By Patricia Lee SharpeMitigating qualifiers notwithstanding, when Americans involved in our current mission (whatever it is) in Afghanistan testify before Congress committees about efforts to build an effective Afghan national army or police force, they do not convey satisfaction. It seems American forces can’t rely on their Afghan counterparts to lead attacks or hold territory.
Hmmmmm. And the Obama administration still expects to start drawing down American forces in a little more than a year? asked one rather puzzled or skeptical Senator. The verbally adept Gen. Petreaus had an answer to that: actually we haven’t specified the rate of withdrawal. Aha! Take out a single platoon and the draw down has begun, presumably. In short, the military could comply with the date for beginning a withdrawal and still be in Afghanistan in force for years. That’s the trouble with over educating these generals. They begin to play verbal games.
The ParadoxSo what’s wrong with these Afghan troops? It’s a paradox. Put them in the hills in their pajamas—ok, salwar kamiz—and they fight like tigers. Put them in modern military uniforms and they are like toy soldiers dumped out of a box. In the former case, they never quit. In the latter they never get started. Why?
Americans and their allies have levied many criticisms at Afghan fighters. Many of these critiques focus more on values than on prowess and show, I think, a fundamental failure to understand Afghan realities. Another problem is that few Americans seem able to perceive that much Afghan behavior is not unique to Afghanistan. We’ve seen it in American history, too.
So what are some of these derogatory characterizations? Here’s one constellation: Afghans fight for the highest bidder and they change sides; thus, they have no loyalties—and can’t be trusted.
Trust and LoyaltyThe notion of a trust and loyalty deficiency can be laid to rest quickly. If Afghans will sell themselves to the highest bidder out of pure self-interest, why hasn’t Obama bin Laden been turned in after all these years? The price on his head runs to many millions—of dollars. By comparison a poppy farmer’s income is peanuts. On any one day there must be thousands of people who know exactly where to find the elusive Arab—and tens of thousands over the past ten years. But no one squeals.
Given the fairly strong cultural animus between Arabs and Afghans as well as other South Asians, there’s got to be a reason why this guy, whose sheltering has brought such destruction upon Afghanistan, hasn’t been handed over—for cash or simply to get rid of a nuisance. The simplistic fellow religionist argument does not convince. Muslims find all sorts of reasons to kill other Muslims, if they really want to. So how about this explanation: even Afghans who have reservations about Bin Laden hate the U.S. and NATO even more. They want us out far more than they want the Arabs out. Protecting Bin Laden is a way to stick it to us.
So here’s one reason why the foreign-trained troops don’t fight very well. They aren’t committed. They’re fighting with forces they’d rather have nothing to do with. Add to this: they’re being asked to bolster a government in Kabul that doesn’t inspire much confidence. Given such ick factors, the motivation to risk one’s life in battle surely plummets.
The Pay PacketJobs, good or bad, are scarce in Afghanistan. If a recruit is really smart, he can play soldier, get paid and live through this unfortunate interlude in Afghan history. I can imagine potential recruits thinking like this: Am I and my family going to be better off, in ways that matter to us, in a country reorganized à la American. Probably not. But so what! I’ll take the pay and do the minimum while soldiering’s the only game in town? Who’s stupid here?
But the pay doesn’t always come through on time, and sometimes there are deductions of a very corrupt nature. When troops don’t get paid, they tend to melt a away. They may also mutiny. Loyalty goes in two directions. As I recall, colonial troops during the American revolution threatened to walk away when they weren’t paid. Running in the face of danger is called desertion. It's very severely punished. But the soldier’s contract runs like this: I fight; you pay me. Pay has always been a motivating factor. Today, few Americans who aren’t on the bottom of the economic heap volunteer to “fight for their country.” In America, to get the comfortable middle and upper classes to fight, a draft is needed: eg, they must be forced to fight. Which isn’t easy. Our recent history shows how attractive draft evasion can be. Those in danger of being drafted run off to Canada, devise medical excuses, escape through educational loopholes, find super safe berths, etc. Where’s the loyalty here? Where’s the patriotism?
Afghan fighters have been called mercenaries on the grounds that they will fight for anyone who’ll pay them. The Taliban in particular have been scorned for relying on foreign fighters who clearly have no loyalty to Afghanistan as such. Let’s take another time machine trip back to the American revolution. Remember the Hessians—German mercenaries that fought on the colonial side. There was also the French nobleman, the Marquis de Lafayette. Why, then, do we find it so hard to understand why Arabs and Uzbeks as well as Pakistanis flock to Afghanistan to ward off the modern imperial power—and why, so long as they keep their place, they are welcome?
Speaking of mercenaries, the reason the U.S. has so few (relatively speaking) uniformed troops in Afghanistan, is that the Pentagon has hired thousands of mercenaries to do jobs that used to be performed by soldiers in the U.S. military. I’m talking about all those contractors and sub-contractors. Remember the notorious Blackwater operations in Iraq and elsewhere? These mercenaries are paid many multiples of what an American in uniform is paid, thus greatly inflating the cost of the war and the size of the deficit.