Afghanistan in the Future: When funding runs out

People around the world worry about what happens when the United States and NATO leave Afghanistan. Will the Taliban just pick up their weapons and start attacking Afghan police and army outposts? What will it take to prevent that from happening?

In the past, the United States would just leave a garrison of about 50,000 troops to help prevent gains from a costly war being lost to undisclosed enemies. We have left military bases in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and even Cuba.

American soldiers continue to man bases in Europe even though the enemy those bases were constructed to oppose — the Soviet Union — no longer exists.

American military bases are the footprint of what our critics call “American imperialism”, but we leave other traces of our colonial policies. For example, American companies often move in to develop local resources. We build mines, plantations, oil wells, and anything else that will suck value out of the ground to be shipped back home.

This practice of milking the colonies extends at least as far back as Greco-Roman times and is probably more ancient than that. American foreign policy certainly hasn’t invented any new paradigms in that area.

If history is any guide, it takes the United States about 100 years to decide to leave a country, give or take a generation or two. We’re still in Cuba but we did finally get out of Panama and the Philippines (more-or-less). Guantanamo Base is the last vestige of the Spanish-American War of 1898-1900.

So we have to ask ourselves if we’re prepared to stay in Afghanistan for another 92 years (give or take a generation or two). The terrorists we’re fighting — Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their like-minded “friends” throughout the Islamic sphere — have been portraying us as invaders and conquerors for years. American foreign policy makes that accusation sound very true to people who admittedly don’t care enough about American history to study it in depth.

Today’s Afgan policy, as set by the Obama Administration, attempts to undo the mistakes of the Bush Administration. Instead of acknowledging the responsibility we would have once we set armies on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush Administration simply went in, beat up the bad guys, and then tried to turn matters over to a local government.

President Bush and his team did not believe in nation-building. Well, Colin Powell says he told Bush that was what would be required. He was right. But what constitutes “nation-building”?

Right now the international community is concerned about the Afghan police, who are largely untrained, under-equipped, under-staffed, and being accused of corruption at all levels (and I take the accusations at face value). The judicial system is considered more trustworthy but generally underfunded and weak.

Assuming the NATO allies can find police officers and prosecutors willing to spend time in Afghanistan, over the next 2-3 years we should be able to train and equip a police force that can do more than demand money from truck drivers.

The Afghan National Army is gradually earning more respect as its soldiers train side-by-side with coalition forces and learn not to run away when bullets start flying around their heads. But experts predict it will be another 10 years before the Afghan National Army is capable of standing on its own.

In other words, the Afghan National Army will not be able to fight a war without NATO help until 2020. They have a limited but growing capacity to respond to natural disasters, as we saw with their rescue operation in the mountains for victims of a massive avalanche. But the Afghan National Army is not yet capable of sustaining a major operation on its own. Probably, there are still plans for support units to be raised, trained, and equipped that don’t exist yet.

A modern military force requires more support troops and equipment than actual combat troops and equipment. We need to equip our armies with supply chains, medical resources, transportation assets, engineering, construction, and other special “non-combat” infrastructure. And the general combat units have to be supported in combat by reconnaissance, special forces, artillery, air units, battlefield intelligence, communications, and more.

Police forces do more than just watch for traffic violations. They have specialized units to handle criminal investigations, internal investigations, crime scene analysis, evidence handling (the guys in the locked cages who make sure stuff doesn’t vanish), prisoner handling (the guys who make sure the prisoners don’t walk away), administrative staffing, planning, communications, transportation, etc.

The Afghan National Police have few if any of these types of units, and they probably won’t have them for a long, long time. They can barely be trusted to watch traffic flow. Many Afghan police are kids who are given a uniform and sent to man a checkpoint in a province where they may not even speak the local language.

Today we spend billions of dollars on the Afghan National Army and Afghan Police just to maintain them as they are, and to grow them according to current plans. A year from now we’ll be spending even more money.

Of course, anyone familiar with the U.S. government budget knows that $10 billion is barely even a line item. The American taxpayer — who is receiving absolutely no financial compensation from Afghanistan (we operate no mines, no oil wells, nothing there) — is paying for much of the Afghan government’s expenses.

And I keep asking myself: What happens when we finally decide it is time to leave? Will the Afghan people be able to pay for their shiny new army, an honest police force, and a fair and comprehensive judicial system?

