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The School Runners (Commentary April 2016)

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Review of “The Last Thousand” by Jeffrey E. Stern

A 2015 exposé on the Buzzfeed website created a stir by savaging the notion that the massive expansion of education in Afghanistan has been one of the triumphs of the international military effort. It was titled “Ghost Students, Ghost Teachers, Ghost Schools.”

“As the American mission faltered, U.S. officials repeatedly trumpeted impressive statistics— the number of schools built, girls enrolled, textbooks distributed, teachers trained, and dollars spent —to help justify the 13 years and more than 2,000 Americans killed since the United States invaded,” wrote a Pakistani-American journalist named Azmat Khan. The U.S. government’s claims are, Khan said, “massively exaggerated, riddled with ghost schools, teachers and students that exist only on paper.”

One-tenth of the schools that Buzzfeed’s employees claimed to have visited were not operating or had not been built. Some U.S.-funded schools lacked running water, toilets, or electricity. Others were not built to international construction standards. Teacher salaries, often U.S.-subsidized, were being paid to teachers at nonexistent schools. In some places local warlords had managed to divert U.S. aid into their own pockets.

The tone and presentation of the article leaves little doubt of its author’s conviction that 13 years of effort in Afghanistan, including the expenditure of 2,000 American lives and billions of dollars ($1 billion on education alone) were pointless and the entire intervention a horrendous mistake.

Unfortunately, it is all but certain that some of the gladdening numbers long cited by USAID and others are indeed inaccurate or misleading, especially given that they are based in large part on statistics supplied by various Afghan government ministries. The government of Afghanistan is neither good at, nor especially interested in, collecting accurate data. Here, as in all countries that receive massive amounts of overseas aid, local officials and NGOs have a tendency to tell foreign donors (and foreign reporters) what they think the latter want to hear. They are equally likely to exaggerate the effectiveness of a program or the desperate need for bigger, better intervention.

Moreover it would be remarkable if there weren’t legions of ghost teachers. No-show or nonexistent salaried employees are a problem in every Afghan government department. This is true even in the military: The NATO-led coalition battled for years to stop the practice whereby Afghan generals requested money to pay the salaries of units that existed only on paper. As for abandoned or incomplete school-construction projects, such things are par for the course not only in Afghanistan but everywhere in South Asia. India, Nepal, and Pakistan are littered with them. You don’t read about them much because no development effort has ever been put under the kind of (mostly hostile) scrutiny that has attended America’s attempt to drag Afghanistan into the modern era. Given the general record of all development aid over the past half century and the difficulty of getting anything done in a conflict-wrecked society like Afghanistan, it may well be the case that reconstruction efforts by the U.S. military and U.S. government in Afghanistan were relatively effective and efficient.

Despite all the money that may have been wasted or stolen, there really has been an astonishing education revolution in Afghanistan that is transforming the society. It is an undeniable fact that the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan has enabled the education of millions of children who would never have seen the inside of a school of any kind had it not been for the overthrow of the Taliban. The World Bank and UNICEF both estimate that at least 8 million Afghans are attending school. This means that even if a quarter of the children who are nominally enrolled in school aren’t getting any education at all, there are still 6 million other kids who are; in 2001 there were fewer than 1 million children in formal education, none of them female.

To get a sense of what education can achieve in Afghanistan, even in less than ideal circumstances, you can hardly do better than to read The Last Thousand, by the journalist and teacher Jeffrey E. Stern. It tells the extraordinary story of Marefat, a school on the outskirts of Kabul. Marefat (the Dari word means “knowledge” or “awareness”) was originally founded in a hut in a refugee camp in Pakistan. After the fall of the Taliban regime in November 2001, its founder, Aziz Royesh, brought the school to Afghanistan and set it up on a windblown patch of desert West of Kabul. By 2012, Teacher Aziz, as he is known to all, had enrolled a total of 4,000 pupils and was sending students to elite universities around the world, including Tufts, Brown, and Harvard.

The school primarily caters to the Hazara ethnic minority, of which Aziz (a former mujahideen fighter) is a member. As anyone who read The Kite Runner or saw the movie made from the bestselling novel by Khaled Hosseini knows, the Hazara have long been the victims of oppression by the majority Pashtuns and Tajiks. The Hazara (who account for about 10 percent of the Afghan population) bear a double ethnic burden. They are Shiites—heretics in the eyes of the Sunni majority of the country. And they look Asiatic. Indeed, they are widely but probably wrongly believed to be the descendants of Genghis Khan’s invaders.

Hazara were traded as slaves until the early 20th century. As late as the 1970s, they were barred from government schools and jobs and banned from owning property in downtown Kabul. As if certain parallels to another oppressed minority weren’t strong enough, the Hazara are well known for their appetite for education and resented for their business success since the establishment of a democratic constitution, and they have enthusiastically worked with the international military coalition—all of which has made them particular targets of the Taliban.

 From the start, Aziz was determined to give his students an education that would inoculate them against the sectarian and ethnic extremism that had destroyed his country. He taught them to question everything and happily educated both boys and girls, separating them only when pressure from conservative politicians put the school’s survival at risk. (When fathers balked at allowing their daughters to go to school, Aziz assured them that a literate girl would be more valuable in the marriage market.) Eventually the school also found itself educating some of the illiterate parents of its students and similarly changing the lives of other adult members of the school community.

The school’s stunning success in the face of enormous obstacles won it and its brave, resourceful founder affection as well as benefactors among the “Internationals”—the foreign civilian and military community in Afghanistan. When John R. Allen, the tough U.S. Marine general in command of all international forces in Afghanistan, finished his tour in February 2013, he personally donated enough money to the school to fund 25 scholarships. Thanks to reports about the school by a British journalist, a “Marefat Dinner” at London’s Connaught Hotel co-sponsored by Moet & Chandon raised $150,000 for the school in 2011. But by early 2013, Teacher Aziz was in despair for Marefat’s future, thanks to terrorist threats against the school and President Obama’s declaration that he would pull out half of America’s forces within a year regardless of the military and political situation in the country.

It’s a fascinating story. Which makes it a shame that much of it is told in a rather self-indulgent and mannered way. Stern’s prose tends to exude a world-weary smugness that can feel unearned, especially given some shallow or ill-informed observations on subjects such as Genghis Khan, Blitzkrieg, and the effect of Vietnam on current U.S. commanders, and his apparent ignorance of the role of sexual honor in Hazara culture.

Most exasperating, Stern patronizingly assumes an unlikely ignorance on the part of the reader. There are few newspaper subscribers who, after 15 years of front-page stories from Afghanistan, have not heard of the grand assemblies known as loya jirgas, or who don’t know that Talib literally means student. Yet Stern refers to the former as “Grand Meetings” and the latter as “Knowledge Seekers.” He also has his characters refer to Internationals as “the Outsiders,” even though any Afghan you are likely to meet knows perfectly well that the foreign presence comes in different and identifiable national and organizational flavors: Americans, NATO, the UN, the Red Cross, Englistanis (British), and so on. The same shtick apparently frees Stern from the obligation to specify an actual date on which an event occurred, or the actual name of a town or province.

Even so, The Last Thousand is a powerful and important book, especially in the way Stern conveys the sense of betrayal and the terror that many Afghans feel at the prospect of international abandonment. The Hazara children and staff at the Marefat school fear a prospective entente with the Taliban enthusiastically promoted by foreign-policy “realists” in the U.S. and UK. They correctly believe it would lead to cultural concessions that could radically diminish their safety and freedom—if not a complete surrender to murderous Pashtun racism and Sunni bigotry.

The book’s main characters are concerned by what seemed to be the imminent, complete departure of all foreign forces as part of the “zero option.” This option was seriously considered by the United States in 2013 and 2014 when then–President Karzai, in the middle of a bizarre descent into (hashish-fueled) paranoia and poisonous anti-Westernism, refused to sign a bilateral security agreement with the Western powers.

Aziz confessed to Stern (who was teaching English at the school) that he himself was in despair but was trying to hide his gloom from his pupils. He began to to urge his students, graduates, and protégés—especially the female ones—to be less vocal in their complaints about discrimination against Hazara, and he himself began controversially to cultivate unexpected allies such as the Pashtun presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani. But Marefat’s staff, students, and their parents had few illusions about the future. As one young girl said to Aziz: “If the Americans leave, we know there is no chance for us to continue our education.”

Although the future of Marefat and its Hazara pupils is uncertain, it is comforting that so much has already been achieved by the education revolution in Afghanistan. Assuming that the Taliban and its Pakistani government sponsors are not allowed to take over or prompt a collapse into civil war, this revolution may well have a tremendous and benign effect on the country’s future. After all, more than 70 percent of the Afghan population is under 25 and the median age is 17. Unlike their parents, these youths have grown up with television and radio (there are more than 90 TV stations and 174 FM radio stations), cellphones (there are at least 20 million mobile users), and even the Internet. Their horizons are wider than anything the leaders of the Taliban regime could even imagine.

As Stern relates in a hurried epilogue, the bilateral security agreement was finally signed in September 2014 after Karzai’s replacement by a new national unity government. There are still U.S. and other foreign troops in Afghanistan, even if not enough.

In Stern’s sympathetic portrayal of the Hazara and their predicament, it’s hard not to hear echoes of other persecuted minorities who put their trust in Western (and especially Anglo-Saxon) liberator-occupiers. The most recent example is the Montagnard hill tribes of Vietnam who fought alongside U.S. Special Forces and were brutally victimized by the victorious Stalinist regime after America pulled out of Indochina. Something similar happened to the Shan and Karen nations of Burma, who fought valiantly alongside the British during World War II but ever since have had to battle for survival against the majority Burmans who sided with the Japanese. In today’s Afghanistan, Gulbedin Hekmatyar, the Pakistan-backed Taliban leader, has overtly threatened the Hazara with something like the fate of the Harkis, the Algerians who fought with French during the war of independence between 1954 and 1962: At least 150,000 of the Harkis were slaughtered with the arrival of “peace.”

 The Last Thousand should remind those who are “war-weary” in the U.S. (which really means being weary of reading about the war) that bringing the troops home is far from an unalloyed good. Having met the extraordinary Teacher Aziz and his brave staff and students through the eyes of Jeffrey Stern, and knowing the fate they could face at the hands of their enemies, one finds it hard to think of President Obama’s enthusiasm for withdrawal—an enthusiasm echoed distressingly by several candidates in the presidential race—as anything but thoughtless, heartless, trivial, and unworthy of America.

