The inability of the Afghan National Army or the Afghan National Police to independently create the conditions for stability and security in Afghanistan at the present (or anytime in the near future) has been a recurrent theme here at The Captain’s Journal (see Here is your Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police category). Yet the strategy being implemented (i.e., heavy use of trainers and less U.S. troops than needed to secure the population) implicitly relies on this very strategy. The fact that so few are seriously calling into question the basic tenets of the plan makes it unnecessary to defend it.
But Steve Coll gives us yet another reason for concern over the strategy.
I can think of three cases during the last four decades in which programs to strengthen Afghan security forces to either serve the interests of an outside power or suppress an insurgency or both failed because of factionalism and disunity in Kabul.
During the nineteen-seventies, the Soviet Union tried to build communist cells within the Army in order to gradually gain influence. The cells, unfortunately, split into two irreconcilable groups, and their squabbling became so disabling that the Soviets ultimately decided they had no choice but to invade, in 1979, to put things in order.
Then, during the late nineteen-eighties, faced with a dilemma similar to that facing the United States, the Soviets tried to “Afghan-ize” their occupation, much as the U.S. proposes to do now. The built up Afghan forces, put them in the lead in combat, supplied them with sophisticated weapons, and, ultimately, decided to withdraw. This strategy actually worked reasonably well for a while, although the government only controlled the major cities, never the countryside. But the factional and tribal splits within the Army persisted, defections were chronic, and a civil war among the insurgents also played out within the Army, ensuring that when the Soviet Union fell apart, and supplies halted, the Army too would crack up and dissolve en masse. (I happened to be in Kabul when this happened, in 1992. On a single day, thousands and thousands of soldiers and policemen took off their uniforms, put on civilian clothes, and went home.)
Finally, during the mid-nineteen-nineties, a fragmented and internally feuding Kabul government, in which Karzai was a participant for a time, tried to build up national forces to hold off the Taliban, but splits within the Kabul coalitions caused important militias and sections of the security forces to defect to the Taliban. The Taliban took Kabul in 1996 as much by exploiting Kabul’s political disarray as by military conquest. The history of the Afghan Army since 1970 is one in which the Army has never actually been defeated in the field, but has literally dissolved for lack of political glue on several occasions.
None of these examples offers a perfect analogy for the present, but the current situation in Kabul does contain echoes of this inglorious history.
But if we won’t openly question the strategy, we will issue tactical directives changing the rules of engagement. It’s questionable whether the Afghans really even want this counsel to be implemented, but that doesn’t stop our generals from issuing tactical orders to Lance Corporals and Sergeants in the field.
The counter-example is given to us by the enemy. The Washington Post has a provocative article concerning safe haven for the Quetta Shura in Pakistan (a subject our readers know well), but one particular nugget can be gleaned from this article that is salient to the discussion.
Virtually all of the Afghan Taliban’s strategic decisions are made by the Quetta Shura, according to U.S. officials. Decisions flow from the group “to Taliban field commanders, who in turn make tactical decisions that support the shura’s strategic direction,” a counterterrorism official said.
It would be better if General Stanley McChrystal didn’t try to tell combat-seasoned veterans when they could and couldn’t use fires. But Mullah Omar has better things to do. He sets strategy rather than dictates tactics. While we are immersed in a sea of micromanagement and details, the enemy and his organization is beating us at the fundamentals.