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The Globe and Mail

A clean Afghan handover is a long way from reality

Every NATO country mired in Afghanistan, including Canada, agrees that military and security tasks must be handed over to the Afghan army and police. The goal is correct, but the reality is otherwise.

Like almost everything else in Afghanistan, a chasm exists between goal and realization. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has been trying to ready the army and police, but it's been like training a cat to bark.

Now British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, governing a country where two citizens in three want out of the mission, says military strategy should be handed over to "full Afghan control" beginning in 2010. U.S. President Barack Obama continues to ponder four options, all costly and risky, that are predicated on turning over military and security to the Afghans. He and his advisers are reportedly seeking an "exit strategy" that must involve a massive increase in training for the day U.S. and other NATO forces leave. Canada, of course, has decided to withdraw combat forces in 2011, although government spokesmen say Canadians might continue "training" Afghan soldiers.

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This word "training" sounds so neutral and beguiling, like a community college class in which a teacher with a Maple Leaf stands with a pointer in one hand and a piece of chalk in the other. But U.S.-style training means sending soldiers into field combat with the trainees to teach them how to kill, take territory, capture prisoners and, generally, win.

In any event, this mantra about handing matters over to an enlarged and trained Afghan army and police is the "exit strategy" so devoutly desired but difficult to execute.

It's equally unlikely that President Hamid Karzai will root out corruption, as Western countries define it.

While Mr. Obama ponders his options, the Afghans remain a force of largely illiterate soldiers led by corrupt, incompetent officers. Every year, one out of every four or five recruits quits, which makes increasing their overall numbers rather difficult. According to The New York Times, recent internal U.S. government reports indicate that the number of Afghan battalions able to fight independently has actually declined in the past six months.

Two public reports - from the Inspector-General of the U.S. Defence Department and the Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, both available on the Web - point to a mix of progress and setbacks. However, nothing in them suggests that training an effective Afghan military or police will be easy or speedy. Certainly, these forces will not be up to serious tasks in the next year or two.

The idea, therefore, of thrusting in tens of thousands of additional U.S. soldiers to stem a deteriorating security situation, then withdrawing them and letting the Afghans smartly carry on the fight, appears more pipe dream than grounded in reality.

It's equally unlikely that President Hamid Karzai will root out corruption, as Western countries define it. Corruption permeates all elements of Afghan society and massive amounts of corruption put the President and some of his warlord friends back in power. It's asking a lot for a country's military not to act corruptly when the country's civilian leaders are doing it.

When NATO entered Afghanistan in force, it divided up the country, with each member taking primary responsibility for certain regions and tasks. The British were supposed to lead the drug interdiction effort, the Italians the reform of the justice system, the Germans the training of the police force, and so on.

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None of this has worked. Outside Kabul, Afghanistan remains a kind of narco-state, with poppy growing and heroin production being the economic motor of the countryside and a ready source of insurgent financing. Justice officials and police are considered largely ineffective and sometimes corrupt.

Meanwhile, NATO's stated goals keep shrinking. For example, take U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's weekend comments that Washington's major objective in Afghanistan is to defeat al-Qaeda.

By most accounts, very few al-Qaeda forces are in Afghanistan. If that really is the goal, then sending 30,000 to 40,000 additional soldiers from a country in debt up to its neck, to be followed by a handover to the myth of an effective Afghan army and police, seems like a recipe for heartbreak.

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