The School Runners

COIN Wars - On Daniel Bolger's "Why We Lost":(Commentary Magazine, April 2015)

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Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars
By Daniel P. Bolger
Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 544 pages

The shooting wars may be drawing to a close, but the war about the wars continues to rage. The latest salvo is Why We Lost, a provocative book by Daniel P. Bolger, a U.S. Army lieutenant general who retired in 2013 after 35 years and three major commands in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I am a United States Army General, and I lost the Global War on terrorism,” Bolger writes in the preface. “It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous, step one is admitting you have a problem. Well, I have a problem. So do my peers, to wit: two lost campaigns and a war gone awry.”

Bolger’s confession may center on an arguably premature assertion of defeat but it certainly promises writing of a directness, self-awareness, and skill seldom encountered in books by former generals. What’s more, it suggests a bracing and much-needed critique. Is it?

Why We Lost turns out to be every bit as gripping as you would hope, thanks to a writing style that is sharp, astringent, and refreshingly jargon-free. (Bolger, who has a Ph.D. from Chicago and taught at West Point, was an accomplished author long before he received his star, having published a thriller as well as several works of military history). But it falls short as both a confession and an indictment. Although the book’s subtitle describes “A General’s Insider Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars,” Bolger’s work is not autobiographical. Neither is it a treatise or policy argument. Instead Bolger offers a fast-moving narrative history of the two major military campaigns of the Global War on Terror, interspersed with vivid stories of “in the weeds” combat taken from various recent memoirs and histories. These tales, which include accounts of exhausted and enraged soldiers breaking the laws of war, seem intended not just to give a flavor of the fighting but to illustrate the agonizing difficulties of battling insurgents and therefore the supposed wrongheadedness of forcing American soldiers do it.

What the stories don’t do, however, is back up Bolger’s central claim: that the campaigns were lost, and that they were lost because of “poor strategic and operational leadership” by himself and his fellow generals. Nor does Bolger go into much detail discussing specific errors of judgment by his fellow generals. After a while, Bolger’s insistence that generals take the blame for political and strategic decisions—which were actually made in Washington by presidents, cabinet officers, or the joint chiefs—feels almost masochistic.

In fact, one of the odd things about Why We Lost is that Bolger’s talk of “losing” and “failure” tends to be undermined by a narrative that demonstrates how impressive the U.S. Army is at adapting and learning from its mistakes, at least compared with other large bureaucratic government organizations. Bolger himself admires how the Army rapidly developed a talent for combining intelligence with special operations in order to capture and kill terrorists.

He also touches on the impressive fact that junior commanders not only quickly realized that fresh approaches were needed in Iraq but also experimented with techniques that were eventually codified in the Counterinsurgency Strategy and Field Manual championed by General David Petraeus—which resulted in the Surge and the Sunni Awakening that turned around America’s fortunes in Iraq in 2007.

Even odder, Bolger’s own account suggests that some of the worst reverses of the Iraq war took place not because of poor strategy, poor structure, or poor decisions made by generals—but thanks to unpredictable mistakes made by less powerful individuals. Prime examples include the worldwide scandal that erupted as a result of a few prison guards and their horrible behavior at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and the recklessness of private military contractors who brought about the first battle of Fallujah in April 2004.

But Bolger’s storytelling is so skillful that it almost doesn’t matter if his arguments contradict one another. The first half of the book, which deals with the war on terror before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is especially entertaining, not least because it is free of political correctness and diplomatic scruple. After describing how General Norman Schwarzkopf, the chief commander of the 1991 Gulf War, acceded to Saudi demands that American troops based in Saudi Arabia abjure not only alcohol but also Christian and Jewish insignia, he explains that “the Saudis did not see themselves as hosts.” He continues:

In their own eyes they were customers, buying Americans and other defenders in much the same way they hired hundreds of thousands of Filipino, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani contract laborers to build their homes, run their oil wells, and clean their streets…Schwarzkopf agreed to the King’s directives, and the Americans accepted substantial Saudi financing and, later, material support…so the transactional relationship looked very clear to the Arab authorities…the House of Saud had rented the best armed forces in the world.

Bolger is also good on the attitudes and actions of Saddam Hussein in the wake of his 1991 defeat. The Iraqi dictator, he says, drew important lessons from the American victory, our rapid departure from the conflict, and Schwarzkopf’s naive decision to let Saddam’s regime continue to use its attack helicopters. Most critically, he understood the “operational importance” of propaganda and the possibilities of 24-hour cable news: It was relentless CNN footage of the “Highway of Death,” along which Iraq’s military retreated from Kuwait, that prompted the eventual cease-fire. As Bolger points out: “Rarely have rapists and pillagers garnered such thoughtful consideration.”

But when Bolger reaches the 9/11 attacks, he turns his sardonic wit on the U.S. government. Something had to be done, of course, but, he says, the question that planners didn’t want to confront was, “Who was the enemy?” While it was al-Qaeda rather than its Taliban hosts who still threatened America, “the quasi-conventional Taliban furnished a much more appropriate target set for U.S. firepower.”

And yet Bolger has little time for those who lambast the Bush administration and the military under Donald Rumsfeld for the fact that Osama bin Laden and his entourage were not killed or captured in the Afghan caves of Tora Bora in the winter of 2001. Given the terrain and the weather, America “could have deployed the entire 10th mountain division” and still been unable to close off every ratline” into Pakistan.

Bolger’s critique intensifies with his account of the first days after the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003. Some of the mistakes he highlights were unquestionably just that. One of the most astonishing was that General Tommy Franks, in charge of the invasion, and his staff failed to set up a clear chain of command in newly conquered Iraq. They envisaged a civilian headquarters called the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), to be run by retired general Jay Garner, which would “coordinate” with the Army’s V Corps headquarters during the six months or so it would take Iraqi society to get back on its feet. This meant no one was in charge.

As Bolger relates, this arrangement was soon replaced by an equally hazy one. Paul Bremer, a former ambassador to the Netherlands, took over the newly formed Coalition Provisional Authority. V Corps was replaced by a new military headquarters led by Ricardo Sanchez, a newly promoted lieutenant general who had never commanded a division in combat. According to Bolger, when Bremer issued his controversial orders dissolving the Baath Party and the country’s army, he did so without consulting his military opposite number.

Regardless of who was in charge, Bolger believes the underlying situation was impossible. “Replace Bremer with Henry Kissinger and Sanchez with Dwight Eisenhower, cancel the de-Baathification orders, and the stark facts on the ground still sat there oozing pus and bile,” he writes. “With Saddam gone, any voting would install a Shiite majority. The Sunni wouldn’t run Iraq again. That, at the bottom, caused the insurgency.” (Like many commentators on the war, Bolger often seems blasé about the oppression of Iraq’s Kurds and Shia under the Baathist regime and the dominance of the Sunni minority.)

Bolger has a peculiar soft spot for General John Abizaid, who commanded the U.S. Central Command during that first vital year of the occupation. Given Abizaid’s inability to see that the heavy-handed, crudely “kinetic” approach of the U.S. military was quickly fomenting an insurgency, Bolger’s regard is hard to understand. The reason only becomes apparent in subsequent chapters, when Bolger reveals his loathing for David Petraeus, who took over the American effort in early 2007. It’s a loathing so intense that it targets not only Petraeus’s person but also the counterinsurgency doctrine he championed and everyone associated with it. At the same time, any general, who, like Abizaid, prominently opposed Petraeus and his team of maverick soldier scholars, or who opposed the surge, gets an automatic high rating from Bolger, no matter how unsuccessful his command really was.

Much of this animus seems to be a matter of personality. Petraeus, as Bolger points out, had risen quickly thanks in part to what he sees as shameless networking. “He had more connections than ten of his peers, and he wasn’t shy about using them,” he writes. Petraeus possessed “inordinate” ambition and was a skilled and assiduous “self-promoter.” Indeed, according to Bolger, Petraeus was a member of “the AAA club,” which he defines as “that careerist self promotion society that hung out near the military throne rooms: Aides, Adjutants, and Assholes.” Bolger makes sure to remind the reader of Petraeus’s relative lack of height, as if that might be the key to his character flaws.

This antipathy corrupts Bolger’s analysis of the Iraq war. After he condemns the generals for trying the same failing policies year after year, he pours scorn on those such as Petraeus who not only tried something different but were so successful that the war was virtually won when the Obama administration decided to abandon it.

That said, when Bolger’s perspective is not distorted by this odd animus, he points out problems most civilian authors have failed to notice. These include the fact that the Army underwent a major structural reorganization—becoming a force based on “brigade combat teams” rather than divisions—in the middle of the war, and that its personnel-rotation policies undermined unit cohesion until 2004.

Bolger is particularly perceptive about the way “information warfare” turned out to be a force multiplier for the other side in Iraq. He considers the grotesque photographs from Abu Ghraib the equivalent of a huge battlefield defeat. And he explains how the Marine Corps’ efforts to retake Fallujah in April 2004 were essentially defeated by Al Jazeera news teams. The Qatar-based network’s carefully curated footage of destruction and suffering so rattled both the Tony Blair government and Iraqi politicians that the United States had little choice but to halt the operation.

Unfortunately, insights like these play a smaller role in the book than do attacks on COIN and its champions. Though Bolger himself once advocated for more COIN training, he now insists that the military must pursue only “short, decisive conventional wars, for limited ends.”

It’s a view that mirrors a way of thinking that first became Army orthodoxy in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Apologists for that failure, led by the historian Russell Weigley, maintained that the “American way of war” was “big war” involving the use of overwhelming force and high technology to annihilate the enemy. COIN, they argued, is incompatible with our national character and talents, and should not be studied, lest familiarity lead to use.

This was and is nonsense: The United States has successfully fought many “small wars”—starting with the campaign against the Barbary Pirates.

It is understandable that commanders of Bolger’s vintage would dislike tricky “low-intensity operations” and prefer that the military be used only in Desert Storm–style pitched battles against easily crushable Third World armed forces. Unfortunately, U.S. interests may require riskier forms of military action, especially now that America’s enemies are often too smart to challenge her in conventional army-to-army battles. And the fact is that in Iraq many U.S. commanders—and their troops—turned out to be very adept at using forms of warfare that required cunning, cultural awareness, intellectual flexibility, a willingness to delegate authority, and the skillful application of relatively limited force.

Bolger may have a point, however, when he says that one of the greatest mistakes our generals made was to assume that the politicians at home would go along with a decades-long military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans, he maintains, don’t do long-term active military commitments. Bolger believes the generals should have argued for immediate pullouts after overthrowing the Taliban and Saddam regimes.

Some experienced and thoughtful people in the military share Bolger’s view. It’s an understandable argument given the tremendous difficulty and cost of Afghan nation-building. It seems likely, however, that had the United States and her allies pulled out in 2002 after installing Karzai in Kabul, Afghanistan would have returned quickly to the chaos and civil war that characterized the pre-Taliban era. And Pakistan probably would have ensured that its favorite fundamentalist terror groups and the rump Taliban retained power. This would have cast a pall over America’s swift victory and might have emboldened other regimes giving sanctuary to anti-American terrorists.

