The regional military training centre in Herat is a desolate and harsh place. On the outskirts of an Afghan city bustling with commerce and construction, the vast training grounds extend out into the desert and high into the mountains.
We were at this training facility to see a live-fire exercise, intended as a demonstration of what is now the primary pillar of the International Security Assistance Force mission: forging the Afghan army into a force capable of securing the country and keeping the national government together as NATO draws down.
After winding through dozens of marching drills and shooting ranges, we arrived at the edge of the facility and a line of six young Afghan soldiers, each with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher on their shoulder. They were aiming at three burned-out Russian tanks. One by one, they fired at the tanks, most missing wildly.
After this somewhat chilling demonstration, we were taken to meet the commander of Regional Command West; he will ultimately take control of one of five regional armies. His message was blunt: He had fought for the mujahedeen, the Russians, the Taliban and now for NATO. While he appreciated our support, he had no doubt it would be fleeting.
It would be difficult to find a better distillation of the challenges NATO faces in Afghanistan than what we saw at this training facility. But such is the current state of the mission. With eight years of fighting having mostly failed, the NATO mission is in a process of transition, with security being transferred to Afghan forces between now and 2014. Training, which began in earnest only in November of 2009, is at the centre of this strategy.
Canada may no longer be fighting in Kandahar, but this new mission is nonetheless a daunting and risky task.
The police training process, for example, involves only three weeks of very basic security and language training (85 per cent of the recruits are illiterate). As one German colonel who is part of the mentoring program put it, we are training them to be checkpoint guards, not police officers.
This has real consequence for our counterinsurgency strategy. In the north, the Afghan National Police has proved incapable of patrolling and securing villages; immediately after NATO soldiers leave, the insurgents simply return. The village is then taken again and those who assisted NATO are punished. Each time this happens, more civilians are killed. The villagers then stop pointing out the whereabouts of IEDs, thereby increasing NATO casualties.
In the past year, there hasn’t been a single village held by the Afghan National Police in the north. The insurgents always come back.
Also of concern is the fact that the departing Americans are meant to be replaced by these new Afghan recruits. For example, the 30,000 U.S. soldiers who are being withdrawn over the next 18 months are supposed to be replaced by 50,000 to 70,000 new Afghan National Army troops. While there’s something to be said for the argument that an Afghan soldier can be more effective than a Western one, the lack of training, organization, leadership and equipment, combined with corruption, make one seriously question NATO’s math.
Training is also incredibly expensive. NATO support for training now costs $11-billion a year, mostly paid by the Americans. After 2014, the security sector is expected to require a continual $4-billion a year of external financial assistance, in a country with a GDP of $15-billon. It’s extremely unlikely that this level of financial and logistical assistance will be politically and economically sustainable by Western countries tired of war and teetering on the edge of yet another recession.
Ultimately, the questionable quality of the forces being trained, combined with the unsustainability of NATO support, presents potential strategic peril. As we put $11-billion a year of arms and training into the security sector, the civilian governance structures continue to falter amidst corruption and diminishing authority. Are we paving the way for a military-run Afghanistan?
One thing is clear: Our participation in this training process, while likely the best course of action in a very challenging situation, simply adds to both the moral responsibility we owe Afghanistan and the strategic corner we have backed ourselves into. If we build this army, we had better be willing to fund it and support it long into the future. This will be added to the long-term development and humanitarian engagement we also have rightly committed to and have the obligation to maintain. Afghans, of course, have been taught to shoot RPGs before.
Taylor Owen is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia and the senior editor of www.opencanada.org. He recently returned from a NATO opinion leaders tour of Afghanistan.