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January 2014

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Used and Abandoned in Afghanistan
by Godfrey Garner

As 2014 draws near, the anticipation on the streets and within the thick compound walls of the villages in Afghanistan grows more and more. And around the world, virtually every developed nation has a tangible economic investment in that country. More than 30 nations have sacrificed young men and women in the pursuit of victory during Operation Enduring Freedom. Now the people of Afghanistan and the world wait to see if President Karzai will agree to an extension of the presence of foreign troops on Afghan soil, past the 2014 withdrawal date.

The people of Afghanistan have endured seriously drastic changes in relatively short periods of time throughout their rich history, but the cultural metamorphosis that has occurred in that country since the day America and its allies first set foot on Afghan soil, initiating combat operations on 7 October, 2001, are unprecedented.

Though there are as many predictions of what will happen in that country following US and allied withdrawal as there are prognosticators on the subject, the most important and as yet unresolved question is, “Will Afghan Security Forces, until now trained, mentored and led by America and its allies, continue the battle to stave off the Taliban insurgency?”

Today, anecdotal stories of Afghan soldier’s bravery and sacrifice abound throughout the country. These actions by individual Afghan Army units, though admirable and very much worthy of praise are still anecdotal and are unfortunately offset by other stories of mass desertion by Afghan soldiers.          

Far from home, and poorly paid, thousands of Afghan soldiers are deserting the army as the 2014 withdrawal of American and allied forces approaches. Though there is a trend, most of the soldiers are not joining the Taliban, they simply get fed up with life in the army, fighting a war, and too often going without pay and benefits due to corruption and an unwieldy system that perpetuates a lack of government support for the troops. Experts in the area agree that the Afghan Army is severely handicapped by Kabul's failure to keep its soldiers supplied with basic necessities like ammunition, fuel for vehicles and food. 

According to General Olivier de Bavinchove, an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander, approximately 50,000 soldiers desert the force each year.  This is roughly 26 percent of the 190,000-strong Afghan army. Adding anticipated commitment completion losses after 4-year enlistments to troop desertion, turnover rate is closer to 50 percent.  Therefore commanders basically have a new army every two years equating essentially to an “untrained” Afghan security force.  When the coalition leaves, the Afghan military will be left with few professional soldiers to act as cadre to sustain their security forces.

Those who stay and fight, although most are now directly led by their Afghan Army military commanders, do so with the knowledge that somewhere behind them in close proximity is that American military, complete with its institutional knowledge of modern warfare and its vast, seemingly unending military might. Although this assurance of American military support is not the only thing that keeps the Afghan soldier in the thick of the fight, the confidence gained by knowing it is there, cannot be overstated or ignored.

Following the 2014 withdrawal, the inclination to charge headlong into the thick of battle will have to come from somewhere else, which broaches a question, in light of the fact that until now, the Afghan Army has basically been fighting a war that America has convinced them was worth the fight, “Why do soldiers fight and more specifically, why will the Afghan soldier fight this war, after we are gone?”

America is leaving behind a fairly well equipped, minimally trained army in Afghanistan, which is marginally capable of performing the task set before it. If the Afghan government can somehow figure out how to stem the corruption and compensate the soldiers adequately, the steady loss of manpower due to normal attrition and ever-present manpower problems resulting from desertion may be reversed. However, even if these problems are addressed and dealt with, there are more important questions. What will motivate the Afghan soldier to fight and risk death in this counterinsurgency? Is there a commitment to victory on the part of the individual soldier? Is there even an understanding of what ‘victory’ is, in this war that was brought to the doorsteps of the Afghan people?

The answer, or realization that there may in fact be no answer to these questions, can be explored by an initial cursory examination of Afghanistan’s history as it relates to the Taliban; primarily who was the Taliban before 9/11, and how was the Taliban viewed by Afghans?

Prior to the 9/11 attack on America, the Taliban in Afghanistan was an Islamic fundamentalist political movement supported primarily by Pakistan’s ISID intelligence service. It had spread from Pakistan into Afghanistan. The Supreme Taliban commander in Afghanistan, Mullah Mohammad Omar was hailed by most as a hero for rescuing kidnapped girls from a brutal warlord. Omar formed a Taliban government in September 1996, with Kandahar as its capital.  While in power, the Taliban enforced a strict interpretation of Sharia law. Though made up primarily of Pashtun, many Afghans became members of the Taliban strictly for matters of self-preservation.

Today, many older Afghans remember the period of rule by Taliban as a more orderly era. Robberies and other forms of theft were virtually unheard of and the concepts of bribery and extortion by government officials were totally foreign. This same older generation of Afghans looks back on Taliban rule with some fondness in light of the present day atmosphere of corruption that blankets the country. This fond remembrance is reinforced to a great degree by the fact that many in the Afghan government, encouraged by the Obama administration, are actively seeking an official recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate part of the government. Under these circumstances, the most dedicated Afghan soldiers will have second thoughts about carrying the fight to the Taliban.      