It is also far from clear that the campaign in Afghanistan has been lost. America and her coalition allies have achieved much there despite various mistakes. And there are encouraging signs from Afghanistan, despite the opportunities offered to the insurgents by the premature drawdown of coalition forces and President Obama’s insistence on a 2016 withdrawal. We could still lose in Afghanistan. But if the campaign ends in defeat, it is likely to be a self-inflicted and unnecessary one, like the one the Obama administration oversaw in Iraq. Although Bolger’s book was completed before ISIS took Mosul, ISIS’s rise to power surely casts doubt on his belief that an even more premature withdrawal from Iraq by U.S. forces would have had more benign results for the region or American interests.

Despite all these caveats, Why We Lost serves an important purpose as one of the first salvos in the military’s historiographical battle to make sense of the past decade. It also sets a high literary bar for the books that will follow and answer it.

The Afghan Handover (The Weekly Standard Nov.17, 2014)

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It’s not too late for the president to rethink his arbitrary end date


With less than two months to go until the end of the mission, the International Security Assistance Force headquarters in Kabul can feel a little forlorn. You still encounter an amazing mix of uniforms, headgear, ethnicities, and accents, with Macedonian troops brushing shoulders with soldiers from Mongolia. The gym is still packed at all hours. There are still civilian contractors walking around with pistols strapped importantly to their hips. But the national support element clubhouses are empty, the PXs are closing, and some major ISAF participants like the Canadians are long gone. An organization that was once so large its operational command hadits own separate base at Kabul airport and was in command of 150,000 troops from 48 nations—a quarter of the world’s countries—is shrinking rapidly.

U.S. Army Black Hawk at Kabul airport

In a huge and complicated engineering operation, vast bases are being closed and stripped, or handed over along with their power and water plants to Afghan forces who may or may not be able to staff and operate them effectively. ISAF, which had already largely shifted during the course of 2014 from a combat mission to one described as “train, assist, advise,” is now down to 34,000 personnel; there will be less than 12,000 by the end of the year.

Of course, the war is not over. Come January, ISAF will morph into a NATO-led partnership called Resolute Support Afghanistan. “A noncombat mission in a combat environment” as one foreign colonel called it, Resolute Support is supposed to train, advise, and assist Afghan security institutions in what you might call their higher functions: budgeting, corruption oversight, civil-military relations, recruitment, strategy and planning, and intelligence gathering.

The plan is to have a hub in Kabul or Bagram and four or five spokes. The Germans will run the training and advisory command at Mazar in the North, the Italians will do the same in Herat in the West, and the United States will be in charge of the other bases, which are likely to be in Kandahar, Jalalabad, and Bagram.

Planning for the new mission, including raising the required number of troops, was severely delayed by ex-president Karzai’s refusal to sign a Status of Forces Agreement and Bilateral Security Agreement, and also by the election crisis over the summer. NATO is now frantically trying to ensure that it has the 12,000 soldiers it calculates are the minimum needed for the mission to work. If it doesn’t get the full complement of troops from NATO and 14 partner states, Resolute Support will be cut down to only four spokes. That would not be a good thing, either for the training mission or for the wider goals of the alliance in Afghanistan.

After all, America and its allies need their own sources of intelligence in Afghanistan. This is not simply because Afghan corps commanders have a tendency to exaggerate Taliban numbers in an effort to get more funds and more support. It’s also because the drawdown has prompted neighboring states—some concerned about the vacuum, others malevolent—to increase their activity in Afghanistan.

The Resolute Support advisers also need to be able to defend themselves should things go wrong. Although the safety of the foreign advisers will ultimately depend on the Afghan Security Forces, there is a “force protection” element built into Resolute Support; it is not clear if it is nearly large or strong enough.

The rebranded NATO-led organization will shift the training, advice, and assistance from the tactical realm to Afghanistan’s ministries and corps commands. The hope is to make the Afghan government and military leadership capable of sustaining their 350,000-strong forces in the field.

This will be a considerable challenge. For a host of cultural, political, and historical reasons, it can be much easier to teach Afghan soldiers infantry tactics and weapons handling than to impress the essentials of modern logistics, joint operations, and fire support on their senior commanders, or to get the generals and politicians to ensure that soldiers and police are consistently, adequately paid and supplied with food, water, and fuel.

On the other hand, one of the things that quickly becomes apparent if you spend time at ISAF headquarters in Kabul or in the regional commands, or if you visit 
the specialized bases where ISAF personnel are “training the trainers,” is that after more than a decade in the country, and many mistakes, ISAF’s advisers really “get” Afghans and Afghanistan.

The learning curve was long and was not helped by rotations of troops and units that all but ensured the frequent loss of hard-earned institutional knowledge. The ISAF personnel you meet these days, however, are not only impressively able and experienced (it’s common to meet officers, enlisted troops, and civilians who have done multiple tours) but also movingly devoted to Afghanistan.

As you might expect, they have few of the illusions that beset many of the first commanders and aid workers who arrived here in 2002; but neither do they tend to be so cynical about getting things done “the Afghan way” that they’re willing turn a blind eye to rank incompetence and corruption.

On the Afghan side, if you speak to the generals about international assistance you inevitably hear a litany of requests and complaints—they need more heavy weapons, more close air support, and of course more money. Relay those complaints and requests to ISAF commanders and you’re likely to hear depressing and comical anecdotes, such as the recent discovery by an ISAF officer of an Afghan Army warehouse filled with brand new NATO-supplied high-tech anti-IED devices. The Afghan National Army did not know it had been supplied with these devices because the troops that accepted delivery were essentially illiterate and had no idea what was in the boxes.

As time goes on, though, such debacles seem to be less frequent, not least because illiteracy is dramatically lower both in the army and in Afghanistan in general. It’s now easier for the government and the military to hire people who can fill out the forms upon which tasks like the supply of spare parts depend and use the computers that are the basis of all the management systems that ISAF has tried to teach.

A combination of accumulated effort and accumulated cultural awareness has enabled ISAF to transform the way the Afghan Army is paid. Some 85 percent of the soldiers now have salaries paid directly into personal bank accounts they can access through ATMs installed at all the big Afghan bases. This is a revolutionary change, as formerly they were paid in cash from money supplied to their corps commanders—with all the potential for mischief that you might expect. Many Afghan soldiers are said to believe that they were given a 25 percent pay raise this year; they weren’t, it was just that for the first time they got their full salaries unaffected by the generals’ skimming.

It’s not a foolproof system. It’s possible that some generals and defense officials will figure out a way to input nonexistent personnel or whole ghost units into the system and take their salaries. But it’s one of several instances in which ISAF advisers have come up with mechanisms that make government more efficient while removing opportunities to steal or otherwise abuse the power of the state.

Another example is the way the British officers who set up and advise the Afghan National Officers Academy (sometimes called the “Sandhurst in the Sand” after the U.K.’s equivalent of West Point) established a selection system highly resistant to the usual nepotism and tribal influence. All candidates who come to the academy at Qargha are given randomly assigned identity numbers before they take a week of physical and academic tests. Only one person on the entire base has the list that matches numbers to names—the British colonel in charge of the training team. That means that the Afghan commander and his staff can honestly tell any powerful individual who contacts them hoping his influence will ensure the selection of a particular candidate that they are simply unable to game the system for him.

On the purely military side of things, thanks to years of hard work by NATO and ISAF trainers and advisers, units of the Afghan National Army not only can fight in an organized and effective way, but are often more proactive than they used to be. This, along with the shift to “Afghan-led” operations, is one of the reasons why Afghan Security Forces suffered higher casualties this year. Not only was the 2014 “fighting season” Afghan-led and largely successful, but the security forces managed to protect a massive double election process that the Taliban had sworn to disrupt.

On the other hand, the United States and ISAF allowed the ANA’s better units to get used to being ferried to the battlefield in American helicopters and to have highly effective ISAF close air support on speed dial; next year they will have to do without both. They do have helicopters of their own—and will have more, along with a score of Tucano ground attack planes—but beginning in 2015 the Afghan Army and police will no longer have even the possibility of consistent support and backup from first-world air forces, and no one knows how they will do.

In general, Afghan realities are complex and confusing. The more you talk to people here, the more contradictory stories you hear, and the harder it is to get a sense of how things are really going. Some people say with confidence that the Taliban is increasingly fractured and has lost much of its raison d’être with the departure of most foreign forces; others insist that Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura retains enough influence to be a useful interlocutor. Some foreign officials scoff at the way their Afghan counterparts blame insurgency and terrorism on Pakistan’s intelligence service; others regret the failure of Washington and its allies to put more pressure on Islamabad to stop sponsoring terror groups like the Haqqani network. 

On the one hand, corruption, incompetence, and a leadership culture shaped by a toxic combination of Soviet-style and Central Asian warlordism are rife in the Afghan military establishment. On the other hand, the tactical skill and courage of much of the Afghan Army is undeniable. Some senior ISAF and Afghan Army commanders insist that the Afghan Local Police program, which enlists villagers in local defense forces, has generally been a success; others are equally convinced that the ALP are unreliable at best and prone to banditry and moonlighting for the Taliban.

Still, even off the record, the ISAF commanders both at the top and in the training missions tend to be relatively optimistic about the direction Afghanistan is going. They draw considerable comfort from the performance of the Afghan Security Forces during the 2014 fighting season, and in particular during the two elections. If there was ever a time in which the Afghan military might have split along ethnic and regional lines it would have been in between the two elections. The fact that nothing of the sort took place arguably outweighs an ongoing lack of cooperation between the army and the country’s many police forces and the ability of insurgent groups to carry out high-profile attacks in some areas.

They can see that in terms of trends within Afghanistan time is on their side. With every passing year the proportion of the adult population that is young, literate, and either urban or connected to the world beyond the village by mass media, mobile phone, and Internet grows by leaps and bounds, while the backward conditions that created warlordism and then the Taliban are becoming a distant memory.

Some see signs of an osmotic influence. Many Afghans have had more than a decade of exposure to professionalism, to a modern, Western style of military leadership, to the advantages of merit-based promotion, and to organizational cultures that prize individual responsibility.

If you go to, say, the Afghan special forces training base at Camp Commando on the outskirts of Kabul, you can see the effect of this. The officers there from the commanding general down are fit and serious with little sign of that well-fed indolence that indicates high status in many Middle Eastern and Asian societies. While there are still some older generals in the Afghan Army who sport airborne or ranger patches in empty imitation of American advisers, the officers and NCOs here wear patches they have actually earned at elite schools in the United States or Europe. They come back from those crucibles with fundamentally altered ideas of rank and hierarchy.

