Our Ticket Out of Afghanistan

The Afghan National Army is a powerful force for upward ability and national stability.

Afghan army soldiers

President Obama wants to send 30,000 American soldiers; the Germans have promised more money; the Poles have just taken charge of a province; even the Dutch are thinking of keeping some men on the ground. This is all very well, as long as everyone realizes that the long-term solution to Afghanistan’s security doesn’t lie in soldiers sent by Washington or Berlin but in the ones who can already be found on a square of dusty desert a half-hour’s drive from Kabul.

This is the home of the Kabul Military Training Center, and it doesn’t look like much from outside. When I visited last autumn, I saw simple barracks, a shooting range, and some classrooms where a few students were learning to use computers. One of the students—he’d learned excellent English during his family’s 10-year exile in Iran—told me he wanted to continue his studies in the United States. (He was studying a vocabulary list: “confidentroutinesomedayaccomplish.”) He was an exception: Most recruits are semiliterate, if they’re literate at all. Many have never slept on anything but a dirt floor before they arrive at the training camp or under a roof made of anything but adobe and straw.

But that, in a way, is an advantage. If nothing else, the Afghan army is already a powerful force for upward mobility and, ultimately, stability—which Western mentors on the ground already know, though politicians back home seem not yet to have noticed. Currently, the Afghan National Army consists of 80,000-plus soldiers. At any given moment, it houses about 5,000 recruits in the training center undergoing 10-to-16-week courses. Recent innovations—an on-site bank that helps soldiers send money home, a soccer field—have brought the once-astronomical number of deserters to a trickle. The coalition forces eventually want the army to number 130,000. They should be thinking even bigger: These men—not Americans, NATO troops, or former warlords—represent the future security of Afghanistan. “Success,” in Afghanistan, more so than in Iraq, largely depends on how fast and how well we can train them.

True, most of what goes on at the training center is pretty basic—how to shoot, how to carry out commands. But they don’t object to fighting in principle, as many Iraqis did; they see the army as a step up in life, which many Iraqis didn’t. There are “advanced” courses for officers. Potentially more important, anyway, is what we would call the army’s program of civic education. Like it or not, the Afghan army instructors are in a position to teach soldiers something that no other Afghan institution has yet proved able to impart: national identity. Generally speaking, if you want people to obey their country’s laws, it helps for them to feel some allegiance to the state that has devised them. A powerful, admired, multiethnic army—Tajiks, Hazars, Pashtuns, Uzbeks, and others—could help create a more compelling, nonpartisan, civic Afghan identity, which other citizens will also want to defend. Nation-building through military service has been tried before—Turkey comes to mind—and some of the time it works.

There are other reasons we should try harder to enlarge the responsibilities of the Afghan army. The cacophony of languages in Afghanistan, the complex ethnic structure, and the harsh geography all  have made Afghanistan notoriously difficult to control for several centuries. Yet when Washington worked through allies—with the mujahideen in the 1980s or the Northern Alliance in 2001—we were far more successful. At the moment, by contrast, the number of civilians killed by U.S. military bombing grows exponentially from year to year, largely because of confusion about what constitutes a Taliban meeting and what constitutes a wedding. Those who know the languages and culture are less likely to make fatal mistakes.

In an ideal world, of course, it would be far better if the Afghan government were able to play the role of national unifier and if Hamid Karzai had become a beloved, nonpartisan president. But it hasn’t, and he didn’t. The government’s bureaucrats are ill-prepared, often corrupt. Elected officials are rarely better. If we use our new “surge” to improve the Afghan army, on the other hand, expanding its role in the south and on the border, it could eventually provide basic security in most of the country. It could also create an institution that Afghans of all ethnic backgrounds admire—assuming it doesn’t turn authoritarian or corrupt in the meantime. Still, it’s not like we have a choice. The Afghan army may not be our best ticket out of Afghanistan, but it’s the only one we’ve got.