Untrustworthy Tribes


by Ralph Peters [author, novelist]

Last week, 4,000 US Marines launched a major operation in Helmand, the poppy- queen province in southern Afghanistan. The Marines performed magnificently, reaching their objectives with minimal casualties — mostly from the 110-degree heat. But something important was missing: Afghans in uniform.

A few hundred Afghan players showed up in the backfield. But the village elders saw American guns.

The Marine mission is to provide security for villagers, build trust and instill confidence in the Kabul government. This would all be far easier if the Afghan military and police were competent, trustworthy and present.

After 7½ years in Afghanistan and despite extensive efforts, we and our NATO allies have produced only a now-you-see-’em-now-you-don’t Afghan army. The police are corrupt, partisan and loathed by the population.

We made better, if imperfect, progress in Iraq. Yet there, too, questions remain about the integrity of the military and the utility of the police.

What’s the problem? Why haven’t years of effort and billions of dollars, coupled with our training expertise, forged fully reliable military units and constabularies? The answer lies in our own military culture.

As an officer, I knew I could walk into any Army outfit and find 100 percent support for the assigned mission. It didn’t matter whether or not we liked each other personally, or which state we were from, or what our religion or ethnicity happened to be. We were all American soldiers.

But the various peoples we called “Afghans” (or “Iraqis”) have very different values. In Afghanistan, an ethnic Tajik lieutenant isn’t sure he can rely on a Pashtun major. In Iraq, a Shia officer may not share all he knows about the enemy with a Sunni counterpart.

Our military system and its successes are built on trust. The other stuff’s important: marksmanship, fire discipline, skilled maneuver, equipment, maintenance, etc. But the key element is teamwork. We win on the battlefield, because we can count on each other.

Sounds simple. It ain’t.

We’re operating in societies in which trust is restricted to the family or, at most, the clan. Even within tribes, old feuds and suspicions limit cooperation. Life is a zero-sum game and power is to be hoarded, not shared. The top challenge in training local militaries in the greater Middle East isn’t getting them to shoot straight (tough as that can be), but getting them to give each other straight answers.

The next-biggest problem is inculcating a culture of responsibility. Afghan and Iraqi officers — to say nothing of NCOs — learned long ago to duck responsibility, to kick even minor decisions up the chain of command. Our Marine Corps speaks of “strategic corporals.” Middle Eastern militaries don’t even have “strategic colonels.”

So we’re struggling to build efficient, effective forces in cultures where responsibility means risk, not reward, and in which you can’t trust your brother officer to have your back. Critics in Washington focus on slow equipment deliveries, but a force built on trust and armed with truncheons will out-perform a unit with state-of-the-art weapons but torn by suspicion and haunted by old grudges.

In Iraq, we had the right formula early on — “As the Iraqis stand up, we’ll stand down” — but Iraqi performance lagged behind our electoral timelines. Ultimately, though, progress in Iraq did come. Because Iraqis finally took responsibility, as Sunnis turned on al Qaeda and Shia turned against the militias.

Today, there’s real hope in Iraq. If the Iraqi military and police can maintain national unity in their ranks.

Afghanistan’s far tougher. Iraq had a budding sense of national identity. Afghanistan doesn’t. Isolated successes, the inevitable “patriotic” Afghan captain trotted out by well-meaning US advisers, can’t substitute for a broad sense of national destiny.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban shouldn’t be our top concern. We can beat the Taliban every time. The crucial question is: How many times will we need to beat the Taliban before Afghans themselves stand up and fight?

At present, the Afghans aren’t helping us out — they’re waiting us out. After 7½ years, our troops are still the only real Afghan army. We aren’t training Afghan troops, we’re empowering scavengers.

The Afghans don’t really know what we’re doing in their country. Neither do we. ExileStreet

NY Post / copyright 2009 NY Post

Ralph Peters is Fox News’ strategic analyst. His latest book is “Looking For Trouble: Adventures in a Broken World.”

Peters is a retired Army officer and the author of 19 books, as well as of hundreds of essays and articles, written both under his own name and as Owen Parry. He is a frequent columnist for the New York Post and other publications.

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