That said, the ISAF and NATO leaders here were all shaken to some degree by the election crisis and by the way that Karzai’s delay in signing the Status of Forces and Bilateral Security agreements risked a total pullout of foreign forces. The fact that the Taliban was unable to obstruct the election and the dispute was finally resolved in the form of a nascent national unity government was therefore reassuring.

They are also all well aware of the political problems here that will require international involvement and large-scale donation for decades to come. For instance, there is no way that Afghanistan with its limited government revenue could by itself sustain security forces of any significant size for decades to come. They fear, as do many Afghan politicians, that without foreign military forces on the ground, and with new crises emerging in the Middle East and Africa, Western donors may lose interest in the country.

They also think that the timeline of the new mission is far too short. NATO has not specified an end date for Resolute Support. Theoretically it could last until the end of the Bilateral Security Agreement two decades from now. But in practice it is set to finish by the end of 2016, because of President Obama’s insistence that all U.S. troops be gone by then. His plan for half of the U.S. contingent to be pulled out by the end of 2015, regardless of conditions on the ground, essentially rips the heart out of the whole exercise. It will leave the training mission understaffed and largely undefended.

The president’s politically determined end date for Resolute Support, like his previous 2014 deadline, undermines the mission in several ways. It will encourage the insurgents, who know they just have to hold on for two years. It discourages ambivalent allies and supporters in Afghanistan and abroad. It will demoralize soldiers and civilians who know they will have to leave regardless of where their mission stands. And it may well encourage a cynical “screw-it” attitude on the part of personnel who understandably don’t want to be killed or maimed for a cause that the U.S. government clearly does not believe in.

The new president, Ashraf Ghani, has indicated that the duration of Resolution is too short. Senior NATO leaders, both military and civilian, Afghan government officials, and members of civil society, the people at the top of the international aid effort here, and even the reflexively cynical Kabul press corps, all agree. Even the governments of India and even Pakistan have expressed their concerns about the 2016 pullout to the U.S. government. All of them are hoping against hope that the disaster of Iraq will inspire the president to revise his decision. Certainly you would think that all that has happened in Syria and Iraq might prompt the administration and its supporters in the U.S. media and think-tank world to be less complacent about the fate of Afghanistan.

The one thing that has given hope to many people here at ISAF is that Germany’s Angela Merkel is said to have given a classified briefing to the Bundestag in which she said that Germany would push for a longer mission. If President Obama could be persuaded by her example to go for a condition-related date of departure, rather than the rigid deadline he has so far embraced, then perhaps the vast amount of effort and sacrifice, blood and treasure, spent in Afghanistan will not have been given in vain.

'Black Hawk Down', Two Decades Later (NRO Oct. 5, 2013)

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How an extraordinary feat of arms was turned into a political catastrophe.

October 3rd and 4th marked the 20th anniversary of the “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia, also known as the First Battle of Mogadishu. The BBC ran a video report about it on Thursday entitled “US Black Hawk Down military disaster revisited.” It is worth watching as an encapsulation of a complacent standard media narrative about the battle that has not changed in two decades. (Disappointingly, the lazy analysis here is by Frank Gardner, the BBC’s normally impressive security correspondent.)

Contrary to the BBC’s assertion in the report, the Black Hawk Down battle was not a “humiliation” for the U.S. military. On the contrary, it was arguably an astonishing feat of arms, analogous to the 1879 battle of Rorke’s Drift depicted in the film Zulu, or the 400 B.C. retreat to the sea by Xenophon’s 10,000 beleaguered Greeks depicted in his Anabasis.

It took tremendous skill and genuine heroism for a small, vastly outnumbered group of U.S. soldiers to hold off thousands of fighters and in some cases fight their way out of a teeming, hostile city along the “Mogadishu Mile” without leaving any wounded behind. If anyone was defeated, it was those thousands of well-armed Somali militiamen, who knew the terrain far better than the Americans.

Of course, the original mission to capture two key lieutenants of the warlord “general” Mohamed Farah Aidid was a failure. It was badly planned and fundamentally foolish in conception, and 18 American servicemen were killed as a result. But if you look at how U.S. forces dealt with their situation after the original plan had come apart and their men were trapped on hostile ground, it’s hard not to be impressed.

So the U.S. military was bruised, but far from humiliated. Nor was America itself humiliated — at least, not initially. National humiliation came about later, thanks to Washington’s political reaction to the incident, and to the fact that the 18 killed in action and the gruesome video footage of two American corpses being abused were sufficient to make America withdraw its forces from Somalia, even though the United States had not achieved its humanitarian or security objectives in the country.

It was that decision, not the (admittedly skillful and courageous) downing of two Black Hawk helicopters by Somali fighters, that so impressed Osama bin Laden (who cited it often as evidence of the fundamental weakness and cowardice of America and her military) and emboldened the likes of Slobodan Milosevic when he continued his ethnic cleansing in defiance of U.S. threats.

Because the American political and military elite at the time deemed it acceptable to cut and run immediately after this single bloody setback, American foreign policy was reshaped around a reflexive terror of any entanglement that might risk more than a handful of casualties. Hence the failure of the Clinton administration to try to stop the Rwandan genocide even though there were U.S. combat troops in neighboring countries who could have done so. There is a strong argument that hundreds of thousands of people needlessly died as a result of that panicked overreaction.

Since I watched the BBC report at my desk in Kabul, this anniversary has a particularly strong resonance for me. There is currently huge pressure in Washington to cut and run from Afghanistan as soon and as fully as possible, regardless of where things actually stand here, and regardless of how that might render pointless the vast amounts of treasure and blood spent over 12 years, and regardless of the potential impact on American power and prestige.

This is not to say that there shouldn’t be an endgame, or that Afghan forces must fend for themselves (it would help if the coalition had spent the last few years building a small air force suitable for close air support), or that a winding down of our presence is a mistake. It is to say that American policy makers need to keep in mind the possibly disastrous impact of a perceived surrender and defeat if they care about America’s future influence and prosperity.

Defeat in the "Information Battle Space" (National Review May 17, 2007)

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The Western media, wittingly or not, are aiding our enemies

Islamabad — The week I was in Afghanistan this winter, two big stories hit the international press. The first involved the publication of photographs of German NATO troops apparently “desecrating” the remains of dead Afghans. The second was about the accidental killing of up to two hundred Afghan civilians in an allied airstrike. Both stories were sensational, unfairly reported, and illustrative of one of the most intractable difficulties that face the NATO-led ISAF Coalition in Afghanistan — and, indeed, the West generally in the “war on terror.”

The photographs of the Bundeswehr squad posing with shiny, white skulland bones were immediately said to reveal an “atrocity.” More than two years old when they first surfaced in Germany at the end of October, the photos provoked a predictably anguished debate, both there and in other NATO states, about the brutalization of war, the foolishness of the mission in Afghanistan, and so forth.

The accusation that 21st-century German soldiers were desecrating Muslim graves was a possibility transmuted into fact by a media that all too often — consciously or unconsciously — assumes the worst of Coalition forces and their mission in Afghanistan.

First of all, it was far from clear from the photos and initial reports whether the bones in question had been dug up by the soldiers or merely found on the ground. It is not hard to find skulls littering the rocky earth in the Konduz area where the Germans have their main base. The wrecked vehicles scattered about Konduz bear witness to the many battles fought in this part of Afghanistan over the years. Indeed, though the Northern Alliance battled the Taliban on a number of occasions here, it is most likely that any skulls the Germans found were actually those of Soviet troops — the mujahedeen did not usually trouble themselves to bury the bodies of their slain enemies. In other words, the remains that the Germans posed with were probably neither Muslim nor obtained by grave robbing, but had been bleaching under the sun for up to two decades before they inspired a juvenile digital photo-op.

The damage, however, was done. Though the “atrocity” might one day be refuted — most likely in some little-publicized investigation that takes months to unfold — the news had flashed around the world that German Coalition troops were treating Muslim corpses with contempt. The Western journalists who reported the story with such concerned relish may not have realized that by treating the photographs asprima facie evidence of a genuine scandal they were undermining the Coalition in Afghanistan, supporting the myth of “Islamophobia,” and fomenting anti-Western hatred. They probably thought they were just doing their jobs in the normal, “neutral” fashion. 

The second story is even more illustrative of the nearly impossible task faced by the Coalition — and the way the media make it even more difficult. In the last week of October, British and Canadian troops fighting the Taliban in Kandahar province were attacked near the Sperwan Ghar patrol base. As night fell on October 24, the NATO troops called in close air support against Taliban positions. According to local chiefs, a large number of civilians were killed in the bombing. Over the next couple of days the claims of civilian fatalities ranged from 20 to 200 — a telling discrepancy, and one that probably reflects the tendency of predominantly oral cultures like that of rural Afghanistan to foster rumor and exaggeration. ISAF spokesmen admitted that, of an estimated total 70 fatalities, some civilians might have been killed in the strike out (four wounded civilians were taken to Kandahar airbase for treatment). They doubted the “at least 89” number quoted by most media outlets, which was usually followed by the point that this was the largest number of civilian deaths in a single incident since 2002.

As NATO officers privately complained, no one could be sure of the truth in the immediate aftermath of the air strike. Because of the Muslim practice of burying the dead within 24 hours, there are often no bodies to be found in incidents like this. Moreover it is the standard operating procedure of the Taliban to “sanitize” or remove weapons from the corpses of any slain or wounded members they don’t take away — so you can be sure that a civilian fatality really is a civilian only if the corpse is that of a small child or a woman.

A knowledgeable, thoughtful, and clear-eyed reporter might also consider that local civilians in areas dominated by the Taliban almost always claim that there are no Taliban, and have never been any Taliban, in their area. They make this claim out of either fear or loyalty. During fierce fighting in September in the same Panjwayi area, the local elders also claimed, absurdly, that there were no Taliban around, even though more than 500 of them were killed in pitched battles there and the area is at the center of the movement’s heartland.

More important, it is standard operating procedure of the Islamists in Afghanistan — as it is in Lebanon and Gaza and Iraq — to claim that all casualties on their side are civilians. Indeed, the Taliban would be grossly incompetant at asymmetric and information warfare if they didn’t make that claim. (Just as al Qaeda operatives and sympathizers would be foolish if they did not cry “torture” when detained at Gitmo or elsewhere.)

After all, it would be a huge propaganda victory for the Taliban and their allies to create the impression that Coalition troops routinely or increasingly kill large numbers of civilians. Once established as a media “fact,” such an impression would not only undermine the Afghan government and ISAF, but it could also affect the strategic, and very real, battle for hearts and minds in Europe and the United States.

