Afghanistan's Army: Still Unprepared

The endgame has begun in the Afghan war, but the facts on the ground don’t offer a hopeful picture. Now that all the “surge” troops have left, the Afghan army will have to step up and take more responsibility.

After 11 years of extensive training, they certainly should be ready. But they’re not. Far from it, in fact.

Last month, American and NATO troops announced that they would no longer go on patrol with their Afghan counterparts. The reason, of course, was the spate of so-called green-on-blue killings—Afghan military trainees shooting and killing their teachers. More than 50 US and coalition troops have been killed in insider attacks so far this year, a significant increase. During all of 2011, 35 NATO soldiers were killed.

This change in strategy was widely reported, but a disheartening corollary fact was hardly mentioned: the NATO training mission publicly acknowledged last year that, even after a decade, none of the Afghan military units are ready to fight on their own. Afghan forces, NATO still says, can fight effectively only if US or other NATO troops accompany and advise them.

So now, with coalition forces refusing to go along, even the military officers who have spent all these years training them admit that the Afghan soldiers are incapable of fighting effectively.

Part of the problem is their state of mind. Afghan soldiers, even those soldiers who aren’t planning to kill any of their erstwhile allies, still remain openly resentful of their Western trainers. They’re thinking about the “Innocence of Muslims” video, the accidental burning of those Korans, and numerous other perceived slights.

Well, their enemy, the Taliban, is single-minded—totally dedicated to its jihad with no distracting thoughts.

Since 2002, the United States has spent $43 billion training the Afghan military and police. It plans to spend $11.2 billion more this fiscal year, and the military has requested another $5.8 billion for 2013.

Going forward, continued military training is expected to cost at least $4 billion a year – far more than the Afghan government can afford. Nearly all of that money will have to come from the US and other outside donors—assuming any of these nations are willing to continue spending money on this troubled war.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai may realize that 95 percent of his nation’s GDP comes from foreign aid, meaning that without foreign assistance his economy will collapse. But he doesn’t act as if he cares. Late last month he summarily fired 10 provincial governors, including several who were close allies of the US-led military coalition—angering coalition officials. That’s just the latest of Karzai’s serial affronts.

Late last week, coalition officers said they were considering resuming some patrols with Afghan forces. But then on Saturday, an American soldier and a US civilian contractor were shot to death.

NATO issued a short statement saying the incident was “a suspected insider attack.”

 Joel Brinkley is a professor of journalism at Stanford University and a Pulitzer Prize–winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times.

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