Why Obama's troop surge won't work

It is crazy to think Afghan security forces can help

Barack Obama's decision to send 30,000 extra US troops to Afghanistan -- and Gordon Brown's decision to send 500 additional UK troops -- is predicated on the idea that, eventually, the Afghan security forces will pick up the slack.

Here is Obama, speaking last night at the US Military Academy at West Point:

We must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future . . . These additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011 . . . it will be clear to the Afghan government -- and, more importantly, to the Afghan people -- that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country.

And here is Brown, speaking in the Commons on Monday:

Taking into account those special forces, their supporting troops and the increases announced today, our total military effort in Afghanistan will be in excess of 10,000 troops. That force level enables us to deliver our military strategy of bringing security to the population . . . It will accelerate the development of the Afghan army and police, so that in time they can take over responsibility for security and thus ensure that our troops can come home.

But as I wrote in my piece on counter-insurgency theory, or "Coin", last week:

. . . the Afghan National Army is plagued by desertion: 10,000 recruits have disappeared in recent months. Soldiers are under-equipped and underpaid; some 15 per cent of them are thought to be drug addicts. Dominated by Tajik troops from the north of the country, the "national" army has little or no credibility in the southern, Pashtun areas of Afghanistan, where the Taliban mainly operate, and from where they draw ethnic support.

Meanwhile, the Afghan police, one member of whom shot dead five British soldiers on 3 November, are prone to infiltration and corruption and lack proper training. They have lost roughly 1,500 staff to insurgent violence this year and around 10,000 policemen are absent without leave.

The idea that Afghan security forces can play a significant, substantive or credible role in the counter-insurgency strategy is ludicrous. But as the Associated Press reports:

Obama's plan emphasises stepped-up training for Afghan forces, a goal aimed at speeding the handover of the nation's security to Afghan security forces.

Lt Gen William B Caldwell, the new head of a US-Nato command responsible for training and developing Afghan soldiers and police, said Tuesday that although the groundwork is being laid to expand the Afghan National Army beyond the current target of 134,000 troops by 31 October 2010, no fixed higher target has been set. There is a notional goal of eventually fielding 240,000 soldiers and 160,000 police, but Caldwell said that could change.

"Although that is a goal and where we think it could eventually go to, it's not a hard, firm, fixed number," he said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press.

For now, Caldwell's orders are to reach the targets of 134,000 soldiers and 96,800 police by next October.

Are these people delusional? Or simply disingenuous? As John Kerry, the former presidential candidate who is chair of the influential Senate foreign relations committee, confessed in a recent speech at the Council on Foreign Relations:

The current goal is to increase the number of trained Afghan National Army troops from 92,000 to 134,000 by December of 2011. And General McChrystal is reportedly trying to complete that within the next year.

Despite the 92,000 number, I will tell you that most of the assessments I got told me that we're really considerably lower -- that today, at 50,000, maybe even less range of those who can actually work in the way that we desire.

Writing in the current issue of Military Review, the security expert Professor Thomas Johnson and the former US state department official Chris Mason put the figure even lower and accuse politicians and the generals of presenting misleading statistics:

The Pentagon continues to put out the (true but irrelevant) figure of 90,000 ANA [Afghan National Army] soldiers "trained and equipped" since May 2002, not mentioning that perhaps 32,000 combat troops remain present for duty today . . . ANA recruit quality is poor, virtually all are illiterate, readiness is low even by the lenient standards imposed by pressure to show progress, and drug use is a large and growing problem. Behind the smoke and mirrors, the "official" annual desertion rate is down from a high in 2005 of 30 per cent to "only" 10 per cent, but the AWOL definition hides a lot of the desertion. Re-enlistment is below 50 per cent, so with five-year contracts, another 12 per cent of the force quits every year. With casualties, sickness, etc, 25 per cent of the ANA evaporates annually. The army knows the ANA cannot ever grow larger than 100,000 men, double its present size, because before then annual accession will equal annual losses.

"Projections of a 134,000-man force by 2010," they conclude, "or a 240,000-man ANA in the future are absurd."

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Getty
Show Hide image

She knew every trick to get a home visit – but this time I had come prepared

 Having been conned into another couple of fruitless house calls, I now parry the proffered symptoms and generally get to the heart of the matter on the phone.

I first came across Verenice a couple of years ago when I was on duty at the out-of-hours service.

“I’m a diabetic,” she told me, “and I’m feeling really poorly.” She detailed a litany of symptoms. I said I’d be round straight away.

What sounded worrying on the phone proved very different in Verenice’s smoke-fugged sitting room. She was comfortable and chatty, she had no fever or sign of illness, and her blood sugar was well controlled. In fact, she looked remarkably well. As I tried to draw the visit to a close, she began to regale me with complaints about her own GP: how he neglected her needs, dismissed her symptoms, refused to take her calls.

It sounded unlikely, but I listened sympathetically and with an open mind. Bit by bit, other professionals were brought into the frame: persecutory social workers, vindictive housing officers, corrupt policemen, and a particularly odious psychiatrist who’d had her locked up in hospital for months and had recently discharged her to live in this new, hateful bungalow.

By the time she had told me about her sit-in at the local newspaper’s offices – to try to force reporters to cover her story – and described her attempts to get arrested so that she could go to court and tell a judge about the whole saga, it was clear Verenice wasn’t interacting with the world in quite the same way as the rest of us.

It’s a delicate path to tread, extricating oneself from such a situation. The mental health issues could safely be left to her usual daytime team to follow up, so my task was to get out of the door without further inflaming the perceptions of neglect and maltreatment. It didn’t go too well to start with. Her voice got louder and louder: was I, too, going to do nothing to help? Couldn’t I see she was really ill? I’d be sorry when she didn’t wake up the next morning.

What worked fantastically was asking her what she actually wanted me to do. Her first stab – to get her rehoused to her old area as an emergency that evening – was so beyond the plausible that even she seemed able to accept my protestations of impotence. When I asked her again, suddenly all the heat went out of her voice. She said she didn’t think she had any food; could I get her something to eat? A swift check revealed a fridge and cupboards stocked with the basics. I gave her some menu suggestions, but drew the line at preparing the meal myself. By then, she seemed meekly willing to allow me to go.

We’ve had many out-of-hours conversations since. For all her strangeness, she is wily, and knows the medical gambits to play in order to trigger a home visit. Having been conned into another couple of fruitless house calls, I now parry the proffered symptoms and generally get to the heart of the matter on the phone. It usually revolves around food. Could I bring some bread and milk? She’s got no phone credit left; could I call the Chinese and order her a home delivery?

She came up on the screen again recently. I rang, and she spoke of excruciating ear pain, discharge and fever. I sighed, accepting defeat: with that story I’d no choice but to go round. Acting on an inkling, though, I popped to the drug cupboard first.

Predictably enough, when I arrived at Verenice’s I found her smiling away and puffing on a Benson, with a normal temperature, pristine ears and perfect blood glucose.

“Well,” I said, “whatever’s causing your ear to hurt is a medical mystery. Take some paracetamol and I’m sure it’ll be fine in the morning.”

There was a flash of triumph in her eyes. “Ah, but doctor, I haven’t got any. Could you –”

Before she could finish, I produced a pack of paracetamol from my pocket and dropped it on her lap. She looked at me with surprise and admiration. She may have suckered me round again, but I’d managed to second-guess her. I was back out of the door in under five minutes. A score-draw. 

Phil Whitaker is a GP and an award-winning author. His fifth novel, “Sister Sebastian’s Library”, will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain