CAMP PARSA, Afghanistan—The Afghan general dialed his field commander. "Get your Quick Reaction Force ready," he told the officer on the other end of the line. "It's happening at 9:30 in Sabari."
Outside, the sky was thick with stars. Most of the soldiers at Camp Parsa, an Afghan National Army garrison in the eastern province of Khost, had retired to their barracks. But inside the cavernous, florescent-lit Tactical Operations Center, where Americans and Afghans work side by side, Brig. Gen. Zahir Wardak hunched over his phone, dialing one subordinate after another.
Now he called an Afghan battalion commander in Sabari, the most dangerous district in Khost. U.S. Special Forces and Afghan commandos were planning a mission in the area that night, and Wardak told the field commander to ready his artillery in case they needed backup. Because night missions are wildly unpopular in Afghanistan, the men talked damage control. Wardak relayed a message to deliver to DJs at the local U.S.-funded radio station when the attack was over: To the people of Sabari: We received a report last night from local people that some anti-Afghan forces want to destroy your family and your life. That's why we did this operation.
Like nearly every senior officer in the Afghan army, Brig. Gen. Wardak enjoyed the accoutrements of power—the gold star on his lapel, the private car and driver, the assistant who brought tea and who incurred the general's wrath when he moved too slowly. But on this night, Wardak might have been mistaken for any other hardworking soldier. Instead of his regular uniform, he wore a black sweater and camouflage raincoat. He consulted earnestly with a colleague on his post-attack media strategy, occasionally removing his wire-rimmed glasses to rub his eyes.
"If I sleep, this guy's coming and hitting me," Wardak joked, pointing at the American major nearby who spent most of his own waking hours mentoring the general as part of a new experiment in U.S.-Afghan synergy.
Most of what we hear about the development of the Afghan National Army is not encouraging. Although the army is widely considered the best trained and most respected of Afghanistan's security forces, that isn't saying much in a place where police get high on the job and are routinely accused of stealing.
This video depicting an Afghan soldier badly mishandling his weapon, along with others available on the Internet, is not atypical or even particularly damning compared with other footage I've seen from the military training center in Kabul. More troubling was a recent New YorkTimes account of the Afghan army's performance in Marja, where U.S. Marines and Afghan forces have been fighting the Taliban. C.J. Chivers, a former U.S. Marine who presumably knows more than most journalists about how to fire a gun, noted that "many Afghan soldiers did not aim—they pointed their American-issued M-16 rifles in the rough direction of the incoming small-arms fire and pulled their triggers without putting rifle sights to their eyes. Their rifle muzzles were often elevated several degrees high."
Building the Afghan army is key to America's exit strategy, and it has become a chief preoccupation of thousands of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. At West Point in December 2009, when President Barack Obama announced the deployment of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops, he said their purpose was largely to "increase our ability to train competent Afghan security forces" who could take over when American soldiers start coming home in the summer of 2011. The U.S. goal is to grow the Afghan army from its current strength of 102,000 troops to 171,600 by the fall of 2011.
But in Khost, where at least some Afghan army units are improving markedly under intensive American mentorship, the Obama administration's decision to focus so much energy and resources on the security forces while paying much less attention to governance and justice threatens to produce a very different result from the one we envisioned at the start of this war—or from the self-sustaining democracy that many Americans and Afghans would ultimately like to see.
In contrast to an increasingly robust and complex military strategy, the U.S. civilian effort remains weak. The military unit I visited this winter—the Fourth Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, known as Task Force Yukon—is viewed as the gold standard in civil-military coordination in Afghanistan. But coordination isn't the problem. The so-called "civilian surge" has tripled the total number of Department of State, USAID, and Department of Agriculture representatives in a four-province area about the size of West Virginia from 10 to 30 in the last six months, and the number is expected to rise to 40 by midspring. Compare that with several thousand U.S. troops (and more on the way) working in close partnership to strengthen and improve the Afghan security forces.
Defenders of the civilian effort point to other quasi-civilian enablers in Khost: a team of Indiana National Guardsmen, many of them farmers, who are partnering with the local university's agriculture department to improve Afghan farming methods; more than 40 law enforcement professionals, or LEPs, mostly retired cops in military uniforms, who train Afghan security forces to collect and preserve evidence and investigate crimes; and a seven-member Human Terrain Team, social scientists and other civilians tasked with helping commanders understand the area's demographics and the complexities of intertribal conflict. While these groups undoubtedly aid the work of counterinsurgency, none is specifically focused on enabling Afghanistan's two weakest entities: the government and the justice system. And by justice, I don't mean police officers, who already get plenty of attention and mentoring from soldiers and LEPs. I mean lawyers and judges in both the formal and informal systems, who don't.
This skewed distribution of resources has real consequences on the ground. Fixing the justice system is probably the most important element of the fight in Afghanistan. The Taliban regularly triumph over the government by delivering quick, clear, and enforceable—if sometimes brutal—verdicts that are widely viewed as fairer than those handed down by formal courts. But when I visited Khost this winter, there was no U.S. civilian rule-of-law adviser. (The sole person who'd held the job had left for another posting, and a new one had not yet arrived.) Even if the job had been filled, it was hard to see how there could be only one American civilian in this swath of eastern Afghanistan whose job was to improve people's access to justice. Meanwhile, the local police chief told me thatcorrupt judges and a shortage of qualified prosecutors were making it nearly impossible to win convictions against kidnappers, thieves, and suspected insurgents.
The lead State Department official in Khost, a friendly and astute South Carolinian named Jimmy Story, mentioned the justice system in Paktika province as a case in point. The government of Paktika had 164 positions for justice officials, including prosecutors, judges, and court employees, Story said, but only seven were filled. "They get paid much less than a private gets paid in the Afghan National Army, so they're putting their life in danger to be a prosecutor, and they're not getting compensated for it at a level that they should," Story told me.
In this scenario, the Taliban win. Another State Department official told me about a health clinic the Americans had wanted to build in a nearby district. A widow owned land adjacent to the property where the clinic was planned, and between the two parcels lay a strip of land that served as a buffer zone. The woman agreed to sacrifice the buffer zone so the clinic could be built, but one of her neighbors, a rich man, objected. He claimed that the buffer-zone land belonged to him. The man and the widow went to court and, as the State Department official put it, "the wealthier guy paid off the judge and got a ruling in his favor."
Not to be deterred, the widow promptly crossed the border to Miram Shah in the Pakistani Tribal Agency of North Waziristan and appealed to the Taliban. "Hey, look what just happened here. This is my land, fair and clear, but he paid off the Khost justice system," she told the insurgents, according to the State Department official. "And the Taliban went and blew up some small building the guy had built on this bit of buffer land, and basically dealt with it that way. So she got the justice she felt she deserved, which she could not get through the formal court system."
Tomorrow: In Khost, the Afghan army is coming to be viewed as the most capable and respectable government entity on the scene. But what are the consequences for the struggling Afghan government when the Afghan army—following the U.S. military's lead—provides not just security but also development, humanitarian aid, and even governance?