We’re trying to eradicate the most profitable industry Afghanistan has ever known: poppy production. Millions of people die from drug abuse and Afghanistan is one of the few places left on Earth where illegal drugs can be grown openly in huge volumes. I have no desire to see that industry survive but the Taliban at least figured out that if they could not eradicate it they could tax it (and use that money to fund their war against the Afghan government and its NATO allies).

In the place of poppy production and export, what industries will NATO and its allies leave the Afghan people? Those industries need to produce enough income to improve the vast majority of Afghans’ lifestyles (up to 1/2 of all Afghans are unemployed in some regions) AND to provide the Afghan government with enough tax money to operate.

To be honest, I just don’t see that kind of development happening in 10 years, much less the 18 months that the Obama Administration has set before American combat forces are withdrawn.

To be able to sustain a modern army, police, and judiciary, Afghanistan will need at least the following infrastructure:

  • Roads — paved highways that are safe to use year-round
  • Railroads — capable of moving volumes of people, raw materials, and manufactured goods quickly and efficiently to every major city
  • Hospitals and clinics — capable of improving the health of average Afghans and not just the wealthy
  • Schools in every town and village — ready to teach all the children how to read and write, how to do basic math, and about the real history of their nation so that they can think of themselves as part of a nation when they grow up
  • Universities — Major institutions of learning in every major city capable of turning out lawyers, doctors, engineers, scientists, journalists, teachers, nurses, and honest business leaders
  • Communications — Television stations, radio stations, an Internet capable of reaching into at least 90% of all homes, satellite communications, telephone lines, etc.
  • Electricity — Frankly, I think Afghanistan would be a great testbed for developing a green electrical grid. But what they really need is an electrical grid that will supply power to everyone.
  • Factories — Even if there are relatively few raw resources in Afghanistan, it needs to be able to build some of its own stuff.
  • 21st Century Farming — Farms don’t have to just grow food any more. Afghanistan could find ways to grow arid-tolerant grasses for biofuels. THAT would be a major natural resource they could turn into useful products for themselves and export.

And that’s just what I can think of off the top of my head. But does the Obama Administration have a plan for all these needs? I haven’t heard one.

This really isn’t science fiction. It’s the reality that modern nations have to confront when they take on the responsibility of managing other nations. The United States and its allies must take measures to ensure that we don’t lay the seeds for our next war in Afghanistan (and Iraq). Nation-building requires more than just funding a police force and army.

Somewhere down the line we may not have the money to pay for other nations’ government services. What will happen if we build up Afghanistan’s security forces to 350,000 troops and police and then leave the Afghan government unable to pay all those trained soldiers and cops?

We have to stay engaged in Afghanistan long after we close down the last American base there. Otherwise, the next generation of terrorists may find a new home in the chaos that arises as this incarnation of Afghanistan falls apart.

We screwed up royally in Somalia. When President Clinton failed to support our troops on the ground in the Battle of Mogadishu, he essentially condemned Somalia to a generation of clan warfare. And now Al Shabab, an Al Qaeda-inspired terrorist group, is not only trying to seize control of Somalia it has begun to export its forces to Yemen (as well as threatening to intervene in the Arab-Israeli conflict).

We should have helped build Somalia into a modern nation when we were there. It needed more than a weak government, more than an army and police force. It needed a navy, too. But most importantly Somalia needed the infrastructure and resources to discourage militant thievery, piracy, and terrorism.

The Somali people have no real hope of putting down Al Shabab and the pirates because those forces are the only real providers of security and income. The atrocities that Al Shabab inflict on other Somalis won’t stop their progress. A sincere commitment to building a Somalia that can take care of itself is the only real foreign policy option we have.

As we failed in Somalia, so we must not fail in Afghanistan. I told people several years ago that I believe we’ll have to go back to Somalia to finish the job. Perhaps the African Union can do that for us but I seriously doubt it. They just don’t have the resources to pull it off.

America is no longer a colonial power. It’s just a fumbling giant that lumbers around the landscape, destroying nations and undermining their hopes for recovery.

Instead of chanting anti-war protests, the best thing American citizens can do is demand that our government take responsibility for the harm we’ve done and commit to fixing it. And let’s never make these kinds of mistakes again, while we’re dreaming big.

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