Afghan military costs alone, exceed country’s worth

The three core elements of President Obama’s Afghanistan policy speech, delivered at West Point in December 2009, were sooo not intended to be nicknamed “Vietnamization” – but that’s what’s happened.

But additionally, on 5th January, the costs of the policy are now starkly revealed, raising questions about its sustainability …

A brief reminder: the first of Obama’s three core elements is pressure on al Qaeda around the world and specifically on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Secondly, the 30k surge of US, plus additional NATO troops to blunt the Taliban offensive so that thirdly; Afghan forces can be trained and civilian structures created, for when the USA withdraws.

The costs to the USA and NATO of the Afghan Army developing and training were announced on the 5th January by Lt General William Caldwell, commander of the NATO training mission: as $11.6bn in 2011, almost exactly Afghanistan’s gross domestic product – plus $6bn annual running costs, which in itself is more than the annual revenue of the Afghan government.

In Afghanistan, the central government is a weak and artificial creation, widely regarded by locals as the most corrupt entity in their less-than-transparent country. Even if their government is funded hereafter to the tune of $6bn to maintain its security forces, there’s no guarantee that all the monies will get to the soldiers.

In any case, being far better equipped than before, local Afghan Army commanders will have plenty of incentives to proceed to more profitable warlord’ism – rather than the decades of stoicism required to fight a guerrilla war of a thousand pin-pricks.

President Johnson’s Vietnam campaign foundered on the South Vietnam Army ARVN’s disinclination to fight, faced with the asymmetry of being a heavy, combined-arms force opposing huge numbers of lightly equipped guerrillas, who avoided main battle – until they were good and ready. History could well repeat itself.

But development is the vital foundation for Afghan stability. The recent forced resignation of the former US Marine general Arnold Fields as Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), indicates the depth of the problem.

Despite so little time before US withdrawal (2011 had originally been mentioned by Obama in his 2009 policy speech), for over a year, Congress’ urging Field’s removal was ignored. SIGAR’s work was judged “lacking in quality and strategic vision”, and it’s very late in the day to start all over again. The effective oversight of foreign funding is a critical factor in the US/NATO strategy.

Furthermore, the cost of the recent Kandahar offensive has allegedly caused $100m of damaged crops and property – but with a far greater price in terms of hearts and minds.

Huge amounts of blood and treasure won’t buy this difficult transition to stability and rule of law without a super-human coordination of development, politics and rigidly controlled funding. This is why there are no military solutions here – or anywhere in the world with political, social and economic problems. The tragedy is of our soldiers doing such a great job on their portion of the solution – which is by far the most unpleasant dimension to tackle, whilst others addressing the other components, lag so far behind.

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