Afghanistan’s Failing Forces: NYT Editorial
Afghanistan’s Failing Forces
New York Times, June 22, 2009
The news from Afghanistan is grim. In the first week of June, there were more than 400 attacks, a level not seen since late 2001. President Obama was right to send more American troops to fight. That violence will surely increase as strengthened ground forces step up the pressure on Taliban and Al Qaeda sanctuaries. But it is also true that there can be no lasting security — and no exit for American forces — until Afghanistan has a functioning army and national police that can hold back the insurgents and earn the trust of Afghan citizens. Neither comes close today.
Washington has already spent 7 ½ years and more than $15 billion on failed training programs. President George W. Bush’s Pentagon never sent enough trainers (most of those available were assigned to Iraq) to systematically embed American advisers in Afghan Army units, an approach now paying dividends in Iraq.
It failed to pay Afghan soldiers a living wage, making it easy for Taliban and drug lords to outbid them for the country’s unemployed young men. The Pentagon also neglected to keep track of weapons it gave out, like mortars, grenade launchers and automatic rifles. Tens of thousands disappeared, sold to the highest bidder and, in some cases, used against American soldiers.
Perhaps most fundamentally, American war planners never seemed to understand that a more effective Afghan Army and a more honest and competent police force could help persuade civilians that the war against the Taliban was more their own fight and not just an American war being fought on their territory.
With the Obama team giving Afghanistan the attention it requires, there is a chance to correct these mistakes. Four thousand more trainers are on the way, a dramatic increase over last year. A revived training effort will require the full engagement of the new American commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
In an overdue but welcome effort to protect Afghan civilians from errant airstrikes, one of General McChrystal’s first acts in command was to impose strict new limits on air attacks except when needed to protect American and allied troops.
The Bush administration planned to increase the Afghan Army from 90,000 troops to 134,000. That still won’t be big enough to secure a vast, rugged country with a larger population than Iraq’s. American planners propose expanding it to as many as 260,000 troops — roughly the size of Iraq’s Army. No decision has yet been made.
The Pentagon estimates that it would cost $10 billion to $20 billion over a seven-year period to create and train a force that size. Paying it would cost billions more, especially if the current $100-a-month salary is to become more competitive with the $300 the Taliban pays.
The total bill would still be a lot smaller than the cost of sustaining a huge American fighting force there. By the end of this year, there will 68,000 American troops in Afghanistan, costing American taxpayers more than $60 billion a year.
Afghanistan’s national police force will have to be rebuilt almost from scratch. Kabul’s central government is notoriously corrupt, but the tales from the field are even more distressing. Journalists for The Times have reported seeing police officers burglarizing a home and growing opium poppies inside police compounds. American soldiers complain of police supervisors shaking down villagers, skimming subordinates’ wages and selling promotions and equipment. Muhammad Hanif Atmar, the interior minister, has pushed for greater accountability by senior police officials. He has a lot of work ahead of him.
Several thousand more police trainers with experience in civilian law enforcement are needed. European NATO members can and should be providing more help.
There are high expectations for General McChrystal, based on his aggressive attitudes and past special operations success. The Taliban must be confronted head-on. To turn around the war, ordinary Afghans must begin to trust their own government more than they either fear or trust the extremists. Building an effective Afghan Army and police is critical to that effort. There is no more time to waste.
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