BruceR at Flit answers my question about why it’s so difficult and time consuming to train the Afghan military. Point one seems like the most important one for the purposes of this discussion:
Building anew is harder than renovating. In Afghanistan as in Iraq we really are doing our best to junk the old system, recognizing correctly that it was part of the problem in the first place. Building another Afghan army like all other previous Afghan armies, one that splits on ethnic lines, that oppresses the people it’s supposed to protect, that can’t fight its own insurgencies, would be entirely pointless. So our ambitions have to be rather large here. There are lots of old soldiers in the Afghan senior leadership. At least twice I have been present when one of them was talked out of what they saw as the correct response to insurgents in a village: that being to shell the village with howitzers. Principles of counterinsurgency and effects-based operations are things we’re struggling with, having already figured out industrial total war… they don’t have any secret knowledge that allows them to jump that progression in military capability.
I suppose the question becomes whether, given the difficulty, it really makes sense for us to be trying to train Afghans up to this high standard. Bruce says that to settle for anything less “would be entirely pointless” but it doesn’t seem pointless at all.
If we could simply put anti-Taliban forces in the field that were competent enough to defend the country’s Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazara and major city dwellers against being overrun by the Taliban that wouldn’t be pointless. Along those same lines, back in the winter of 2001–2002 we showed — without training anyone — that existing anti-Taliban forces + US assistance = Taliban no longer in power. Establishing in a somewhat credible manner that we can make anyone who deliberately plays host to terrorists planning operations against western targets pay a heavy price for doing so has real value.
And in the past it didn’t seem to require years worth of training to produce Afghan forces that were capable of, with our help, hitting the Taliban hard. Is that good enough to provide an enduring solution to Afghanistan’s political conflicts and instability? No. But is it good enough for American security? It seems pretty good to me. And potentially a lot cheaper and easier than trying to turn Afghanistan into a unified, stable, and well-governed state. But these kind of choices are being obscured these days by people talking about the need to “win” a “war of necessity.” We should, of course, be trying to win. But we should also be defining a “win” in achievable terms.