U.S. decision-makers ignored Afghan realities

Military expert M. Chris Mason thinks the U.S. effort in Afghanistan was probably doomed from the start.  But two early-on decisions by the Bush administration destroyed what little chance there was for success.

The first was the decision to browbeat King Mohammad Zahir Shah, the only leader capable of uniting Afghanistan, into abdicating his throne in favor of a U.S. puppet.

The second was the decision to disband all existing Afghan armed forces and create a new army from scratch, consisting of recruits selected precisely because of their lack of any previous military experience.

mason.strategiclessons.PUB1269The results were a government that had no legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people, and an army that is incapable of fighting.

Mason, citing the great sociologist Max Weber, wrote in his current book that there are three things—two old and one new—that can make a government legitimate in the eyes of its people.  The two old ones are tradition and religion, which the Afghan people accept.  The new one is the democratic process, which, he said, they don’t understand.

Historically, he said, the only times Afghanistan was united is under the rule of kings.  Afghanistan has been in a continuing state of civil war since the king was overthrown in 1973.  Public opinion polls taken after the U.S. invasion indicated that 75 percent of the Afghan people wanted their king back.  He could have played a ceremonial role similar to the Emperor Hirohito under General MacArthur’s rule in Japan.

But American policy-makers didn’t want him.

The CIA had in mind to install a puppet, Adbul Haq, whom they could control.  Haq was betrayed by Pakistan’s intelligence service, and assassinated by the Taliban, Mason wrote.  So the CIA turned to the only other person on their payroll, the non-entity Hamid Karzai, who was respected by nobody.

The Taliban, on the other hand, exercise religious authority, which, according to Mason, is a more legitimate source of authority than election results.  The Taliban may not be popular, he wrote, but they are regarded as legitimate, which is something different.

∞∞∞

Chris Mason

Chris Mason

Mason said the other bad decision was to exclude from the Afghan armed forces anyone who had ever previously served in a military-type capacity, such as former mujahideen, former communist Afghan army troops and members of warlord militias.  Recruits in 2002, as part of a standard questionnaire, were asked, “Have you ever used a rifle before?”  If the answer was affirmative, they were disqualified.

Much the same thing happened in Iraq.  The armed forces were disbanded, but allowed to keep their weapons, a perfect formula for violent chaos.  Mason did not speculate as to what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had in mind.  Maybe he had some idea of starting over with a clean slate.

The result in both Iraq and Afghanistan was the recruitment of young unemployed men whose main motivation was pay.  They were mostly illiterate, but expected to master sophisticated American military technology.   The army’s problems included

lack of an air force, extreme over-reliance on weak and static police forces, nonexistent logistics, pervasive drug abuse … [and] the attrition that runs 50 percent per year in combat units in the south.

But the worse problem was lack of motivation.  The Taliban believe in what they’re fighting for.  Afghan government troops generally care only about themselves and their tribal groups.   It is not within the power of Americans to change this.

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Click on The Strategic Lessons Unlearned from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan: Why the Afghan National Security Forces Will Not Hold and the Implications for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan for the text of Chris Mason’s book in PDF form.  I thank Craig Hanyan for suggesting it.

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