Make no mistake, the Taliban and their allies, like the Sunni insurgents in Iraq, know perfectly well that they don’t have to defeat the Coalition militarily; all they have to do is undermine the political will of the Western electorates.


You might expect journalists to take some note of these practices and of the propaganda element of the war, and accordingly to exercise a little caution, if not skepticism, before they unquestioningly parrot an allegation of mass civilian deaths. (Surely they must be aware that reports of an atrocity can have enormous real world effects? Surely they have some sense that various Afghan players might lie in order to advance their cause?) Generally, however, they do not. For the most part, Taliban claims are assumed to be true. Statements by Coalition spokesmen, on the other hand, are a different matter. Such officials are said to make “claims,” and they are essentially assumed to be propagandists, if not flat out liars, by many correspondents (who won’t say as much in print, of course, but ask them about it over a drink).

It is one of the ironies of our time that members of the media are so hypersensitive to being used or manipulated by any official person from their own society — military officials, government spokesmen, etc. — but can be as naïve as children when it comes to voices from other cultures. This would almost be laughable, if it weren’t so pathetic — and so poisonous. For instance, the BBC loves to quote Iraqi doctors about Coalition-inflicted casualties, apparently oblivious of the fact that the Iraqi medical profession was open almost exclusively to Baathists, is predominantly Sunni, and did extremely well under Saddam.

There is sometimes a strange, sentimental, inverted racism at work in this: Surely such simple, ardent, technologically unsophisticated people — like the mullah who speaks for the village, or the weeping mother who swears her slain son was a good boy and would never have shot at the soldiers — wouldn’t tell lies? While there is no justification for reverting to Edwardian-era bigotry and assuming that all Orientals, especially South Asians, are compulsive liars, it would be equally wrong to assume the opposite or to ignore the role of rumor and the likelihood of deceit in a place like Afghanistan.

In general the mainstream media have taken even longer to understand asymmetric warfare in the instant-information age than the U.S. military. Their understanding of traditional military concepts is abysmal enough. It is a painful fact that many contemporary war correspondents know virtually nothing of military ranks, weapons, and tactics. Someone who calls the dropping of a single JDAM “carpet bombing” and who doesn’t know if a company is larger or smaller than a battalion is hardly likely to be able to tell the difference between genuine “collateral damage” — the unwitting, and in some cases avoidable, killing of non-combatants — and a deliberate massacre.

Nor do many reporters get that the U.S. and its allies are fighting an enemy that thinks nothing of using ambulances to ferry troops and ammunition (as the Marines discovered to their cost in Fallujah; when they eventually fired on the ambulance/troop carriers, the BBC accused them of war crimes.) It is an enemy that routinely employs hospitals, museums, schools, and mosques as firing positions, and exploits Western sensibilities and legal norms by using women and children as human shields. Such tactics inevitably lead to civilian casualties (which is why they are illegal under the laws of war). But they make total, terrible sense if you are al Qaeda or Hezbollah.

You are more likely to win on the ground if the Americans or Brits or Israelis refrain from firing on your ambulance/mosque/school packed with fighters; and if they do fire on you, you win in the propaganda battle. The pictures on al Jazeera and CNN of a smoking ambulance or corpse of a child are worth the deaths of the fighters and their civilian shields.

Much reporting from the field fails to take into account the fact that the traditional legal distinction between civilian and non-civilian has little bearing on the reality of war in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. A more relevant and sensible distinction might be between combatant and non-combatant. After all, the Taliban, like their insurgent cousins in Iraq, are civilians in arms who don’t wear uniforms — thus putting civilian non-combatants in jeopardy and breaching the Geneva Convention. Moreover, more than a few of the attacks against Coalition and Afghan army forces are carried out by civilian Pashtuns who are not even members of the Taliban, but mere opportunists — indebted farmers, unemployed youths — who have been paid well to take a potshot or two at a passing patrol.

The U.S. military information-apparatus has so far failed to make Western publics or the press understand the implications of all this. It is a failure that has strategic implications. Unfortunately it may be impossible for allied spokesmen to overcome the naïveté, faux or otherwise, of the mainstream media. Too many establishment journalists live in a mental world dominated by the reporting tropes of the later Vietnam War: “five o’clock follies,” lame attempts at censorship, demoralized draftees “fragging” officers, exaggerated body counts, Pentagon lies, and virtuous Viet Cong patriots. Too few of them have a genuine understanding of either military culture or the third-world cultures of areas in which our wars are taking place.

At the end of my visit to Afghanistan, I sat in on at a press conference at the huge Bagram airbase where the local representatives of the international media pressed General James L. Jones, then supreme commander of NATO, about the latest news in the war. “Isn’t it true that the civilian casualties and the skulls incident have undermined NATO’s efforts to win hearts and minds,” asked one reporter for a top news agency. The assumption behind his question was that these stories had already reached small, rural villages and that such stories have the power to undermine the building of roads and schools. More tellingly, the question treated the existence of the stories and the impressions they created as something uncontrollable and inevitable, rather than something for which he and his colleagues bore responsibility. The general calmly pointed out that the enemy uses civilians as human shields and likes to spread lies about the Coalition — points that made no impact on the assembled press — then personally apologized for any civilian deaths and, rightly, promised a full investigation.

It may turn out that the reports were accurate, that allied airmen did indeed kill a large number of civilians because of faulty intelligence or some other aspect of the fog of war. But if the 90 to 200 so-called civilian deaths were either mythical or primarily composed of Taliban warriors, the press that was so sure of allied guilt will have acted once again as an unwitting ally of some very nasty people.

– Jonathan Foreman is a reporter who has covered the war from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Good News From Afghanistan? (Commentary Magazine, July/August 2014)

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On the Unheralded Transformation of Kabul 

“Everybody knows the war is over./ Everybody knows the good guys lost.”

-Leonard Cohen

Everyone knows that there has been no progress and no development in Afghanistan, that the West’s efforts there since the overthrow of the Taliban have been a gigantic waste of blood and treasure. Everyone knows that the Afghans are corrupt, vicious, and ungrateful, and want us to leave immediately. Everyone knows that U.S. air strikes invariably kill vast numbers of civilians and therefore recruit ever more people to the insurgency. Everybody knows that all the aid money has been squandered, or stolen and taken to Dubai for laundering. Everybody knows that our clueless troops spend their days and nights offending local sensitivities by burning Korans and outraging the sanctity of the women’s quarters—that is, when they are not desecrating enemy corpses. Finally, everyone knows that the Taliban has won the war and is waiting to retake Kabul as soon as the last foreign troops are no longer in the fight—which, President Obama has now informed us, will be the case at the end of 2015.

There have been few times in the modern era when “everybody” has been quite so misinformed or so willing to see catastrophe when none has taken place.

To acknowledge this does not require an optimistic take on Afghanistan’s future or even a belief in the original rightness of the Afghan “nation-building” mission. It is merely a matter of looking past the overall impression fostered by a mainstream media that long ago grew bored of both the war and the complexity of the actual country known as Afghanistan.

I went back to Afghanistan this past winter after an absence of seven years. Flying this time on a commercial airline—one of several that serves the country—I encountered a Kabul transformed, and almost entirely for the better. This came as something of shock. I follow news and events Afghanistan quite closely, and this abundantly obvious, indeed unmissable, transformation generally has gone unnoticed or unmentioned by those whose very job it is to report and comment on the country.

The new international terminal isn’t ritzy, but it is partly solar-powered and has free Wi-Fi. You don’t feel like you’re flying into a war zone or a city traumatized by terrorism until you exit the terminal and walk several hundred yards, in sight of watchful Afghan army soldiers and Humvee gunners, to get to a parking lot that is too far away for even the largest vehicle bomb to do much damage. Then you get onto a highway that, like all the main roads in central Kabul, is of astonishingly good quality for this part of the world, and it’s packed with traffic. Seven years ago, when I traveled with International Security Assistance Force foot patrols through town—inconceivable now that all security in the city is run by Afghans—most of those roads were quiet, full of potholes, and largely free of civilian vehicles.

The physical and economic growth of the city was immediately apparent. From the middle of town to the suburbs, Kabul has been astonishingly altered by the arrival of shiny shopping malls, vast wedding halls, and restaurants. There are huge new suburbs spreading out across what was recently farmland or desert. Some are planned and boast rows of 20-story apartment blocks. Others, illegal and slum-like, spread up the slopes of the city’s surrounding dun-coloured hills and, lacking running water, look and smell like Brazilian favelas.

On the outskirts of the city are busy concrete factories and huge lots filled with Caterpillar and Komatsu diggers. Everywhere you look, there is frenzied economic activity. The center of town is protected by the “ring of steel”—a series of checkpoints. The paramilitary police who guard them are nothing like the ones I remembered from 2006 and 2007. They don’t look like sloppy, sleepy Third World cops. They are alert, equally suspicious of white, brown, and yellow, and carry their weapons like people who know how to keep them clean. They ape the look of American and allied Special Forces to an almost absurd degree, with goggles on their helmets, combat knives strapped to their body armor, and flashlights attached to their rifles.


Inside the ring of steel is a street where every other store sells the latest in computers and electronic goods. (You can choose between genuine, name-brand SD cards and USB sticks or decent fakes from China.) There is another street with several huge sporting-goods shops. Presumably they were set up to cater to the military contractor market, but they have found a domestic market and have stock superior to anything in either India or Pakistan. Everywhere there are small, lively workshops. Seven years ago, I remember, there were already two surprisingly good cellular telephone networks. Today there are more, and there are mobile phone shops and billboards for 4G cellular services all over town. Coverage was at least as good as New York City’s. At least two-thirds of the population have cellphones.

In the center of town, about a third of the men are wearing jeans instead of salwar kameez (the long shirt and pajamas worn by both men and women in Afghanistan and Pakistan). About half the women are not in the light blue burqas that are ubiquitous in much of the countryside, and I saw some in tight jeans and the flimsiest of head scarves.

The traffic in Kabul, once as sparse as you would expect in a devastated, civil war–torn city, is now comically terrible. There are rush hours at least twice a day during which vehicles barely move. These would seemingly provide amazing opportunities for terrorists who are not themselves stuck in traffic. As in other parts of the Third World, most cars and trucks are Toyotas, though in one small parking lot in the center of town I was surprised to come upon a gold Hummer, two Mercedes, a BMW, and a Ferrari.

IMG_3819 copy

Over the three weeks I spent in the Afghan capital, I was struck by the lack of a visible foreign military presence in the streets. There is a huge base at the airport, and the ISAF headquarters and the ultra-secure embassy complexes are very visible. An hour out of town are the military academies sponsored by the British and Americans. But Kabul does not look or feel like a city under foreign military occupation. You do see from time to time convoys of huge mine-protected armored trucks heading to and from the U.S. base at the airport. You are more likely to encounter mini-convoys of three or four bullet-proofed Toyota SUVs filled with people wearing helmets and body armor as per embassy or ISAF regulation. They maneuver together and are a constant irritation to Afghan drivers.

