Winston Churchill's memorable quotation, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few," captured the nobility of the RAF's performance protecting free people from the tyranny of Adolf Hitler during World War II.
An irreverent paraphrase of this quotation, however, captures the Afghan war as it stands at this moment: Never was so much squandered by so many for so few.
The United States is currently spending $7 billion a month on the Afghan war, yet progress remains elusive and the end nowhere in sight. Just read General Stanley McChrystal's own bleak assessment (which may have been a factor in his firing); several sobering metrics stick out:
- Counterinsurgency (COIN) is about securing population centers from violence. But of the 116 Afghan population centers assessed, 40 (or more than a third) were considered "dangerous" or "unsecure," with only five being judged "secure."
- A key element to the Afghan war is the span of control of the central government (led by Hamid Karzai). Remarkably, only five areas of Afghanistan (out of 122) are under the "full authority" of the Karzai government. In 89 areas, Karzai's authority was judged "non-existent," "dysfunctional," or "unproductive."
- Of vital importance to an eventual American withdrawal is the viability of Afghan national military and police forces. Here again, according to McChrystal, progress is feeble, with less than a third of the Afghan military and only 12 percent of its police forces rated as "effective."
So, despite nine years of American involvement and $300 billion dollars spent, key elements of our strategy in Afghanistan are not close to being achieved. We're failing at COIN, the Karzai government remains corrupt and ineffectual, and the Afghan military and police forces, which we've expended eight years and $10+ billion training and equipping, are still unready to fight or provide security.
Of Rifles and Fighting Effectiveness
A question that rarely gets asked in the mainstream media is why, despite all our money and training, the Afghan national army and police remain unreliable and ineffective, whereas Taliban fighters on shoestring budgets are tough, resilient, and effective.
We can't place all the blame on our Afghan allies. As Ann Jones has noted, much of our training and equipment is haphazard, insufficient, or inappropriate. To cite one of her examples, Americans provided M-16 rifles - precise but overly sensitive and prone to jam in the pervasive dust of Afghanistan - to Afghan army trainees, when Taliban fighters get by with Soviet-era AK-47s or even SMLEs (the British Lee-Enfield of World War 1 vintage).
Taliban fighters armed with century-old bolt-action rifles are giving us fits; our Afghan allies armed with M-16 automatic rifles are giving us fits for an entirely different reason. Such vivid discrepancies on the micro scale are sadly consistent with the failures of our strategy on the macro scale. They are both indicative of a war gone very wrong.
Changing the general in charge and tinkering with the controls will not bring victory in Afghanistan. "Victory" will come when we face up to our own limitations -- and leave.
Professor Astore currently teaches History at the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, PA. He writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at email@example.com.