Saturday, October 24, 2009

Why It's Hard to Build an Afghan Army

We often hear of the difficulties our troops face trying to get Afghan forces to fight their own war, but less often are we told what those difficulties actually are. This piece at Strategy Page gives us an idea. Essentially they are two: Not enough military trainers supplied by our allies and a largely illiterate pool of Afghan recruits:

Efforts to expand the Afghan army to 134,000, hopefully by 2011, are running into a lot of problems. One of the key ones is a shortage of foreign trainers. The government wants a force of 200,000, but first foreign allies must be convinced to donate enough money and trainers. The training center NATO has set up is reorganizing so that it can up the number of soldiers trained from 4,000 a month, to 5,000. This is being done by condensing the training and cutting the course length from 10 to 8 weeks for enlisted troops, and 25 to 20 weeks for officers. But there is a persistent shortage of foreign trainers. There should be about 8,000, but there are only about half that many.

The shortages are made up by using (often inexperienced) Afghans, which lowers the quality of the training. Then there is the illiteracy problem (most recruits, like most Afghans, can't read). Afghanistan is finding that illiteracy is a growing problem in the army. Only about 25 percent of recruit are literate. While this can be ignored for the lower ranking troops, NCOs need to read. Illiterate recruits also take longer to train, and more effort to work with. The U.S. has provided an intensive literacy course for troops, which gets most of them to basic ("functional") literacy within a year.

In addition to being able to read signs and maps, the newly semi-literate troops are taught to sign their names, and write out the serial number of their weapon. Illiterate troops selected for promotion to sergeant (NCO), are given more literacy training. That's because being able to read and write has long been a critical asset for any army. The Roman Empire, at its height 1800 years ago, had an army over 100,000 troops, a third of which were literate. But with modern armies, an abundance of technology makes literacy even more necessary. The Afghans can get by without it, but can do a lot better with it.

The article mentions a third problem as well:

The shortage of foreign trainers has meant that many troops get sub-standard training. But by Afghan standards, it's a pretty effective force. Nearly tripling its size will take several years, if the same training methods are used. That's because of the high desertion rate. Most Afghans see their tribe as their highest loyalty, while recognizing Afghanistan as something they are part of, but not necessarily fond of. The Afghans want a larger force to deal with the Taliban insurrection, the growing power of the drug gangs, and possible trouble with Pakistan or Iran. None of these issues are of any great concern to most Afghan soldiers, unless they are problems that affect their own tribe.

Afghanistan's a mess, and how President Obama handles it will largely decide how historians judge his foreign policy.


The Endgame

It has often been said that poverty needs no explanation. It's the natural state of humanity to be poor. What needs an explanation is why, at rare points in history, a society emerges in which a significantly large fraction of its people are economically well-off.

Any explanation for this phenomenon that credits governmental policies such as are espoused by our current political leadership, however, is a non-starter. The reason can be illustrated by a glance at a basic difference between economic conservatism and economic liberalism. Simply put, conservative policies are designed to make everyone wealthier whereas liberal policies ultimately make everyone poorer.

I don't say this to score a cheap political point, but rather to highlight an obvious truth. Liberal nostrums such as high debt burdens, high taxes, burdensome regulations on commerce, and heavy disincentives for taking economic risks - the very fuel of the entrepreneurial system - all have the inevitable result of stifling productivity, reducing jobs, and diminishing net income.

It makes one wonder why anyone would favor policies which have such baneful effects. I suspect the answer, in many cases, has to do with the liberal notion of social justice. As long as there's a disparity between the top and bottom classes in a society then that society is, in their minds, ipso facto unjust, and the greater the disparity the greater the injustice. Liberals tend to assume that if you have wealth you must have gotten it by taking it from someone else and therefore it's the role of government to take it away from you and return it to those you have exploited.

The most just society, in their minds, is one where the distribution of wealth is relatively uniform. This is certainly Barack Obama's view and he has said as much on several occasions. In this view, wealth is static. There's only so much to go around. The notion that wealth can be created and multiplied is outside their ken. So their goal is to redistribute what wealth there is so that everybody has roughly the same amount.

Conservatives, on the other hand, argue that the better solution is to give everyone the opportunity to become wealthier by, in part, inculcating in people a set of values that includes getting an education, staying away from alcohol and drugs, not having children outside of marriage, getting married and staying married, having a strong work ethic, etc. Nevertheless, such disciplines are hard and liberals think it basically unfair to expect people to impose such severe restraints upon themselves. It's much easier to simply take the wealth from those who have it and give it to those who don't, and this is the path that liberals almost always endorse.

Of course the easiest way is often the most foolish way. As soon as the upper classes realize that their hard work, sacrifice, and deferred gratification is being exploited to subsidize those for whom such exertions are anathema, they'll soon enough decide there's no point in subjecting themselves to those ascetic rigors any longer. Indeed, why should they toil when they can't keep but a small portion of what they earn anyway? Eventually, the goose will die and the golden eggs will stop flowing. There'll be no more wealth to redistribute, and the U.S. will become a giant second or even third world nation.

That's the likely end result of the President's policies whether he intends it for us or not, and it's becoming increasingly difficult to think that he doesn't.