The American general in command of NATO forces in Afghanistan confidently predicts that, in just a few years, the Afghan army and police could be able to shoulder the load of defending the Kabul government. General Dan McNeill told KanWest news, however, not to expect too much before 2012.
Is the general's optimism justified? There's no way of knowing but it is fair to point out that western military assessments have often been wildly off mark since this misadventure began in 2001.
A key problem is our constant inability to predict what we'll have to confront in the coming years. Who are we going to be fighting in 2011? I don't know, do you? Afghanistan is the very definition of confusion. Wheels spinning within wheels. Today's good guys may be tomorrow's bad guys but we can be pretty sure that today's bad guys won't be switching sides anytime soon.
The Afghan National Army? National? This is a "country' that's never been more than a lose amalgam of its four principal ethnic groups and their subgroups. There isn't one of these tribes that hasn't fought with and against each of the others over the past two generations. These are not conditions out of which a national identity is forged. Will an Uzbek corporal in the ANA heed the orders of a Pashtun colonel to take up arms against an Uzbek warlord and his fellow tribesmen, his own cousins? Until you can answer "yes" to that, the very idea of a national army is an illusion. That is an illusion that may be tested long before NATO is in any position to hand over the security mission to the Afghan National Army.
General McNeill's assessment also assumes the continuing viability of the central government now headed by Hamid Karzai. Mr. Karzai may still command the loyalty of those Pashtun not already supporting his Pashtun rivals, the Taliban, but he seems to be losing the support of the other ethnic groups who've coalesced into an opposition group, the United National Front, and are separately seeking reconciliation with the Taliban. The viability of a pro-western, pro-NATO central government in 2011 is anything but certain. If the opposition groups - the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara - unite with the Taliban what do we do, just fight the entire damned country? If you want to know how well that works out, the Brits tried it twice and, after them, so did the Soviets.
General McNeill doesn't have a gameplan to fight a wider war in Afghanistan. He doesn't have enough troops to win the limited conflict he's already fighting. Perhaps our biggest mistakes over the past seven years were 1) failing to crush the warlords when the opportunity existed in 2001 and 2) revealing to those warlords ever since the narrow limits of our power and the flimsy underpinnings of the Kabul government we created.
Here's something to watch out for over the next two years. It's been reported that the Taliban are planning to move out of their home turf in the south and carry on operations in the east and north. If they do, that will mean they're operating in collusion with the National Front warlords. The Taliban are Pashtun, quite ethnically distinct from their former mortal enemies, the Tajik, Hazara and Uzbeks of the central and northern regions. If they can safely operate in these areas, we are in a brand new ball game.