well-trained and committed. Though it may not be welcome news, it seems fair to estimate, for now, that the Taliban’s level of commitment to expel foreign forces from Afghanistan (demonstrated by their acceptance of heavy losses) exceeds the Afghan National Army’s commitment to suppress them, especially when less than half of the reported troop levels of the ANA are still in the ranks and ready for duty.
Again, I think this re-enforces my point rather than contradicting it. The Taliban is able to raise a military force capable of participating effectively in an Afghan civil war without the support of an advanced foreign military and without a years-long “training” program sponsored by a an outside great power. So why can’t the other side do it? Insofar as the problem is that anti-Taliban forces lack effective leaders or proper motivation, it’s difficult to see an intense US effort resolving those problems.
By contrast, I think Shuja Nawz is making a lot of sense on this issue:
Yglesias is essentially asking the question, why can’t the Afghans fight their own war?
Probably because we won’t let them. All the talk about the strategy for the war comes out of American mouths. We never hear the Afghans talk about how they hope to conduct the war or how they hope to defeat the Taliban. If the United States and the coalition own the war, they will fight it their way. But Yglesias raises good questions. I agree: Afghans have been fighting for centuries. What sort of training are they missing to fight their compatriots? It is basic war, light weapons, IEDs, and bribes, threats, and coercion being used to win over friends and foes. Who knows the social terrain better? The Afghans or us?
Right. I don’t want to essentialize the people of Afghanistan as born for warfare or anything, but the fact of the matter is that “wage a civil conflict in Afghanistan” is something that lots of Afghans have experience in. I can’t think of any reason to believe that its something American military officers are more knowledgeable about than are Afghan commanders. We have better weapons and more money than they do. But we can give them guns and money rather than a massive direct deployment of American forces. Recall that we’re currently spending five times Afghanistan’s annual GDP on the war effort, which certainly doesn’t sound like an efficient application of our massive edge in material resources.