Curing Afghanistan

Two officers on the battlefield offer a new metaphor for the understanding conflict in the region -- and how to end it.

The battle for Marja in southern Afghanistan and the coming campaign in Kandahar are important, but victory on these battlefields will not win the war, though they will help set the conditions for success. It will take a comprehensive, holistic effort to bring stability to Afghanistan.

Drawing on our experience as institution builders, and after spending six months on the ground in Afghanistan, we would like to offer a different way to think about diagnosing this country's ills -- and finding the appropriate cures. In the course of our duties, we have helped build the Afghan army, police, air corps, educational institutions, military hospitals, logistics, and the bureaucracies of defense and interior. Rather than describing Afghanistan with the language of war and battles, we have come to think of the country as an ailing patient -- in many ways analogous to a weakened person under attack by an aggressive infection.

To extend this analogy further, to rebuild the country's long-term health, Afghan and coalition leaders must address the ailment at three levels: curing the body, mind, and spirit of the nation. This means rebuilding the body of physical infrastructure and physical security; restoring the mind of governmental and educational institutions; and reinvigorating the spirit of civil leadership and traditional, tolerant Islam.


This diagnosis of Afghanistan's illnesses came too late, allowing the infection that has debilitated it -- i.e., insurgent forces and the Taliban -- to grow in strength. As a result, a low-level antibiotic is now insufficient to the task of restoring health. For several years, coalition and Afghan senior leaders did not fully appreciate the potential lethality of the Taliban's infectious insurgency.

The 30,000 additional troops approved by U.S. President Barack Obama in December 2009 can be viewed as a late but powerful and much-needed dose of antibiotics. The surge was designed to shock and stunt the insurgency, thereby gaining time and space to allow the country's indigenous immune system to be restored.

NATO's combat presence in Afghanistan is considerable. At its peak, combat troops will number nearly 130,000. NATO countries provide the conventional combat troops distributed across the country by region, with especially heavy concentrations in the south, where the Taliban infection is particularly virulent. These troops are augmented by special operations forces and complete coalition air dominance through both manned and unmanned armed platforms.

To be sure, similar to a powerful antibiotic, the use of large numbers of combat troops brings with it side effects that can cause discomfort and pain to the body politic of Afghanistan. The effects range from disruption of civilian day-to-day life to, regrettably, sometimes civilian casualties. Senior NATO commanders seek to minimize civilian casualties and thus apply combat power with restraint and, to the extent possible, surgical precision.

This surge of combat power, along with the Marja and Kandahar offensives, will suppress the Taliban infection in the near term, but is only a temporary reprieve. The current high level of U.S. and NATO combat power cannot be maintained forever. Therefore, without a rejuvenated immune system, the infection will come back.

Immune System

The Afghan equivalent of the body's immune system is the collective security forces: the police, the military, and the security bureaucracy. But the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are underdeveloped and need time and space to develop to a point where they can effectively shoulder the responsibility of suppressing nascent infections that threaten the country's health.

Some have asked: How could the ANSF still require growth and development almost nine years after international forces entered the country? Like a doctor who fails to correctly diagnose an illness, so did security experts fail to appreciate the danger of the Taliban. Moreover, the coalition did not fully appreciate the magnitude of the task entailed in building an indigenous immune system comprised of a large and robust army and police. NATO officials now recognize the size of the task, and the immunity-building effort has, accordingly, expanded dramatically.

In November 2009, the NATO alliance stood up a dedicated training command with the mission of building the ANSF. NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan is responsible for the generation, development, and professionalization of the Afghan army, police, army air corps, and all the various supporting structures, from back-office support systems to military schools. The financial resources devoted to this training mission are among the largest of its kind in the world.

But it isn't just dollars flowing into the country: Trainers, instructors, advisors, engineers, and logisticians are flowing in rapidly and will peak at several thousand. Training facilities and infrastructure include basic-training camps in every regional command, logistical infrastructure, new military hospitals and clinics, and a national military academy modeled after U.S. military academies. The output of these camps and schools is rapidly climbing, producing almost 10,000 police and soldiers per month.

Spirit of Service

Although we have made massive investments in the surge and are moving aggressively to restore Afghan immunity, efforts to restore general health are lagging. The rebuilding of critical infrastructure, the restoration of good governance, and expanded education will be essential to restoring the body and mind.

Restoring the spirit of Afghanistan is perhaps the most difficult and complex. The challenges are twofold: the restoration of Afghanistan's tradition of tolerant Islam and the restoration of a sense of service to nation and tribe that predated the rise of warlordism and its associated corruption.

Fortunately, Afghan leaders today realize that a spirit of national service was lost for a generation and are taking steps to fill the void. At a conference at Camp Eggers in Kabul, sponsored by NATO Training Mission in early 2010, we listened as senior Afghan leaders vigorously debated how to restore a sense of service and virtuous leadership. For all the recent turmoil in the U.S. relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the Kabul government has kept its word: establishing new officer training schools for police; implementing a lottery system for officer assignments (as a counter to favoritism and nepotism); and developing new laws (now awaiting final approval by the Afghan parliament and president), which seem likely to pass, that together will strengthen the professionalism of the security forces. At the National Military Academy of Afghanistan, one can already see the new spirit of national service and selfless leadership becoming manifest in young men and women.

The road to a healthy body politic is not easy, but the first step is appreciating what a lasting cure will require.



Happy Birthday to Burma's Military

It's been a hell of an awful 65 years.

To mark the 65th anniversary of Burma's military last week, the country's leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, made a rare public appearance, presiding over a grand Armed Forces Day parade through the streets of Naypyidaw, the country's lavish, newly constructed capital city. Thousands of troops marched in formation past fountains as the ruling general saluted and promised the select crowd that the coming elections would be free and fair.

