Countdown to 2014

Everyone is in full wind down mode with regards to Afghanistan and we seem to be entering a period of neglect for just about everyone who isn’t actually there.  By the end of 2014, it looks like we’ll still have a military presence in the country but it’ll be small enough that we can all pretend that it’s not a real military mission.

0990142-R1-039-18 Small Afghan village circa 2003(Photo credit: me)

And what will Afghanistan (and Pakistan) look like?  Well, it looks like the safe money is some sort of frustrating stalemate where we provide enough support for the current regime to maintain control in the cities and along major lines of communication while the hinterland falls under the control of the Taliban and various insurgent groups.

I read this article over the weekend which gives a great feel for what this dissolution looks like at the micro level.  As I read it, I couldn’t help feeling that a very similar article could be written in the Western Roman Empire in the mid to late 5th century.  Borders are shrinking, increasingly conflicts are resolved (even if only temporarily) through co-option rather than forcing submission as overwhelming force is no longer as available as it once was.  This leads to a dilution of distinction between the competing sides as both have to take on attributes of the other.

And that’s yet another problem we’ve had thinking about this conflict.  Despite the numerous warnings we’ve continually measured the Afghans against our own standards.  It’s little wonder we’ve been disappointed:

Afghan soldiers do have difficulty making appointments on time, it’s true. They also don’t like to stand in straight lines or dress according to regulation or march in step or do so many of the things intrinsic to a Western notion of professional soldiering. When a lieutenant calls a formation of Afghan privates to attention, they will inevitably resemble, as my drill sergeant used to say, “a soup sandwich.”

This would be like Roman legionnaires looking at the Parthians with disdain because they couldn’t form a testudo to save their lives.   Of course, that road can lead to ruin.

And as this proceeds…Al Qaeda continues to fade from significance and Afghanistan returns to chronic disorder it gets harder for those serving there to understand why they’re actually there.

There might have been a time early in the war when most American soldiers and Marines genuinely believed that they were fighting to protect their homeland, their watan. But those days are over now; they have been for a while. You can feel it just as surely as you can feel that for soldiers like Karim they will never end.

How else does dissolution manifest?  Well, the U.S. embassy in Kabul is reported to be less than secure.  The fetish with privatizing everything (‘The market is efficient!’) leads to security being handed off to contractors whose primary goal is maximizing profits.  The result?

One of the biggest problems, guards say, is that their team has been stretched dangerously thin by long hours for days on end and too few people to do the job. Guards have worked 14- and 15-hour workdays, for six or even seven days a week, with limited days off or leave time, sources said. That, in turn, has led to high job turnover, low morale, and other problems, they said.

Remember home economics 101:  You get what you pay for.

For a more macro view I can recommend ‘Little America‘ which describes the lead up to and execution of the Afghan ‘surge’ of 2009-2011.  If you’ve been following Afghanistan here you hear anything shockingly new (you’re probably too calloused and cynical for that) but the book does a nice job of painting a more complete picture than you’ve had before.  And lest you fear that our actions in Afghanistan reflect some new level of bumbling or incompetence, worry not!  We’ve been screwing up there for half a century!


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