President Obama wants to send 30,000 American soldiers; the Germans have promised more money; the Poles have just taken charge of a province; even the Dutch are thinking of keeping some troops on the ground. Which is all very well, as long as they all realize that the long-term solution to Afghanistan’s security doesn’t lie in soldiers sent by Washington or Berlin but in the ones who can already be found on a square of dusty desert a half-hour drive from Kabul.
That is the home of the Kabul Military Training Center, and it doesn’t look like much from the outside. When I visited last autumn, I saw simple barracks, a shooting range, some classrooms where a few students were learning how to use computers. One of the latter — he had learned excellent English during his family’s 10-year exile in Iran — told me that he wanted to continue his studies in the United States (on his vocabulary list: “confident . . . routine . . . someday . . . accomplish”). He was an exception: Most recruits are semiliterate, if they’re literate at all. Many have never slept on anything but a dirt floor, or under a roof made of anything but adobe and straw, before arriving at the training camp.
But that, in a way, is an advantage: If nothing else, the Afghan army is already a powerful force for upward mobility and, ultimately, stability. Its Western mentors on the ground know this, though politicians back home seem not to have picked up on it yet. Currently, the Afghan National Army consists of 80,000-plus soldiers. At any given moment the training center houses about 5,000 recruits, who are undergoing 10- to 16-week courses. Recent innovations — an on-site bank that helps soldiers send money home, a soccer field — have brought the once-astronomical number of deserters down to a trickle. Coalition forces eventually want the army to number 130,000. But they should be thinking even bigger: These men — not Americans, NATO troops or former warlords — represent the future security of Afghanistan. “Success” in Afghanistan, more so than in Iraq, largely depends on how fast and how well we can train them.
True, most of what goes on at the training center is pretty basic — how to shoot, how to carry out commands. But the trainees don’t object in principle to fighting, as many Iraqis did; they see the army as a step up in life, which many Iraqis didn’t. There are “advanced” courses for officers, too. Potentially more important, anyway, is what we would call the army’s program of civic education. Like it or not, the Afghan army instructors are in a position to teach the soldiers something that no other Afghan institution has yet proved able to impart: national identity. Generally speaking, if you want people to obey their country’s laws, it helps if they feel some allegiance to the state that devised them. A powerful, admired, multiethnic army — Tajiks, Hazaras, Pashtuns, Uzbeks and others — could help create a more compelling, nonpartisan civic Afghan identity, something that other citizens would also want to defend. Nation-building through military service has been tried before — Turkey comes to mind — and sometimes it works.
There are other reasons we should try harder to enlarge the responsibilities of the Afghan army. The cacophony of languages in Afghanistan, the complex ethnic structure, the harsh geography — for several centuries, all of that has made Afghanistan notoriously difficult to control. Yet when the United States worked through allies — with the mujaheddin in the 1980s or the Northern Alliance in 2001 — we were far more successful. At the moment, by contrast, the number of civilians killed by U.S. military bombing grows exponentially from year to year, largely because of confusion about what constitutes a Taliban meeting and what constitutes a wedding. Those who know the languages and culture are less likely to make fatal mistakes.
In an ideal world, of course, it would be far better if the Afghan government were able to play the role of national unifier, and it would be better if Hamid Karzai had become a beloved, nonpartisan president. But it hasn’t, and he didn’t. The government’s bureaucrats are ill-prepared, often corrupt. Elected officials are rarely better. If we use our new “surge” to improve the Afghan army, on the other hand, expanding its role in the south and on the border, it could eventually provide basic security in most of the country. It could also create an institution that Afghans of all ethnic backgrounds would admire — assuming it doesn’t turn authoritarian or corrupt in the meantime. Still, it’s not like we have a choice. The Afghan army may not be our best ticket out of Afghanistan, but it’s the only one we’ve got.