Thursday, July 14, 2016

In Afghanistan The Future Never Arrives

In ten years in the war zone I never got the impression that the Afghans and Americans really understood each other.  Americans could never understand why the Afghans did so many things different from them.  And the Afghans never understood how a superpower could allow the Taliban to come back, resurgent, a few years after toppling their government.
    The Afghans could never understand why violence increased year after year, from 2003 onward. (This year the numbers are high again. The UN says security incidents are down 3% from last year, but armed clashes are up 14% as gun battles increase).
    They could never understand why the US has given Pakistan over $1 billion every year since 9/11, even though it harbors, arms and assist the Taliban which is killing US and Afghan soldiers.
    Afghans could never understand why so many villages saw so little aid even though America spent $1 trillion there. (We have spent about $110 billion in aid, but almost all if it, around 80%, has gone to the Afghan armed forces.  Much of the rest was squandered, though some got through).
     They could never understand why we sometimes had a zero-tolerance policy on corruption, while other times we helped Afghan officials steal billions from their own people. (Ahmed Wali Karzai, Hamid Karzai's brother, was worth hundreds of millions of dollars, controlled much of the economy of Kandahar Province, had his hands in the drug trade, and was reportedly a CIA asset.  He died from a gunshot wound in 2011).
    Nor do Afghans understand how we have allowed the Afghan security forces to fare so poorly, so security gets steadily worse in their homes. (Even today, the security forces are hobbled by lousy logistics, poor performance, a tiny air force and vast manpower shortages. Supposedly there are 350,000 army and police, but in Helmand, the worst of the 34 provinces, probably only 10,000 men actually serve).
    Lastly, Afghans don't understand why healthcare and education are doing so poorly.  (A recent news report described two teachers in Ghazni Province teaching 600 students. Earlier this year the Afghan government looked into the school problem, and 224 schools found in Kandahar Province alone are closed due to poor security).
    For their part, the Americans don't understand the Afghans either. They don't see how a government can do so poorly, despite receiving billions of dollars in assistance. (The system that the US and UN set up in 2002-203 was fundamentally top-down, because no one trusted the lower levels of government to do a good job. Setting up the government in this way was a massive strategic mistake that causes enormous problems even today).
    The Americans don't understand how so many Afghan officials funnel resources to their home tribes, leaving people from other tribes out in the cold.  (Under the Afghan tribal system, the tribe must be served first, and all others get seconds. This is understood in Afghanistan, but it is a consideration not meant to be abused).
    Americans don't understand how Afghans can be so ungrateful, after over 2,500 US soldiers have died and we have spent $1 trillion. (Afghans are extremely grateful when there is adequate security. When there is none, they believe American must be conspiring with hidden motives, since there can be no other explanation to explain such lousy outcomes).
    Most Americans do not really understand the Afghan culture, nor the people.  Nor do they find Afghans particularly interesting.  (Most soldiers' only contact with ordinary Afghans is a fleeting interaction with figures standing beside the road.  There have never been enough interpreters for ordinary foot soldiers to use.  At least the soldiers can talk to the interpreter assigned to their platoon in their free time).
    So American soldiers tend to see Afghans as caricatures who grow poppy, plant IEDs and ask for more stuff.  This does not foster much mutual understanding.  Meanwhile, of the relatively few US civilians, the vast majority never leave their bases.  The US Army officers have carried the brunt of understanding the Afghans, with little training to help them.
    Despite this massive deficit of understanding and outcomes, the Americans have always maintained all is well, even as the situation there steadily deteriorates. Even today. In June 2016, the US general in charge of communications, Brig Gen. Charles Cleveland, spoke to reporters:  "Frankly, there will be bad days over the coming months - there's no doubt about that," he said. But the Afghan forces, he added, are "slowly but surely getting progressively better."  
    That good news doesn't ring true when the Taliban hold more ground today than at any time since 2001, and the Afghan security forces struggle to maintain tenuous control in probably half the districts.
    One of the main reasons we have done so badly in Afghanistan is because we don't understand Afghanistan or its people. Nor do the Afghans understand us.  Deadlock.  Our lack of awareness means we don't do sensible things, such as solve problems related to: perfidious Pakistan, the staggering security forces, the rickety government system or the lack of aid reaching the villages. (There is plenty of talk but never a solution).   
    The result is a deteriorating muddle against a relentless and ruthless enemy.  And US troops stay on and on as midwives of a successful future that never arrives.