Most of the city center is astonishingly clean. I was startled to see groups of men in uniform overalls picking up trash, something almost unimaginable in this part of the world. In India or Pakistan or Nepal, when trash is picked up, it is by rag pickers, the poorest of the poor, or consumed by the cows, pigs, and dogs that cohabit the streets of subcontinental cities with the homeless.

Most remarkable of all is the number and size of the so-called poppy palaces—the gaudy, high-walled mansions of Kabul’s rich. Despite the nickname, they are as likely to have been built by men who have made fortunes from construction and security contracts as from drugs. They are protected by the latest in cameras and security systems. Some were built by speculators aware of the extortionate rents that foreigners were willing to pay for villa accommodation within the ring of steel.

That was when the city was heaving with aid workers, foreign-security contractors (mostly expelled by President Hamid Karzai after his reelection in 2009 and replaced by Afghan security guards), consultants, and entrepreneurs. Rents have all but collapsed with the shrinking of the international presence that has been underway since Barack Obama’s December 2010 announcement of a 2014 departure date for most U.S. forces. When the “internationals” presence was at its height in the mid- to late-2000s, a lot of money was spent and thousands of foreigners enjoyed a spectacular social life that people deployed to Baghdad at the same time could only dream of. The Thursday-night poolside parties at L’Atmosphere bar-bistro and other places were wild, with that febrile carpe-diem spirit often found in war zones and which owes as much to boredom as fear.

Today the brothels (loosely disguised as Chinese restaurants) have closed, and it is the Afghans themselves, not the aid workers and embassy officials, who are buying khaki cargo pants and stolen PX products at the huge Bush Market. There are still a half dozen or so restaurants patronized by foreigners, however, and all are delightful places with lanterned gardens, nominally illegal booze, excellent food, and, for the most part, serious security. Much to the shock of the international community, one of these restaurants, Taverna du Liban, was recently attacked by the Taliban, who murdered 21 of its guests and staff. Despite that horror, the city generally has been safer for expats than outsiders might imagine, and security has improved in the last year and a half. There are even tourist groups to be seen visiting the spectacular Babur Gardens and the ruins of the Darul Aman palace. According to longtime foreign residents, ordinary crime is a bigger threat than terrorist outrages, especially in certain parts of the city where muggings are rife.

There have been a handful of kidnappings of expats during the past five years, but these have mostly been opportunistic crimes by local criminal gangs or the results of nefarious dealings by those expats; it is well known that some of the foreigners who work in Kabul are really there because hashish and heroin are readily available. Most kidnappings are of locals and by locals and connected to business disputes. The level of violence in general is lower than in murder capitals such as Caracas, Tegucigalpa, Kingston (in Jamaica), or Juárez, let alone Baghdad. Most of the time the city is quiet and does not feel like a capital at war. When things do go wrong, however, they do so dramatically and bloodily.

The Taliban are masters of the “spectacular.” Although fewer and fewer of their attacks come to fruition and although the effectiveness of Afghan security forces has radically increased, any attack on a foreign target is, inevitably, a strategic triumph in the information battle space. Such attacks foster the impression of chaos and insecurity and imply the possibility of a Taliban victory to media consumers at home. The Taliban’s leaders have long understood that the really important battle for hearts and minds isn’t taking place in Afghan villages but in the newsrooms and cities of the West. One of the worst errors made by the Coalition and foreign observers has been mistaking the Taliban for mere rural primitives. Indeed, they understand the imperatives of information warfare against democratic countries at least as well as Western militaries, perhaps better.


Over a $10 beer at the famous Gandamack Lodge, the preferred drinking hole of the press corps and much of the international community, I asked Jeremy Kelly, the longtime Kabul correspondent for The Times (London) and other papers, why I had never seen any articles about the transformation of the city and its economic vivacity. Kelly, a tough thirtysomething Australian who has traveled through much of Afghanistan by motorbike, sighed and said that editors just aren’t interested in hearing that kind of news from Afghanistan. It does seem to be the case that mainstream newspaper and TV editors got bored with the Afghan war years ago. And therefore the only Afghan news that interests them now are “green on blue” attacks by Afghan troops against international forces, alleged allied atrocities, and successful terrorist attacks: all stories that seem to confirm the wisdom of getting out as soon as possible.

Of course, Kabul is not Afghanistan—although at least an eighth of the population lives in the capital. But then neither does Helmand or Kandahar City or Khost, where the war with the Taliban is most evident, represent Afghanistan. The Northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif is even more orderly and peaceful than Kabul. And Kandahar, in the Pashtun heartland, seems to be quiet and firmly in government control. While Kabul has grown to be a city of at least 5 million people, the tripling of the populations in cities such as Heart and Kandahar reflects a deeper transformation of the country, one that continues behind the storyline of a lost war and wasted, failed international assistance.

The country is now much more urban than it was a decade ago, with almost half the population living in cities. And in terms of development, no country in the world has made so much progress so quickly. Life expectancy has risen from 37 in 2000 to around 60 today. Maternal mortality, the highest in the world, has dropped from 1,600 per 100,000 births to 367 per 100,000, and the infant mortality rate is half what it was. Even more significant, per capita GDP increased fivefold and the country has enjoyed 9 to 10 percent growth annually since 2000—admittedly from a very low base.

Vast amounts of aid have, of course, been stolen, misused, or wasted. But you only have to spend a few days in Afghanistan to see that it did not all end up in bank accounts in Dubai. It’s also worth remembering that few heavily aided countries are subject to the same scrutiny as Afghanistan. Having seen a lot of aid in a lot of countries,1 I’m not convinced that Afghans are more likely to steal or misuse aid dollars than citizens of any other brutalized, impoverished, and politically dysfunctional country.

Foreign analysts tend to focus on the role of aid in Afghanistan’s development, but they should pay more attention to what is arguably a greater engine of change. The country’s economic, cultural, and political life have all been reshaped by the return of more than 5 million Afghans from foreign exile. Whether they were in Iran or Pakistan (which each had about 2 million Afghans) or in America and Europe, the returnees have brought with them skills, knowledge, expectations, and entrepreneurial drive that were previously lacking. It is because of the exiles in Pakistan that cricket is now a national Afghan sport, and it is because of the exiles in Iran that Afghanistan won a bronze medal for Taekwondo in the 2012 Olympics. Aid was not responsible for setting up the first television channel or mobile network; an Afghan-Australian businessman was.

A fifth of the population, as opposed to 6 percent in 2001, has access to reliable electricity. Sixty percent of the population, including 48 percent of women, own cellular phones. More than 65 percent of the population has access to the Internet. Primary-school enrollment has risen from less than a million in 2001 (only 5,000 were girls) to more than 8 million (more than 3 million are girls). University enrollment has gone from less than 8,000 in 2001 to more than 77,000, with many Afghan students studying abroad. There are 84 television channels and 50 independent radio stations.

Thanks to these changes and vastly better highways between cities, Afghans are much less isolated from each other and the world than they once were. They are also becoming much better educated and therefore less vulnerable to, or interested in, the Taliban’s appeal. Polls indicate that the great majority of Afghans do not want the Taliban to return to power and have a negative view of the insurgency. Almost 50 percent of the population are younger than 15 years old. They have no memory of life under the Taliban and have opportunities for literacy and education that much of the adult population were once denied.

Are we defeated?

It is difficult to get a wholly convincing, comprehensive impression of the military situation in Afghanistan. But you don’t have to be an optimist about the future or unduly credulous of ISAF pronouncements to see that government forces are not (yet) on the defensive and that the Taliban have little chance of taking over any province or any city in the near future. This is despite spectacular official corruption, nepotism, and ministerial incompetence; despite the pathological obstructiveness of Karzai; despite the inconsistency and inconstancy in allied strategy; despite dreadful mistakes by Coalition forces; despite the cash flowing to the insurgents from the Gulf states; despite the tremendous skill and determination of the Taliban’s sponsors in Islamabad; and finally, despite the hugely demoralizing effect of President Obama’s announcement of a U.S. pullout in 2014 regardless of the facts on the ground.

There is no question that Obama’s announcement had a catastrophic effect on morale, pushed Afghan fence-sitters onto the Taliban side, made intelligence-gathering harder, and weakened American leverage over the Afghan government. And it is still hard to believe that an American president could so foolishly or carelessly undermine the efforts of his own troops. On Obama’s recent Memorial Day visit to Afghanistan, he seemed to have a new awareness of “the sacrifices we have made…the gains you have helped to win.” But five years of the Obama presidency have taught observers to take such rhetorical allusions very lightly.

Afghanistan’s 350,000-strong National Security Forces have nearly doubled in size since 2009 and now conduct 95 percent of operations against the Taliban. During the 2012 and 2013 fighting seasons, they led the charge against the insurgents and consolidated control of all 34 provincial capitals. Coalition trainers are often impressed by the skill of Afghan bomb-disposal teams and the physical courage of Afghan National Army soldiers, especially when well led, and when corruption and incompetence in the officer corps have not undermined the supply of food and ammunition to the troops. Afghanistan’s special forces in particular are able to operate effectively on their own. These include specialized police units and the paramilitary forces of the powerful intelligence service known as the National Directorate of Security.

On the other hand, local police in Afghanistan have earned a justified reputation among frontline Coalition troops as unreliable, underpaid, corrupt, incompetent, lazy, sometimes treacherous, sometimes brave, dope-smoking pederasts. Given that policemen everywhere in South Asia tend to be little more than uniformed, licensed bandits, this should not have come as such a surprise to Western trainers and planners. They also have an unenviably high death rate, as they are considered soft targets by insurgents.

At least the Afghan National Army is now decently salaried with an increasing number of soldiers, paid via mobile-phone accounts rather than in cash. Despite having to recruit from a relatively illiterate population, it has become a much more professional and tactically proficient fighting force than it was only a few years ago.

Unfortunately, the Coalition’s focus on getting trained infantrymen into the field as soon as possible—which was perhaps understandable when the Coalition thought it had years to set up a modern army—meant that relatively little attention was paid to teaching Afghan leaders and ministries about planning, logistics, and budgeting, or to equipping Afghan forces with fire support in the form of aircraft and artillery, or to giving them an ability to transport their own forces across the country. Unlike Coalition forces, the Afghans have little ability to evacuate their casualties by air, and given their high-casualty rates, this has a bad effect on morale, retention, and recruiting.