Operation Enduring Freedom had as one of its objectives, implementing American style democracy in Afghanistan. As we have done so often throughout history, America pursued this objective, confident in the assumption that all of Afghanistan would enthusiastically embrace democracy with the same fervor as Americans; one of our countless miscalculations.

We failed to realize that not all Afghans yearn for democracy or a democratic form of government, nor do they understand it. We forget that it took 200 years to cultivate the brand of democracy practiced in the US today. We failed to take into consideration the work and commitment required for a democracy to survive and to thrive. We failed to realize that Afghans do not live lives of leisure to the extent that Americans do.

While it is true that democracy brings a type of freedom that many Afghans did not enjoy prior to 2001, it is also true that this freedom and this democracy require work and sacrifice. Though many would argue the point, life under Taliban rule with all its sanctions and requirements for strict adherence to Sharia law, was and still is viewed by many Afghans as requiring little or no effort from them individually. The fact that the typical Afghan works most of a 24 hour day just to survive and has little time or energy to devote to a democratic form of government, right or wrong supports a form of rule that requires little individual responsibility or sacrifice, such as that imposed by the Taliban. In light of this, much of the Afghan population will not support a continued war against the Taliban; a war their family members will have to fight without visible American military support.  The reality is that without U.S. troops in Afghanistan; many required missions will probably never get beyond the planning stage, leaving large swaths of Afghanistan susceptible to extremist rule.

Though adequate compensation is necessary for soldiers, most psychologists and theorists on the subject agree that soldiers from all cultures fight with true commitment, for a few specific reasons, none of which are material in nature. Soldiers fight primarily "For Cause and Comrades," according to Princeton University history Professor James McPherson.

Others have identified ideology, flag and country, and religious beliefs as motivating factors. Additionally the Afghans, it has been theorized, have historically fought with true commitment for leaders whom they respected and honored. Unfortunately today in Afghanistan, ultimate leadership which falls to the Government of Afghanistan is in the hands of politicians, most of whom are seen as corrupt and few of whom are respected. Nationwide, though many honorable and courageous leaders can be found throughout the Afghan army, it would be a true mistake to assume that the Afghan soldier will fight because he has an honored leader in the likes of Hamid Karzai.   

As far as flag and country is concerned, many today see America and western influences in Afghanistan as foreign, and theories abound that following American departure a large number of Afghans will view the returning Taliban as countrymen. Although polling shows that the majority of Afghans oppose the return of Taliban rule, the realization that “acceptance and reintegration” of the Taliban is being actively encouraged by an American government anxious for a peace agreement in Afghanistan, will contribute to confusion among the ranks of the army as to who and why, they are fighting.   

In terms of religion, Afghan soldiers as well as most in the Muslim community have always been willing and eager in some cases to lay down their life for Islam. Any post-American military presence, motivation for the Afghan soldier to continue this counterinsurgency for religious reasons, however, is ludicrous. The Taliban has and will continue to successfully portray Americans and American allies as religious interlopers in that country. Fighting the ‘godless non-Muslim’ westerner is and will always be a successful recruiting tool for the Taliban.

As to the question, ‘Will the Afghan soldier continue the counterinsurgency with true commitment following American withdrawal’, the answer is ‘no’. While today’s American soldiers fight with commitment because they trust in their comrade, their leaders, and their country, and they understand the moral dimensions of war, one must conclude that for the Afghan soldier, while trust in their comrade is ever-present, none of these other necessary motivating factors are present in order to instill the commitment necessary to pursue victory against the insurgent.

President Karzai has overruled the country’s Loya Jirga and taken it upon himself to reject an agreement allowing a skeleton American military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014. Unless cooler heads prevail, the US Government will once again have to deal with an effectively “failed state” in Afghanistan. The country once again will either be ruled by the Taliban and regional warlords, in a state of civil war, or some combination thereof. The Afghan army in and of itself is not capable or willing to stem this tide.bluestar


American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.


Author Dr. Godfrey Garner holds a PhD in counseling psychology from Mississippi State University and is currently pursuing a second PhD at the University of Southern Mississippi. Following two tours in Viet Nam and a lengthy break in military service, Dr. Garner rejoined and eventually retired from 20th Special Forces group in 2006. He completed two military and six civilian government-related tours in Afghanistan. His work in Afghanistan most recently has been as a counter-corruption analyst. He is published in Homeland Security Today and Foreign Policy Journal on issues relating to Afghanistan as well as other journals relating to higher education. He is the author of the novel Danny Kane and the Hunt for Mullah Omar.

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