Afghanistan Should Inspire Skepticism of Syria

020527-A-6418B-014On Sun­day, all Amer­i­can and British com­bat oper­a­tions in Hel­mand province offi­cial­ly end­ed. It was a long time com­ing, as Hel­mand has long been a thorn in the side of both coun­try’s mil­i­taries: resis­tant to the mag­ic COIN dust, extreme­ly vio­lent, and polit­i­cal­ly unsta­ble. It has been the scene of some of the worst excess­es of the Amer­i­can mis­sion there, from shame­less­ly self-serv­ing his­tor­i­cal revi­sion­ism about the mis­sion there, an inex­plic­a­ble dis­con­nect from the hap­py sun­shine of offi­cial state­ments and the grind­ing real­i­ty of the ground war, out­right lies to cov­er up prob­a­ble war crimes, sick­en­ing­ly obse­quious press cov­er­age that amount­ed to out­right lying about its progress and prospects, to fun­da­men­tal­ly mis­un­der­stand­ing the polit­i­cal and strate­gic envi­ron­ment in which plans were made, to dis­con­nects about major fail­ure points in oper­a­tional plan­ning, to think tankers sim­ply mak­ing shit up to jus­ti­fy anoth­er six months of bru­tal com­bat for… well, they nev­er real­ly got around to say­ing what, exact­ly.

In oth­er words, Hel­mand was the per­fect, hor­ri­ble micro­cosm of what has gone hor­rif­i­cal­ly wrong in Afghanistan, from the very start of the con­flict until now (sev­er­al books can and have been writ­ten on this sub­ject, that still don’t encom­pass every­thing, but I’d sug­gest Anand Gopal for a good start). But the heart of the Hel­mand mis­sion, as it was every­where in Afghanistan, was train­ing and capac­i­ty build­ing: cre­at­ing effec­tive secu­ri­ty and polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions so that there won’t be total col­lapse when the U.S. with­draws on sched­ule dur­ing 2014.

The polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions of Afghanistan have been a mess for a long time. Rather than cre­at­ing a sys­tem that would make sense for the coun­try, the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty cre­at­ed a cen­tral­ized sys­tem that only func­tions through graft. It was non­sense from the start, and its con­tin­ued inabil­i­ty to gov­ern effec­tive­ly is tes­ta­ment to how poor a choice it was to force on the coun­try.

Worse still, the train­ing mis­sion for Afghanistan was an unmit­i­gat­ed dis­as­ter, prone to fre­quent sus­pen­sions when its trainees would mur­der their train­ers. The U.S. spent $500,000,000 for planes for the Afghan Air Force, which were dis­man­tled and sold for $32,000 in scrap after just a few years. Worse still, the gen­er­als in charge of the train­ing mis­sion were nev­er shy about open­ly lying to advo­cate polit­i­cal cov­er for them­selves and their com­mands.

In the areas the U.S. has left already, Afghan troop casu­al­ties are ris­ing, the Tal­iban are on the march, and every­thing is falling to pieces.

All of this is to say that by almost any mea­sure pos­si­ble, the war in Afghanistan has been an unmit­i­gat­ed fail­ure, and one respon­si­ble ana­lysts have known about for years. Across the coun­try, Tal­iban are sui­cide attack­ing civic and mil­i­tary and polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions in an almost unchal­lenged way, spread­ing ter­ror and may­hem. Civil­ian casu­al­ties are ris­ing at a hor­ri­fy­ing rate, too.

It’s time we all say some­thing hon­est: the local Afghan secu­ri­ty forces are sim­ply not capa­ble of repelling or defeat­ing the insur­gency. Despite a over a decade of effort, untold dozens of bil­lions of dol­lars, and shock­ing­ly waste­ful excess­es, the Afghan mil­i­tary can­not per­form up to the stan­dard even of inter­na­tion­al troops, to say noth­ing of actu­al­ly being able to pro­tect or defend the coun­try while rolling back the insur­gency.

In Syr­ia, the U.S. has none of the advan­tages it has in Afghanistan: no long-term pres­ence, no friend­ly gov­ern­ment, very lit­tle inter­na­tion­al sup­port for direct inter­ven­tion, no polit­i­cal appetite at home for troops, zero polit­i­cal cov­er, and an even more frac­tured and bro­ken local proxy force to work with (to say noth­ing of less mon­ey, less access to weapon­ry, and few­er pol­i­cy options). A far grander effort in Afghanistan led to humil­i­at­ing dis­as­ter; a small­er effort in Syr­ia is almost guar­an­teed to result in even less suc­cess.

So why, then, is there such empha­sis on train­ing local Syr­i­ans to fight in the war? Why take a gen­er­al who mate­ri­al­ly con­tributed to the mon­u­men­tal muck up that was Afghanistan, and give him the task of maybe not doing the same thing to Syr­ia? Why do the obvi­ous weak­ness­es of such an approach seem only to lead to demands for moar war, rather than a sober recon­sid­er­a­tion of what is like­ly achiev­able and how that could best be done?

It is a mys­tery. What is not a mys­tery, how­ev­er, is Amer­i­ca’s record train­ing local mil­i­taries to fight a war for us. It is, in a word, a fail­ure. But still, the myth that Amer­i­ca can and there­fore should do such a thing remains a per­ma­nent fix­ture of nation­al secu­ri­ty think­ing.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.