When it was announced that the United States and its Coalition allies would be all but abandoning the mission at the end of 2014, to the shock and dismay of Afghans and Coalition forces alike, ISAF started scrambling to fill some of these gaps. There have been some successes: For a long time it was feared that the Afghans would not be able to maintain the Humvees or Ford trucks supplied to the army and police once the U.S. contractors had home, but mechanics have now been trained to do so.

On the other hand, the Coalition was remarkably sleepy about the need to develop indigenous air capacity. Only in the last year or so has it begun in earnest to train and equip2 Afghan pilots, and in any case the Afghan air force has yet to find a way to keep expensively trained, English-speaking pilots and maintenance crews from leaving to work for the country’s new commercial airlines.

Fortunately, even if today’s Afghan military does not have all the capacities or capabilities of the Soviet-trained Afghan armed forces, it does not have to face an insurgency as large or as well funded and well equipped as the Mujahadeen were in the 1970s and ’80s. That is why almost everyone agrees that there is very little chance of the Taliban’s capturing any Afghan city, let alone Kabul, after the departure of ISAF forces later this year. They do control large areas of certain provinces, but they lack the capacity and perhaps even the desire to take any of the country’s cities.

This assumes that the international community will not breach its commitment to fund the Afghan National Security Forces through 2017. It also assumes that the Bilateral Security Agreement between Afghanistan and the United States will be signed before the U.S. administration loses patience and pulls out all its troops. The BSA, as it is known, sets out the conditions for a continued American military presence in Afghanistan until the end of 2014. Without such an agreement, there will also be no long-term U.S. civilian presence in the country and no U.S. ally would consider keeping forces in Afghanistan. It was supposed to have been signed by the end of 2013, and the Obama administration threatened a “zero option”—pulling every soldier and adviser out of the country by the end of 2014—if it wasn’t signed by the end of January 2014. After all, the two governments had been negotiating the deal under which U.S. troops would stay after 2014 to “train, advise, and assist” Afghan forces for more than a year.

Sticking points included an unsuccessful Afghan demand that America guarantee Afghanistan’s security against foreign incursions, i.e., against Pakistan, and give an “apology” for past mistakes, as well as America’s insistence on total immunity against prosecution for its troops. The BSA was endorsed by the Afghan Parliament and then by a Loya Jirga assembly of tribal elders, but Karzai refused to put his signature to it.

Luckily, both of the leading presidential candidates in the running to succeed Karzai and most of the political class are very keen to see the agreement signed. That means that the big danger is not so much the Taliban’s returning in triumph to destroy what they see as the fleshpots of Kabul, but a return to the warlordism and civil war that devastated the country after the Soviet departure.

At the time of writing, the Afghan presidential election is entering its second phase, since no candidate won the first round. It is significant that the election was held at all. It is no secret that Karzai did not want to give up power. As late as November, there was much talk in Kabul of the president’s postponing the elections for “security reasons” or declaring a state of emergency, perhaps after ensuring a certain amount of chaos in key districts. He is also rumored to have been building a residence on the presidential estate so he can be a permanent “adviser” to his successor. Perhaps because his refusal to sign the BSA with the U.S. does not have the agreement of tribal leaders (as evidenced by a recent Loya Jirga) or because he knew that postponing the election might push even the Obama administration too far, Karzai seems to have accepted that he will indeed be leaving office.

This is just as well. Karzai’s behavior over the past four years, especially toward the allies whose financial and military support ensure his government’s survival, begs for psychiatric explanation. Among other things, he has accused NATO of secretly arming the Taliban. Notoriously, and perhaps in an attempt to win over Taliban sympathizers or Pakistan’s hawks, he has repeatedly berated ISAF for achieving nothing in Afghanistan3 and inflicting civilian casualties. At the same time, he has not expressed any sympathy for victims, Afghan and other, of the Taliban, let alone the 3,400 NATO troops killed there since 2001.

Some of this hostility may reflect an eccentric jealousy of the popularity of Coalition provincial reconstruction teams, whose effectiveness and concern for the welfare of the population contrasted so starkly with those of central-government officials. But Karzai seems to have little sense of the extent to which his anti-Western rhetoric alienated the countries that bankroll his regime, and also to have entertained the delusion that he could replace America and the West with regional supporters such as Turkey, Iran, and India, perhaps boosted by China or Russia.

His profound paranoia became apparent before the 2009 elections—elections that he shamelessly fixed—when he was convinced that the United States and its allies were determined to find a candidate to replace him. The irony was that America was, if anything, too easy on Karzai. Our toleration of depredations by his family and friends deeply alienated ordinary Afghans who assumed that America knew and approved of that corruption. Had Washington been more ruthless while it still had abundant leverage, that might not have been the case.

Another explanation for his irrational behavior puts blame on the Coalition and is more plausible. Throughout the mid-2000s, the United States and ISAF forced Karzai and his government to go along with the pretense that Pakistan was not hosting and sponsoring, and in some cases arming and advising, some of the worst Taliban groups. Afghan representatives were made to attend “tripartite” meetings on Afghanistan’s security with the Coalition and Pakistani officials. Those officials must have been laughing into their teacups as straight-faced American diplomats talked about the “contribution” of their Pakistani “partners.” If our troops who faced Pakistani-sponsored Talibs and occasionally Pakistani special forces were disgusted by this, it was perhaps unfair to expect Karzai to take part in such a grotesque charade and stay sane.

A smooth transition of power to either Abdullah Abdullah or Ashraf Ghani will represent a triumph for both the Coalition and Afghanistan. Ghani is unique in Afghan politics. A Pashtun intellectual with a Ph.D. from Columbia University who honed his expertise in development while working for the World Bank, he was finance minister from 2002 to 2004. He co-wrote a book, Fixing Failed States, that is required reading for anyone interested in aid and development. Dismayingly, this technocrat chose as his running mate the Uzbek warlord General Abul Rashid Dostum, who was a key ally of the United States in 2001 and of the USSR during the 1980s, and who has never given up his private army.

His rival for the presidency, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, is a former foreign minister and trained ophthalmologist. He is half Tajik and half Pashtun and fought alongside the Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was murdered by al-Qaeda just before 9/11. Abdullah won the most votes in the first round of the election. A strong critic of Karzai’s anti-Western rhetoric, he has said he would sign the BSA within a month of being elected. But one of his two running mates is “Engineer” Mohammed Khan, a former deputy head of the Hezbi I Islamist party, whose military wing is the second largest insurgent group after
the Taliban.

Neither is entirely attractive. But both leaders are apparently sane and promise to be more pragmatic and less obstructionist than Karzai. There is a chance they will not be quite so intent on a centralized form of government that is fundamentally unsuited to Afghan society and prone to corruption and bad governance. Both leaders clearly understand that Afghanistan desperately needs U.S. forces to stay after 2014 in sufficient numbers to lead, guide, train, and support the Afghan military if the developmental gains of the last decade are not to be lost.

At the end of May, President Obama announced that America will keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan after the end of 2014, assuming that the next Afghan president signs the BSA. That is an improvement on the 5,000 troops the White House had originally been considering, a number so inadequate to the task that it would almost have been better to have none at all. U.S. commanders generally believe they would need a minimum of 14,000 troops on the ground until 2017 to carry out the mission effectively and safely, and perhaps considerably more, depending on what happens in the next fighting season. Still, it’s possible that 9,800 could be sufficient to back up and train Afghan forces, especially if the U.S. keeps enough air power in the region.

Unfortunately, the president also has declared that, irrespective of the facts on the ground, the deployment will be cut in half by the end of 2015. All but 1,000 of those remaining forces will be gone by the end of 2016. It is hard to exaggerate just how foolish and irresponsible it is of Obama to put a fixed date on the deployment, thereby telling the insurgents that no matter how exhausted they may be, all they have to do is hold on for two years.

But the truly awful aspect of this retreat is that America may be about to abandon Afghanistan just when it seems to have turned a corner—when a new leader is about to take power after a peaceful democratic process, when economic growth is transforming life for millions, and when the security forces are beginning to become genuinely effective in a limited but promising way.

It wouldn’t be the first time that the United States has chosen to lose a war without being defeated in the field, or risked rendering meaningless a huge expenditure of blood and treasure, or let down a beleaguered ally. But it would likely rank high in any list of the nation’s strategic blunders and shabby betrayals, and its fallout might be felt for many years to come in the region and beyond.

Afghanistan is not the only country that has changed dramatically since late 2001.


1 See my book Aiding and Abetting (Civitas, 2013).

2 The Afghan air force was due to be given 20 inexpensive, easy-to-maintain but highly effective COIN aircraft Brazilian-American A-29 Super-Tucano propeller attack planes. However, thanks to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, it will now get only a handful. This is a decision that could have far-reaching effects, given that Afghan forces are used to working with U.S. forces that rely on consistent and effective close air support. Afghan forces are also used to relying on Coalition air transport to move them around the country, and most of that will not be available after this year. The November 2013 U.S. cancellation of a contract to buy Russian MI-17 transport helicopters—familiar, powerful, and simple to operate—supposedly because the exporter has ties to the Syrian regime—will also adversely affect Afghan military capacities after we go.

Sixteen second-hand Italian Air Force Alenia G-222 transport aircraft bought for the Afghan air force have been mysteriously retired. It’s not clear if they became unflyable because of corruption-related Afghan failures to maintain them properly or if, as seems likely, the Italian suppliers failed to supply promised maintenance support as per their contract.

3 Karzai told the BBC in October 2013: “The entire NATO exercise was one that caused Afghanistan a lot of suffering, a lot of loss of life, and no gains because the country is not secure.”

"A Sandhurst in the Sand" (Full Version) Spectator Nov 2, 2013

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A strange hybrid beast is rising from the dust in the mountains West of Kabul. The foreigners in Kabul call it the Sandhurst in the Sand. Those who work at the new British-led military school that welcomed its first cadets last week prefer the more cumbersome “ANA-OA” short for Afghan National Army Officers Academy (though the Australians who guard the place call it “Duntroon in the Desert” after their own Sandhurst equivalent.)

Whichever name sticks, the “Afghan Sandhurst” at Qargha will be the only significant British contribution to Afghanistan’s security after the NATO mission finishes at the end of 2014, though if all goes well it might be the most lasting.

Some see this “Kabuli Camberley” as a way of making up for what they see as the costly mistakes of the last 12 years, beginning with the decision to take responsibility for Helmand, the Afghan province with the deepest historical hatred for Britain, closely followed by the deployment there of a too small military force, commanded by apparently overconfident generals.

And with boasts about British brilliance at counter-insurgency sounding hollow after a decade of failure, the new academy presents an opportunity to engage in one of the military tasks at which British forces have always been genuinely good at, and are still recognized by Britain’s allies as being so.