There was much to celebrate as far as the Burmese military is concerned. The junta is confident in its hold on political power, monopoly over the economy, and near-complete neutralization of domestic opponents. The ideal conditions are in place to give the military junta its best-ever birthday present: continuing dominance over a future civilian parliament and continuing control of Burma's 58 million people after the country's elections, promised to take place this year. Everything the ruling junta, formally known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has been planning is methodically coming to fruition. The system it dubbed "disciplined democracy" is living up to its Orwellian name. And it shows no sign of changing.

Created at the end of World War II by a cabal of pro-Japanese nationalists and British-trained officers, the Burmese defense services, known as the Tatmadaw, were instrumental in safeguarding the weak central government against ethnic and communist insurgencies in the 1950s. In 1962, to secure its own interests and sideline bickering civilian politicians, the Tatmadaw staged a coup. The new junta nationalized almost all economic entities in the country, launching an era of xenophobic socialist rule under the leadership of Gen. Ne Win.

By 1988, the system was crumbling. Nationwide protests erupted against disastrous economic policies and military control. But rather than reform, the military doubled down on repression, ruling without any ideology other than nationalism and corporate self-interest. When the Army's preferred party lost in a landslide to the opposition National League for Democracy, led by the daughter of the Army's beloved first commander, Gen. Aung San, the Tatmadaw simply nullified the elections. It drafted a new Constitution to ensure its future dominance, partially liberalized the economy, began to slowly destroy the political opposition, bought off the ethnic resistance, and successfully made the vast majority of Burma's citizens fearful of any involvement in politics.

Now 20 years into its campaign to ensure uncontested primacy in Burma, the Tatmadaw's birthday goals are equally chilling. As announced on Armed Forces Day, they include: "To work hard with national people for successful completion of elections due to be held in accordance with the new Constitution, to crush internal and external subversive elements through the strength and consolidated unity of the people, and to build a strong, patriotic modern Tatmadaw."

Clearly, Burma's rulers haven't changed much in two decades, and if anything, they have become more isolated and paranoid. The parades have become more ostentatious and generally exclusive, especially since the ruling SPDC moved to Naypyidaw. The massive parade grounds are closed to the public and all outsiders except foreign defense attachés, who sit under the gaze of three gargantuan golden statues of former Burmese kings. This year, the regime permitted some foreign journalists to attend for the first time since 2006 -- but then the junta changed its mind with CNN's Dan Rivers. He was granted a visa to cover the parades, but was inexplicably detained in Naypyidaw and then sent back to Thailand the day before the event.

Behind the facade of a triumphant, neomedieval military state, it's hard to tell what the real condition of Burma really is. But government spending offers a good clue: The SPDC spends a mere 1.4 percent of GDP on health and education, while the Tatmadaw and state enterprises account for 80 percent of government expenditures. The junta spent some $2 billion building the new capital. Meanwhile, Burma's humanitarian crisis is deepening, with severe malnutrition and livelihood challenges affecting one-third of the population. This doesn't affect military leaders, who control Tatmadaw-only hospitals or can travel to Singapore for treatment.

Economic gains are either captured by the regime, senior military leaders, or their favored business associates (many of whom find themselves on Western sanctions lists). The income from energy deposits such as the Yadana and Yetagun gas projects net the regime $2.4 billion a year, proceeds the junta converts at the official exchange rate but squirrels away in offshore banking centers at the market rate. When the Chinese oil-and-gas pipelines are completed in several years, the military will have access to even more foreign-exchange earnings and the finances to guarantee its interests.

With such cash, Burma has no trouble finding ways to spend. The elite send their children overseas for education and bestow lucrative business concessions to their family members. The country's main friends and arms suppliers are now North Korea, China, and Russia, which furnish weapons in return for access to Burma's raw materials.

For a military state, however, life in Burma's army is surprisingly dismal. While the junta buys sophisticated MiG-29 fighter aircraft, it sends its poorly trained and supplied foot soldiers into brutal civil wars with ethnic militias in the country's east. Military offensives have displaced more than half a million civilians and sent hundreds of thousands more fleeing across Burma's borders to Thailand, Bangladesh, and India over the last two decades.

Among the rank and file, morale is extremely low; contempt for the privileged officer class is high; and desertion rates are climbing to a point that alarms even senior Army commanders. Child soldiers remain a staple of combat, necessary for the Tatmadaw to stem the flow of desertions and replenish its ranks as the junta demands a military expansion. Still, despite these internal stress fractures, no overt divisions within the Tatmadaw appear likely to force a change of direction.

Meanwhile, the militarization of Burmese life marches on. In December, the prestigious Defence Services Academy in the city of Maymyo turned out more than 2,400 new officers, the largest graduating class in the Tatmadaw's history. Retiring officers are taking up posts in local administration -- or preparing to contest the 2010 elections. The new Constitution reserves for officers one-quarter of lower-house seats, one-third of upper-house seats, and all key government portfolios.

So, 65 years old this month, the military in Burma is not a state within a state -- it has become the state. The only real opposition, the National League for Democracy, headed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, which won the last elections held in Burma in 1990, announced on March 29 that due to the unjust electoral laws governing the elections, it would boycott.

The Tatmadaw could well continue to thrive under a civilian system it controls. The Army will do so at the expense of legitimacy, popular support, and honor. But that's exactly why this year's elections have been so carefully arranged -- to ensure the right result. A free and fair election would most likely give the Tatmadaw its marching orders: out of power.