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A Slice, and Only a Slice, of Reality in the Afghan National Army

YouTube has posted this clip about the Afghan army, which was made by Guardian Films, an affiliate of the ultra-left-wing Guardian newspaper in Britain. It is generating considerable chatter in the blogosphere because it presents a dire picture of the state of the Afghan National Army training as seen through the eyes of a Marine Embedded Training Team. As one Marine says: “You walk into a whole squad of ANA smoking hashish. They don’t understand that the use of drugs — it affects the way that they accomplish their mission. Soldiers come out without helmets, soldiers come out missing a lot of gear.” This has become, predictably, fodder for opponents of the war effort to claim that General McChrystal’s mission is hopeless.

A little perspective is in order. Similar videos could have been made about the Iraqi army a few years ago, or even certain Iraqi units today. Nevertheless the Iraqis have come a long way toward taking charge of their own security, and there is no reason the Afghans cannot make similar progress. In fact, some units of the Afghan National Army are already far along. Many of their soldiers show commendable courage in taking on the Taliban without the kind of equipment or support that U.S. troops take for granted. The unit featured in the video clip was undoubtedly suffering from lack of good leadership — a real problem but hardly unfixable. It simply requires time, training, and mentoring to improve the quality of the Afghan army.

It is also important that we not hold the Afghans to impossible standards. The Marines in the video are clearly disgusted by the idea of soldiers smoking hash before going on a combat patrol. They should realize that the current sobriety of the U.S. armed forces is the exception, not the norm. Throughout history — including American history — most soldiers have partaken of intoxicating spirits on campaign (remember the rum ration?), and no doubt many were drunk or half drunk or at any rate a little tipsy when going into battle. I imagine that, being Muslims, most of these ANA soldiers don’t drink; hash is their version of the rum ration.

It’s not ideal, but it’s not exactly unprecedented, and not a reason to write them off as hopeless. I would bet plenty of Taliban are stoned when they go into battle too; certainly that was true of many insurgents in Iraq. The difference is that they don’t allow Western journalists to film them toking up.

We can’t expect many Third World militaries to meet the standards of the 21st century U.S. armed forces. Heck, even many American soldiers don’t meet the high standards that are demanded of them. Anyone who has spent any time in the field knows that booze, while prohibited, is pretty common on military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. So are other rules infractions, including those regarding “fraternization” (i.e., sexual relations). And while the average quality of American units is extraordinarily high, a few are deeply troubled and could be subject to a Guardian exposé of their own.

In sum, the Guardian clip presents a slice of reality, not all of reality. It should not be dismissed, nor should it be given the last word. Until now, the U.S. and its allies have not made a really intensive effort to improve the quality and size of the Afghan security forces — certainly not on the scale of our efforts in Iraq. Such an effort is just now getting under way. For instance, salaries are just now being raised to pay Afghan soldiers wages comparable to those of the Taliban. Let us reserve judgment for a few years and see how the Afghan army does then.