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Ann Jones: Playing the Game in Afghanistan

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Headlined to None 3/8/12

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It costs the U.S. $12 billion annually to train the army alone and the estimated cost of maintaining it beyond 2014 is $4 billion per year, of which the Afghan government says it can pay no more than 12%. Clearly, Afghanistan does not need and cannot sustain such a security force. Instead, the United States will be stuck with the bill, hoping for help from NATO allies -- until the force falls apart. How then did this security force become the centerpiece of the Obama plan? And given its obvious absurdity, why is it written in stone?

Second, take just a moment to do something Washington has long been adverse to -- review a little basic Afghan history as it applies to Plan A. Start with the simplest of all facts: in the country's modern history, no Afghan national army has ever saved a government, or even tried. More often, such an army has either sat on its hands during a coup d'etat or actually helped to overthrow the incumbent ruler.

Go back nearly a century to the reign of King Amanullah (1919-1929), a modernizing ruler who wrote a constitution, established a national assembly, founded girls' schools, taxed polygamous husbands, and banned conservative mullahs from the country because they might be "bad and evil persons" spreading treacherous foreign propaganda. In 1928, he returned to Afghanistan with his Queen Suraya, who wore European dresses and no veil, from a round of visits to European rulers, bringing guns for his army (though his soldiers would be billed for them) and announced a new agenda of revolutionary reforms. He got a revolution instead, and here's the important point: his newly weaponized army lifted not a finger to save him.

Amanullah's successor, an ex-bandit known as Bacha-i Saqqa, lasted only eight months in office before his successor, Nadir Shah, had him hanged, again without intervention from the Afghan army. Nadir Shah in turn reigned from 1929 to 1933, and although he, like Barack Obama, tried to build up the national army, that force of 40,000 men couldn't help him when he was assassinated by a schoolboy at a high school graduation ceremony.

From 1933 to 1973, Nadir Shah's son, Zahir Shah, presided over gradual social progress. He introduced a new constitution, free elections, a parliament, civil rights, women's rights, and universal suffrage. During his long peaceful reign, his professional spit-and-polish army served him very well on ceremonial occasions. (This is the same popular king who, after the Taliban fell, offered to return and reunite the country; Bush turned him down.)

In 1973, when Zahir Shah went to Italy for medical care, his cousin Daoud Khan -- a general, former Commander of the Central Forces, and Minister of Defense -- abolished the monarchy and assumed power with the aid of young communists in a bloodless coup. The army was in his pocket, but five years later, in 1978, it fell apart and fought on both sides as the communists overthrew and murdered Daoud. The fractured army could not prevent the Soviet invasion, nor safeguard any of the presidents in power before they came or after they left.

It's worth remembering, too, that every one of these shifts in power was followed by a purge of political enemies that sent thousands of Afghans loyal to the jettisoned ruler to prison, death, or another country in the prolonged exodus that has made the Afghan diaspora the largest in the world drawn from a single country. That diaspora continues today -- 30,000 Afghans fled last year and applied for asylum elsewhere -- and the next purge hasn't even gotten underway yet.

In short, Afghan history is a sobering antidote to the relentless optimism of the American military. Modern Afghan history indicates that no Afghan National Army of any size or set of skills has ever warded off a single foreign enemy or done a lick of good for any Afghan ruler.

As for those Afghan guys who whipped the British three times and the Soviet's Red Army, they were mostly freelancers, attached to the improvised militias of assorted warlords, fighting voluntarily against invaders who had occupied their country. The Taliban, like the mujahidin of the anti-Soviet struggle before them, seem to fight quite successfully without any significant training, armor, or heavy equipment to speak of, except what some Taliban snatch by signing up from time to time for basic training with the ANA (or buy from ANA soldiers).

The Afghan National Game

Another objection to spending billions on training an Afghan National Army is this: you never know whom they will shoot. The problem is not the odd rogue soldier or Talib infiltrator. The problem is that the Afghan moral code is different from ours, though still apparently invisible to our military and political leaders.

Many years ago, an American Foreign Service officer in Afghanistan fell in love with the place and went sort of rogue himself. Whitney Azoy resigned to become an anthropologist and in 1982 published an enchanting scholarly book about the Afghan sport of buzkashi, in which mounted horsemen vie for possession of a dead goat or calf.

His book became a bible for visiting journalists who soon made a cliche of the game, comparing the dead goat to the country of Afghanistan, torn apart throughout its history by competing foreign powers: England and Russia, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the U.S. and Pakistan. Journalists compared the game to polo, apparently never having seen a game of polo. Take my word for it: it is not like polo. Anyway, that's not the point.

What many missed is the bigger picture: that all the chapandazan (horsemen) ride for a sponsor, who may be the wealthy landowning host of the day's competition, or perhaps another large landowner living some distance away. Chapandazan compete not for the calf, but for the favor of the sponsoring khan who will bestow upon the winners the turban cloths that mark their public stature and the money that will support their families. Here's the point: if a sponsor fails in his obligations -- if he loses the ability and wherewithal to honor, protect, and support his chapandazan -- they will switch to the man who can.

In short, for their own safety and advancement, Afghans back a winner, and if he goes into decline, they ditch him for a rising star. To spot that winner is the mark of the intelligent survivor. To stick loyally to a losing cause, as any patriotic American would do, seems to an Afghan downright stupid.

Now, apply this to the ANA as American and NATO troops draw down in 2014. Any army intended to defend a nation must be loyal to the political leaders governing the country. Estimates among Afghan experts of how long the ANA would be loyal to Afghan President Hamid Karzai start at two weeks, and remember, 2014 is a presidential election year, with Karzai barred by the constitution from seeking another term. In other words, Obama's Plan A calls for urgently building up a national army to defend a government that will not exist before our own combat troops leave the country.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 
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