The 21st century is a hard sell to a culture that prefers the 8th. The Europeans, loosely defined, keep trying in Afghanistan. It’s 12 years and counting since the Americans replaced the Russians, and a lot longer than that since the British decided they had had enough, and beat it back to London.
We’ve made a considerable investment in blood and money in Afghanistan. The changes that all the sacrifice bought are mostly cosmetic, and we’re learning that cosmetic changes last about as long on an 8th-century culture as lipstick on a pig. Tribal warfare is the national sport and the gross national product, insofar as anyone can find it big enough to measure, consists mostly of refugees and asylum-seekers. Coffin-makers do a good business but almost nobody else does.
This is the land that hope and change forgot, and President Obama is determined to bring most American troops home, or at least to send them to another semi-hopeless place. The alternative to doing nothing may be even more dreadful, but the depth of American frustration in Afghanistan is measured in two U.S. audits that spell out why a world policeman’s lot is not a happy one. Not in the Middle East, anyway.
The first internal audit, uncovered by the Washington Guardian, an aggressive Web newspaper (washingtonguardian.com), concludes that the Afghan military, despite years of expensive American tutoring and training, is only “marginally capable of repelling attacks from the Islamist extremists who antagonize large parts of the country.”
The Afghan National Army still has weak command and control capabilities, and only succeeds on the battlefield with American and allied assistance. “Assistance” usually means the Afghans step back and let the Americans and the allies do the heavy lifting - when they’re not doing the dying. The Afghans can sometimes steer the car in a wobbly more or less straight line, but only as long as daddy’s there to accelerate, brake and supervise.
“In its present state of development and given the threat environment,” the Defense Department inspector general concluded, “we found the [Afghan] command, control and coordination system to be marginally sufficient to respond effectively to insurgent attacks … and to conduct effectively other short-term offensive operations.” Translated from government-speak, the inspector general concludes that this is the army that can barely shoot straight when it shoots at all.
It’s not altogether the fault of the men in the ranks. One high-ranking U.S. officer who has worked directly with Afghan forces tells the Guardian that even after meeting basic levels of competence, the Afghan soldier’s efforts are undermined by corruption in the government of President Hamid Karzai. “If the Afghan soldier doesn’t get paid when he’s supposed to, he will either leave or get recruited by the enemy.” The pay from the enemy may not be better or even more forthcoming, but looting opportunities are more abundant. Men in the highest ranks of the government do it, so why not the dogface soldiers?
This hasn’t been a happy spring in Afghanistan. In trying to impose the 21st century on the reluctant country, the Americans are building first-world hospitals that probably won’t be sustainable in the third world when Mr. Obama delivers on his promise to quit the battlefield.The Guardian reports that one of the two hospitals the Americans are building in eastern Afghanistan will be 12 times the size of the hospital it replaces, and annual maintenance costs will soar to $3.2 million. The other hospital now spends $98,000 annually on maintenance and will have to come up with $587,000 annually to maintain the replacement.
The U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, says it has been assured by the Afghan government there will be “no problem.” It’s not rocket science to figure out who the Afghans expect to pick up the check. The skeptical inspector general says USAID could make better use of the money available for the five hospitals the agency funds. Three of the five have no anesthesiologist, two have no obstetrician or gynecologist and one has no pediatrician. But the two new hospitals, built at a cost of $18.5 million, will by shiny and new.
Nation-building is for suckers, as we learn to considerable pain. It’s probably not possible to avoid trying to resolve the problems of others, but we should do it only when those problems, left unresolved, make trouble for us. And we shouldn’t expect to make good small-d democrats or small-r republicans out of those who prefer to live in the squalor of the 8th century. It’s important to keep great expectations realistic.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.