These self-defeating economics
Even as fatalities among New Zealand troops in Afghanistan mounted last week, the desertion rate among the Afghan National Army will have continued apace.
As fast as the Afghan National Army is recruited and trained, nearly a third are reportedly deserting each year – leaving about 100,000 under arms from a peak of roughly 170,000.
As this desertion rate suggests, the cause in Afghanistan is something that almost no-one, except Americans and Britons, the French, Australians and New Zealanders feel willing to die for.
The training of Afghans to take up the fight so that foreign troops can withdraw in 2014 might seem a logical step – yet given the economics involved, it is likely to be self-defeating.
During 2010, the Afghan government reportedly collected about $1 billion in revenues – yet the US government alone requested $12.8 billion in military assistance for Afghanistan during the fiscal year 2012. Clearly, the Afghan army that this massive financial input is supporting will not be sustainable by any Afghan government in future, unless New Zealand and others pump in huge amounts of money, post 2014. Far more likely, the Afghan National Army will be forced to shrink.
Thus, as Thomas Johnson, head of post-graduate research at the US Naval War College has pointed out, the training programme for foreign coalition forces could well succeed in generating large numbers of de-mobilised former soldiers of the sort whose predatory actions caused the local population to turn to the Taleban for assistance in the first place.
It is against this backdrop that last week’s losses by New Zealand troops need to be considered.
Tragically, the deaths of a further three New Zealanders from a roadside bomb in north Bamiyan province would appear to be an exercise in futility. Our Provincial Reconstruction Team ( PRT) troops are being sent on patrols into north Bamiyan to detect and deter the influx of insurgents from neighbouring Baghlan province – and unlike our US allies, they are being allowed to ride in Humvee vehicles known to be inadequately armoured against the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) being used by the insurgents.
In such circumstances, it seemed incredible that Prime Minister John Key should be talking of extending the patrol range, right into Baghlan – this, when Kiwi troops are already dying in relatively lightly armoured vehicles, closer to their home base.
Just as incredibly, Key blamed the Hungarians for being unwilling to patrol Baghlan at night.
Quite logically, the Hungarians regard such long range counterinsurgency work as being the prime job of the allied special forces teams – and instead, have used their PRT troops mainly to defend their aid and reconstruction work situated closer to the provincial capital.
Rather than criticise the Hungarians, Key might be better off imitating them.
Finally, Vietnam provides a chilling comparison for our Afghan adventure. Even if our Afghan allies had the will and the means to fight, 100,000 men under arms would not be enough.
As Thomas Johnson pointed out, the South Vietnamese Army had more than a million men under arms, including a large air force, in a country a quarter the size of Afghanistan, and yet it collapsed in three weeks of fighting in 1976.
As he says, the Taleban will have done the same maths.