Page 1 of 2 US wins minds, Afghan hearts are lost
By Ann Jones
The big Afghanistan debate in Washington is not over whether more troops are
needed, but just who they should be: Americans or Afghans - "us" or "them".
Having just spent time in Afghanistan seeing how things stand, I wouldn't bet
Frankly, I wouldn't bet on "us" either. In eight years, American troops have
worn out their welcome. Their very presence now incites opposition, but that's
another story. It's "them" - the Afghans - I want to talk about.
Afghans are Afghans. They have their own history, their own culture, their own
habitual ways of thinking and behaving, all complicated by a modern experience
of decades of war, displacement, abject poverty, and incessant meddling by
foreign governments near and far - of which the United States has been
the most powerful and persistent. Afghans do not think or act like Americans.
Yet Americans in power refuse to grasp that inconvenient point.
In the heat of this summer, I went out to the training fields near Kabul where
Afghan army recruits are put through their paces, and it was quickly evident
just what's getting lost in translation. Our trainers, soldiers from the
Illinois National Guard, were masterful. Professional and highly skilled, they
were dedicated to carrying out their mission - and doing the job well. They
were also big, strong, camouflaged, combat-booted, supersized American men,
their bodies swollen by flack jackets and lashed with knives, handguns, and god
only knows what else. Any American could be proud of their commitment to tough
The Afghans were puny by comparison: hundreds of little Davids to the
overstuffed American Goliaths training them. Keep in mind: Afghan recruits come
from a world of desperate poverty. They are almost uniformly malnourished and
underweight. Many are no bigger than I am (1.6 meters and thin) - and some
probably not much stronger. Like me, many sag under the weight of a
standard-issue flack jacket.
Their American trainers spoke of "upper body strength deficiency" and
prescribed pushups because their trainees buckle under the backpacks filled
with 50 pounds (110 kilograms) of equipment and ammo they are expected to
carry. All this material must seem absurd to men whose fathers and brothers,
wearing only the old cotton shirts and baggy pants of everyday life and
carrying battered Russian Kalashnikov rifles, defeated the Red Army two decades
ago. American trainers marvel that, freed from heavy equipment and uniforms,
Afghan soldiers can run through the mountains all day - as the Taliban
guerrillas in fact do with great effect - but the US military is determined to
train them for another style of war.
Still, the new recruits turn out for training in the blistering heat in this
stony desert landscape wearing, beneath their heavy uniforms, the smart red,
green, and black warm-up outfits intended to encourage them to engage in
off-duty exercise. American trainers recognize that recruits regularly wear all
their gear at once for fear somebody will steal anything left behind in the
barracks, but they take this overdressing as a sign of how much Afghans love
My own reading, based on my observations of Afghan life during the years I've
spent in that country, is this: It's a sign of how little they trust one
another, or the Americans who gave them the snazzy suits. I think it also
indicates the obvious: that these impoverished men in a country without work
have joined the Afghan National Army for what they can get out of it (and keep
or sell) - and that doesn't include democracy or glory.
In the current policy debate about the Afghan War in Washington, Senate Armed
Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin wants the Afghans to defend their
country. Senator John McCain, the top Republican on the committee, agrees but
says they need even more help from even more Americans. The common ground - the
sacred territory Obama gropes for - is that, whatever else happens, the US must
speed up the training of "the Afghan security forces".
American military planners and policymakers already proceed as if, with
sufficient training, Afghans can be transformed into scale-model, wind-up
American Marines. That is not going to happen. Not now. Not ever. No matter how
many of our leaders concur that it must happen - and ever faster.
'Basic warrior training'
So who are these security forces? They include the Afghan National Army (ANA)
and the Afghan National Police (ANP). International forces and private
contractors have been training Afghan recruits for both of them since 2001.
In fact, the determination of Western military planners to create a national
army and police force has been so great that some seem to have suppressed for
years the reports of Canadian soldiers who witnessed members of the Afghan
security forces engaging in a fairly common pastime, sodomizing young boys.