In any case the academy represents a remarkable, radical experiment in social engineering — and at the same time an unconscious throwback to the some of Britain’s more successful and enduring imperial enterprises.


At this point, the academy does not look like much. The actual buildings are behind schedule so temporary barracks and classrooms have had to be constructed out of tents and shipping containers on a scrubby, dusty plateau strewn with building sites and abandoned Soviet vehicles.

It’s an area that has been used for military training since even before the Soviet invasion; one British journalist even remembers al Qaeda operatives being trained here during the civil war.

The “Afghan Sandhurst” as Afghan officials are proud to call it, is on the site of a bigger project – an “Afghan National Defence University” that will eventually include a Sergeants’ Academy, a Staff College and a Counter-Insurgency School, assuming of course that President Obama and his successors continue to pay Afghanistan’s military bills after 2014.

[There is already a National Military Academy on the campus – a four year college built by the Americans and modeled on West Point. While the Afghan Sandhurst has been set up specifically to train junior officers to lead platoons and companies in infantry combat, the American-founded “NMA” focuses on training engineers, logisticians and artillerymen.]

The whole idea of an Afghan Sandhurst is the dreamchild not of the British government but Afghanistan’s formidable chief of General Staff, Gen. Sher Mohamed Karimi, who attended Sandhurst from 1966-8, and who is said to be in the habit of telling people that if he had an army led by his fellow cadets, the war against the Taliban would be over.

Karimi’s Anglophile memories and desires have borne fruit. There’s a particular kind of military Britishness apparent in the compact neatness of the rows of tents and containers that will serve as the physical structure of the academy until the buildings are completed.

It’s also there in the solid commitment to continue the mentoring mission until 2023, so that the Sandhurst-inspired ethos and systems really bed in. The Americans, on the other hand, have all but abandoned their recently opened Afghan West Point, with dubious results.

Most of all it is there in the general bearing of the 180 odd Britons on the faculty. (The 70 non-British foreign staff all come from countries whose militaries have strong connections to the UK like Australia, New Zealand, Norway and Denmark).

Both the Regimental Quartermaster, responsible for building and equipping the academy’s tented facilities, and the Regimental Sergeant Major, who keeps everything running, are straight out of central casting. Tall, fit, formidably crisp, with voices that carry over the entire campus, everything from their salutes to the pressed perfection of their uniforms proclaims discipline and demands emulation. And the Afghan NCOs whom they have been mentoring, some of whom have been sent to Sandhurst itself for training, do seem suitably impressed. Although these days Afghan army troops are generally more professional looking than they were a few years ago, those who are teaching at the academy look like they might be auditioning for sentry duty at Windsor Castle.

Of course the Afghan faculty members here. whether Tajik, Pashtun or Hazara, are hardly typical ANA soldiers. The Commandant, Brig. Sharif was trained by the Soviet army and later studied at the Indian Staff College. His deputy, Lt Col Hussein attended the UK’s Staff College at Shrivenham and his chief of staff Lt Col Mangal went to both Sandhurst and Staff College in the UK. Others have been trained in Germany or the United States. They exude an almost painful professionalism and eagerness.


If at times you could be forgiven for thinking yourself at an Indian Military Academy at Dehra Doon or Quetta in the mid 1940s, there are few of the comforts here that cushioned life for British officers in India, nor any of the opportunities for family and social life. Indeed, both military and civilian instructors are near prisoners of the academy. Unlike Afghan staff and even the cadets they are bound by safety and security rules so restrictive that trips to the monuments or restaurants of Kabul are essentially impossible.

There is also none of the condescension or racial arrogance you might have found in a Raj-era military academy. “Shohna ba Shohna” – or “shoulder to shoulder” has been the watchword of all the training and mentoring efforts in Afghanistan. Many of the British trainers have actually fought alongside Afghan troops and have respect for their physical courage. That doesn’t mean they are naïve about the size of the task that lies ahead. Arguably the big difference between this project and so many others that Britain and her allies have embarked on here is that it is informed by 12 years of intense and sometimes bitter experience.

You can see this in the way the British have set up the selection process for the academy. It is designed specifically to guard against the political interference, nepotism and corruption that infect so much of Afghan life. All the candidates are given a coloured, numbered bib when they come for three days of anonymous physical, mental and aptitude testing. At some point during the three days of assessment by a multi-ethnic three-man selection board the bib and number are switched again.

Of course the board members can tell the ethnicity of a candidate by his features or his accent, but there is no way of finding out who he is, as the only person in the entire establishment with access to the actual names of the candidates is a British lieutenant colonel. What this means is that no matter how hard a politician, general, tribal leader or warlord leans on the academy’s staff to favour a son or cousin or well-connected princeling, they could not help even if they wanted to.


No one here has more affection and respect for his Afghan colleagues and students than the British officer responsible for setting up the Sandhurst in the Sand. Brigadier Maurice Sheen, a former Colonel-Commandant of the Royal Logistics Corps, was brought out of retirement by the UK MOD specifically to do this job. As he cheerfully points out, “being an old bloke has its advantages here,” Afghan society being one that venerates age to an extraordinary degree.

The sort of commander who knows the names and backgrounds of even the lowliest kitchen worker on his staff, Sheen has an avuncular, schoolmasterly air, and was in fact once a public school housemaster. He also  has the unique qualification of having re-established Iraq’s military academy in Rustamiyah in 2005-6.

That original “Sandhurst in the Sand”  (founded by the British in 1927) was one of the relative successes of the Coalition mission in Iraq. Sheen himself was famous for singlehandedly defusing an incipient battle there between mutinous Shiite troops and the academy’s quick reaction force. He was so admired by the US general in charge of the allied training mission that he pleaded unsuccessfully with London to allow him to stay on after his term was over. That general, Martin Dempsey, is now America’s Chief of General Staff, a useful ally for any coalition commander to have when it comes to negotiating for resources with either ISAF or the Afghan MOD.

Sheen dislikes the sobriquet “Sandhurst in the Sand,” partly because it is second hand, but mostly because  because, (he says), they are not trying to reproduce Sandhurst but to create an Afghan hybrid designed for the needs of the Afghan army and reflecting Afghanistan’s own military traditions and style.

Some of this takes a bit of getting used to for the British trainers. For instance, although there won’t be nearly the amount of drill required of Sandhurst cadets, what there is will see the Afghans marching with their traditional Soviet-style goose step, and holding hands in order to keep in time.

Apparently the fitness requirements of the training comes as a particular shock to Afghan officer candidates, even those who come from the Afghan army. Despite the proliferation of bodybuilding gyms in Kabul, and popular admiration for the country’s increasingly successful sports teams, a concern for physical fitness is relatively new to the culture, and the notion that officers must be fitter than the men they lead is even more alien.


You do hear skepticism about the project from some British soldiers here who served in Helmand and who witnessed the Afghan Security Forces and government officials at their lazy, corrupt and abusive worst. They tell stories of senior officers humiliated by junior ones with higher tribal status, of commanders who rape more junior stories and of good leaders replaced by well-connected incompetents.

Sheen and his colleagues are quick to remind sceptics – and their Afghan colleagues – that meritocratic promotions are relatively recent developments in the Britain, that until the late 19th century you could buy a regimental command and that even more recently, top jobs tended to go to to the socially grand or the sons of senior officers. They also point out that many of the cadets will come from regions of Afghanistan, and from families very different from those that British troops encountered in Helmand.


Sheen seems particularly keen that the foreign trainers respect the Afghan tradition according to which a commander is the father of his men, and is therefore as likely to be approached by a private asking for more leave as by a senior staff officer with a question about logistics. There is a certain romantic appeal to that kind of paternal leadership but a lot of coalition officers think it’s a bad thing. After all, it’s all very well for a warlord’s band to operate like an extended family but in a modern army commanders need to be able to delegate decisions to more junior ones.

And for all the talk about Afghan solutions and going with the grain of the country, the British mentors here are determined to introduce here what must seem one of the most bizarre and unsettling aspects of Western military culture, namely the training of officer cadets by their social and educational inferiors.

At the real Sandhurst, and in countries like America and France it is simply taken for granted that officer cadets should be trained — and hence be shouted at –by sergeants and other non-commissioned officers. That is a hard sell here in Afghanistan, because in the Afghan military as in many third world and former Eastern block armies, NCO’s are given low status and little responsibility. But if officer cadets here get used to it, and start thinking of sergeants as experts worthy of respect, it could change the way the Afghan army fights. Of course, that in itself assumes that the new breed of officers that will come out of the Afghan Sandhurst, with their eccentric British ways, will be accepted and flourish in the 350,000 strong Afghan armed forces.


Another big question that hangs over the entire enterprise is the level of quality it would be right to expect of staff, officer candidates and their training. Here in Afghanistan you often hear ISAF troops use the phrase “Afghan good-enough” to refer to a standard of performance that is merely the best that can be hoped for.

Sheen and his colleagues are hoping to strike a balance between the low expectations implied by “Afghan good-enough” and the standards required of a first world officer corps. They stress that cadets here don’t have to be trained for the variety of missions that Sandhurst cadets are trained for. They just have to be ready to lead troops in combat after 42 weeks, having been transformed from men and women who once identified as members of tribal and family groups to believers in multi-ethnic Afghanistan. The curriculum therefore includes considerable time spent on core values and military history, the latter taught by Sandhurst’s own Prof. Duncan Anderson with a suitable emphasis on Afghan victories against the British, Russians, and classes in the former using the Koran to back up notions like an officer’s duty to serve as well as lead his men.


In some ways the academy may not be as big a gamble as it might look from London. Afghanistan is after all a very different society than it was when British troops first arrived in force a decade ago. There are now  2.5 million internet users, 76 television channels and 20 million people with mobile phones. The culture and economy have been enriched by the return of more than 5 million former exiles, and of course by the billions of dollars of foreign aid. Most important the academy will be recruiting its cadets from a bigger, younger much better-educated population than existed here even a few years ago.

 If it all works it will mean the creation of a genuinely meritocratic, genuinely national institution that produces leaders with integrity and self-discipline. That alone would be a revolutionary development in this part of the world.


Of course, success could bring problems of its own. There are after all several third-world countries in which the army is the only institution in which a young man without money or connections, and burdened by membership of an oppressed ethnic minority can rise to the top thanks to his talent. Prominent among them are Pakistan, Guatemala, Panama and Venezuela – all states in which generals from such backgrounds have at various points established military regimes, some of them very nasty indeed.

On the other hand, despite all that has been invested by the West in building a democratic and independent Afghanistan, it could be argued that there are worse futures for this country than domination by a relatively modern, efficient, meritocratic military led by graduates shaped by an institution whose motto is “serve to lead.”