Afghanistan's Oversized Army Can't Read or Fight

Illiteracy is the least problem of the 352,000-member Afghan National Security Force.
The few, the proud...the literate: Afghan women training as helicopter pilots in the U.S. Source: Department of Defense via Bloomberg

Clint Eastwood is no Clausewitz -- or even much of a convention speaker -- but he was onto something when he intoned, in "Magnum Force," that "a man's got to know his limitations."

That lesson seems to have been lost on planners for Afghanistan's post-occupation security forces, envisioned at a strength of 352,000 in the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. The latest evidence of the gap between vision and reality comes from a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction on the force's level of literacy: According to one Bloomberg News story, more than half the force's members will probably still be illiterate after a $200 million literacy program.

In a country where only one-third of the population, and just slightly more than one-tenth of military recruits, can read or write, building a literate army was going to be a tall order. Back in 2009, when force levels were initially pegged at 148,000, NATO trainers set a not exactly lofty goal of graduating 50 percent of recruits with a 3rd-grade literacy level. Then, planned force levels more than doubled, and funding for literacy training stayed the same. Notwithstanding the program's catalogued defects, you can see where this unhappy math is going.

And of course it points again to larger questions about the wisdom and efficacy of the effort to build a huge army. Never mind Vice President Joseph Biden's fevered ramblings that the insurgency has largely been contained, and that the existing Afghan force is effective -- assertions undercut by inspector general's last quarterly report. Afghanistan's history offers little support for the idea that the country can be controlled militarily: As the historian Thomas Barfield has noted, "the Afghan state's physical control of a specific territory has never been a valid reference point in assessing its ability to govern. Instead, the stability of the government was judged by the ability of its leaders to balance their interests against local needs and priorities."

More pressingly, especially for the U.S., Afghanistan cannot pay the billions of dollars needed each year to support such a large force -- its total government revenue in 2011 was less than $2 billion. And the U.S. taxpayer, who has already ponied up $54 billion to build the ANSF, is not in the mood to keep paying more: in a Dec. 2013 Pew Research report, only 31 percent of respondents believe the war in Afghanistan has made the U.S. safer.

Would it be nice if all 352,000 members of the ANSF could read and write their own names and count to 1,000? Sure. But continuing to pursue a force structure that ignores history and rests on shaky financial and political ground seems like a bad strategic bet. Better to focus on building a smaller, well-trained, and more sustainable force, channel more money to improving governance and meeting local needs and priorities, and intensify efforts to encourage a viable political settlement with the Taliban.

(James Gibney is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.Follow him on Twitter.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.