The South Asia Channel

Why can’t the Afghans fight their own war?

Why can’t the Afghans fight their own war?

By Shuja Nawaz

Matt Yglesias writes over at Think Progress:

The other thing I wonder about is these incredibly long time horizons for getting the Afghan army up to speed. Why so long? We’re not training these guys to mount an amphibious invasion of Japan or get into dogfights with the IDF. The idea is that they need to be able to fight the Taliban. And which superpower is funding, arming, and training the Taliban? Nobody! They’re making do with limited support from perhaps some elements in Pakistani intelligence and maybe some Gulf money.

Given Afghanistan’s long series of civil wars, there are experienced military commanders around on the non-Taliban side and plenty of veteran fighters throughout the country. It seems as if relatively small quantities of American support should decisively tilt the balance of power. And, indeed, in the winter of 2001-2002 they did decisively tilt the balance of power. Did the Northern Alliance troops suddenly forget how to fight? Did we forget how to help them?

Yglesias is essentially asking the question, why can’t the Afghans fight their own war?

Probably because we won’t let them. All the talk about the strategy for the war comes out of American mouths. We never hear the Afghans talk about how they hope to conduct the war or how they hope to defeat the Taliban. If the United States and the coalition own the war, they will fight it their way. But Yglesias raises good questions. I agree: Afghans have been fighting for centuries. What sort of training are they missing to fight their compatriots? It is basic war, light weapons, IEDs, and bribes, threats, and coercion being used to win over friends and foes. Who knows the social terrain better? The Afghans or us?

We also need to pay attention to the demographics of the Afghan forces, to ensure that the representation of the various ethnic groups is not distorted in favor of one or the other group. And we must eschew employing Northern Alliance forces in the South, as Yglesias seems to suggest. That feeds the view that this is an anti-Pashtun war.  If anything, this creates a backlash. Pashtuns have been fighting each other in the Frontier region of Pakistan for centuries.  They will readily do so again, if we let them.

Finally, are we training the Afghan forces to NATO standards? Yglesias implies that "we" have forgotten how to help them. But why not use Pakistani and Indian trainers to train them on basic tactics and weaponry in Afghanistan and in their own countries? Pakistani Pashtun officers and soldiers helped the mujahideen against the Soviets and then reportedly the Taliban, as effective advisors, in the Taliban’s drive toward Kabul in the 1990s. They could now work to build the Afghan forces against the same Taliban. This ought to speed up the flow of recruits, and at much less cost than it is for the US or the allies to do so.

Billeting Afghan forces in communities will help isolate the Taliban and protect the people. But they need to be kept under scrutiny so they remain honest. If they abuse their privileges, then we may accelerate the end of the war in favor of the Taliban.

Shuja Nawaz is the director of the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council of the United States in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within (Oxford 2008) and FATA: A Most Dangerous Place (CSIS 2009).