|Proxies no more|
|Magazine - News & Views|
|Sunday, 03 June 2012 11:22|
Glen Rangwala argues that the attempt in Afghanistan by the British and US to handover control to a loyal Afghan force has failed.
The continued killings in Afghanistan this year of US, British and French troops by members of the Afghan security forces mark not just more untimely deaths in an escalating war – they have the potential to create a fundamental breach in the western way of war. All recent occupations led by NATO powers have had a basic common strategy. After the invasion, the local army, if it exists, is dismantled and then reassembled under foreign tutelage. They have a strictly subordinate role at the start, with the decision-making role held by a member of the occupying military force. As a pro-Western government is installed, and a system of obedience towards and control by that government is inculcated into the local army, the foreign commanders shift to a monitoring role. These external overseers become decreasingly visible as the appearance of occupation slips away – and expensive western armies can be withdrawn, ready to fight another war, elsewhere in a world that appears from Washington to be consistently unruly.
In this way, proxy armies are created. It is an approach that was applied from Kosovo and Sierra Leone to Haiti and continued through to the Bush wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq, though, introduced a newly disruptive element: armed political groups ushered their own members through the army recruitment process, enabling both the easy smuggling of weapons and supplies out from the national army and into the hands of the militias, and the ability to use loyal army units for partisan purposes. The US, needing an Iraqi army quickly to fight the multiple enemies it had created throughout the country, was simply unable to screen every recruit to the new Iraqi army. They ended up taking everyone who volunteered to join.
Thus was created the embedded insurgent. In Iraq, though, the main purpose of the militias in inserting their members into the army was to fight their local opponents. The pro-Iranian Supreme Council became so dominant in the internal security forces that they were able to turn them into death squads whose main role was to capture, torture or assassinate Sunni nationalists, using the facilities and funds given to them by the US for this purpose. Week by week, the US generals in Iraq would proclaim the growing strength and capacity of the Iraqi army, without acknowledging the object that this strength and capacity was being put towards.
Afghanistan is one step on from this. In March Foreign Secretary William Hague told Parliament that “insurgent infiltration” affected “only isolated rogue elements” within the Afghan National Security Forces, and that the plan to hand over full control to them by 2014 still stands. The continuation since then of fatal attacks on NATO personnel by those they purport to be training – now occurring at the rate of one per week, and happening throughout the country – demonstrates instead the systematic nature of the rift that has opened up between the US-led foreign force and the people to whom they are scheduled to be handing over power.
US and UK officials talk about the importance of better screening of recruits, but this is to miss the point. From the limited information released so far, it seems clear that at least some of the members of the Afghan security forces who have killed NATO personnel have been in their posts for years, and some had reached senior ranks. Some of these individuals will have joined with sympathy for the armed insurgency against the occupation; others will have developed that while within the forces. The fact that many – at least seven – who have attacked NATO personnel within their bases managed to escape also indicates that others within the Afghan army have been supportive. Either way, the problem for NATO is not with a screening process, but instead in fighting a war that has little sense of purpose left for those who are actually doing the fighting.
This is hardly a minority opinion any longer. In 2011, the US military commissioned a study into relations between the Afghan army and NATO. The resultant report – A Crisis of Trust and Cultural Incompatibility – was so damaging that after it was published, the US retracted copies and placed classified status upon it (although it only takes a few seconds to find a copy on the internet). Although it was written before the major escalation of killings over the past few months, the report leaves no doubt over the extent to which members of the Afghan security forces reject the US attempts to create a compliant tool out of them. In the words of the report, many members of the Afghan army see the NATO force as “unwelcome and oppressive occupiers”; “virtually all” the groups of Afghan soldiers interviewed for the report expressed the opinion that the US has “zero interest” in preventing Afghan civilian casualties; and many admire those who engage in suicide bombings against US targets.
All this should hardly be a surprise to anyone who has followed the war in Afghanistan over the past ten years. Instead, what should be shocking is, instead, the way in which William Hague’s comments on how disloyalty to the US project in Afghanistan is the preserve of “isolated rogue elements” went unchallenged. Equally shocking should be the extent to which the British press continues to describe those engaging in attacks on NATO personnel in terms such as “dressed in Afghan army uniforms”, as if they are not really members of the Afghan security forces.
Increasingly, they are not imposters within the otherwise loyal structure of the Afghan army – they are the Afghan army.
Recent killings have led to a policy in which Afghan soldiers are now not allowed weapons in the presence of foreign personnel unless a NATO “guardian angel” is standing watch over them. The façade of joint missions between NATO and Afghan forces has been abandoned, replaced with a strict hierarchy in which one side is seen as trustworthy and the other as suspicious. For Afghans, who remember the killing spree by US staff sergeant Robert Bates in March, the sense of anger will be compounded with bitterness at the hypocrisy of the US military. The US, when it finally departs from Afghanistan, will be leaving a force there in control of the country that is no more susceptible to conforming to external wishes than the Taliban was in 2001.
There will, however, be a wider consequence. Afghanistan has demonstrated the flaw in the plan of recruiting a local force to stand in for an army of occupation. This will surely be a lesson absorbed by future insurgent groups. Politicians in the US and UK, preoccupied with trying to explain away the ongoing war, have not even begun to understand the consequences of this for their continued attempts to create proxy forces to serve their interests around the world.