Current training and mentoring is provided by the US, Great Britain, France,
Canada, Romania, Poland, Mongolia, New Zealand and Australia, as well as by the
private for-profit contractors MPRI, KBR (formerly a division of Halliburton),
Pulau, Paravant, and RONCO.
Almost eight years and counting since the "mentoring" process began, officers
at the Kabul Military Training Center report that the army now numbers between
88,000 and 92,000 soldiers, depending on who you talk to; and the basic
training course financed and led by Americans, called "Basic Warrior Training,"
is turning out 28,800 new soldiers every year, according to a Kabul Military
Training Center "fact sheet".
The current projected "end strength" for the ANA, to be reached in December
2011, is 134,000 men; but Afghan officers told me they're planning for a force
of 200,000, while the Western press often cites 240,000 as the final figure.
The number 400,000 is often mentioned as the supposed end-strength quota for
the combined security forces - an army of 240,000 soldiers and a police force
with 160,000 men. Yet Afghan National Police officials also speak of a far more
inflated figure, 250,000, and they claim that 149,000 men have already been
trained. Police training has always proven problematic, however, in part
because, from the start, the European allies fundamentally disagreed with the
Bush administration about what the role of the Afghan police should be.
Germany initiated the training of what it saw as an unarmed force that would
direct traffic, deter crime, and keep civic order for the benefit of the
civilian population. The US took over in 2003, handed the task off to a private
for-profit military contractor, DynCorp, and proceeded to produce a heavily
armed, undisciplined, and thoroughly venal paramilitary force despised by
Kabulis and feared by Afghan civilians in the countryside.
Contradicting that widespread public view, an Afghan commanding officer of the
ANP assured me that today the police are trained as police, not as a
paramilitary auxiliary of the ANA. "But policing is different in Afghanistan,"
he said, because the police operate in active war zones.
Washington sends mixed messages on this subject. It farms out responsibility
for the ANP to a private contractor that hires as mentors retired American law
enforcement officers - a Kentucky state trooper, a Texas county lawman, a North
Carolina cop, and so on. Yet Washington policymakers continue to couple the
police with the army as "the Afghan security forces" - the most basic police
rank is "soldier" - in a merger that must influence what DynCorp puts in its
At the Afghan National Police training camp outside Kabul, I watched a squad of
trainees learn (reluctantly) how to respond to a full-scale ambush. Though they
were armed only with red rubber Kalashnikovs, the exercise looked to me much
like the military maneuvers I'd witnessed at the army training camp.
Like army training, police training, too, was accelerated months ago to insure
"security" during the run-up to the presidential election. With that goal in
mind, DynCorp mentors shrunk the basic police training course from eight weeks
to three, after which the police were dispatched to villages all across the
country, including areas controlled by the Taliban. After the election, the
surviving short-course police "soldiers" were to be brought back to Kabul for
the rest of the basic training program. There's no word yet on how many
You have to wonder about the wisdom of rushing out this half-baked product. How
would you feel if the police in your community were turned loose, heavily
armed, after three weeks of training? And how would you feel if you were given
a three-week training course with a rubber gun and then dispatched, with a real
one, to defend your country?
Training security forces is not cheap. So far, the estimated cost of training
and mentoring the police since 2001 is at least $10 billion. Any reliable
figure on the cost of training and mentoring the Afghan army since 2001 is as
invisible as the army itself. But the US currently spends some $4 billion a
month on military operations in Afghanistan.
The invisible men
What is there to show for all this remarkably expensive training? Although in
Washington they may talk about the 90,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army,
no one has reported actually seeing such an army anywhere in Afghanistan. When
4,000 US Marines were sent into Helmand province in July to take on the Taliban
in what is considered one of its strongholds, accompanying them were only about
600 Afghan security forces, some of whom were police.
Why, you might ask, didn't the ANA, 90,000-strong after eight years of training
and mentoring, handle Helmand on its own? No explanation has been offered.
American and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) officers often complain
that Afghan army units are simply not ready to "operate independently", but no
one ever speaks to the simple question: Where are they?