Saturday, September 22, 2012

Joint Operations in Afghanistan: There Has to Be a Will to Be a Way

This article originally appeared on The Truman Doctrine on 19 September 2012.

NATO has announced it will limit joint military operations alongside Afghan forces following a recent string of turncoat attacks against ISAF forces. Over 50 NATO soldiers have been killed in ‘green on blue’ attacks in 2012 alone. Anger caused by the accidental trashing and burning of a Koran and recently over an anti-Muslim web video has been blamed for the upsurge in these attacks.

America has been in Afghanistan for over a decade, longer than the USSR. The parties to the two wars are the same. Fortunately America has only suffered one sixth the casualties the Soviets did, despite likely spending more money on the war. It is arguable that the goodwill Afghans felt toward America for forcing out the Taliban is running out. The diversion of money, forces, and attention away from Afghanistan and into Iraq from 2003 may have cost America a better result, though that will never be empirically proven or disproven.

In 2003 I worked closely with Iraqi security forces. In 2004 I assisted in screening new Iraqi police recruits. In 2006 I served as a member of a team of U.S. military advisors to an Iraqi infantry battalion. While, as anywhere, there were certainly varying degrees of quality and commitment among members of these fledgling security forces, there were enough who believed their country was worth fighting for and felt the same commitment to it that U.S. troops feel for theirs.

Regrettably there were some who were agents for the other side. That was a constant worry for our ten-man team, constantly surrounded by Iraqi soldiers. An Iraqi officer at a police station we often visited stabbed one of their U.S. advisors. We had no doubt some police were involved in sectarian violence. But I would have trusted some Iraqi soldiers with my life. Many of them hated insurgents and Baathists as much as we did. They took great personal risk to join, as many were kidnapped from their homes and turned up floating in the Tigris River if the wrong people found out they were soldiers. We had guarded posts to return to, but most of them and their families lived on the streets they were fighting on.

The difference between the moderately successful security transition in Iraq and its less successful counterpart in Afghanistan comes in the understanding and commitment to transitioning to a nominally modern republican state with at least some vestiges of a central government. Iraq is still a violent place today, but it has been ruled by different strong central governments throughout its history—Babylon, Great Britain, and Saddam Hussein among them. Though today’s Iraqi government cannot claim to rule over the entirety of a peaceful nation, most Iraqis understand the necessity of a government that provides certain necessities, including internal and external security through competent police and military forces. There may be sectarian divisions, but this basic need is at least recognized.

Afghanistan has never been ruled by a central government, strong or otherwise. Today, Hamid Karzai’s power extends little past Kabul. Afghanis don’t see the need for a government they feel is remote and corrupt and has thus far been unable to provide them security, nor have they ever had such a government in their history. The understanding of and commitment to building such a government and an accompanying security mechanism is not there.

Afghanis are not ready to make such a change. Perhaps such will could have been developed with a stronger commitment from America early on. But we’ll never know. Such a transition can only be made when the people of Afghanistan are ready for it.