Just How Hard Will Afghanistan Be?: ‘We Issue Pens to Afghan Soldiers’


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Robert Kaplan has a nice new piece on Afghanistan over at the Atlantic. As usual, it is worth your time. Kaplan travels to places most of us in IR could only dream of visiting, so his work’s got a verite feel that our modeling and endless quotations of one another never do. (This is why people read him, not us.) Unfortunately Kaplan repeats the same motifs again and again, so its not clear if we are reading about Afghanistan, or just Kaplan’s expansive Americanist ideology again. In this way, he is becoming like the Kagans. You already know his answer: geography is a huge constraint on international action; America’s NCOs and infantrymen are kick-a—; we should win the GWoT at even huge expense; and US empire is probably good for the world, even if others resent it.

This time around, Kaplan lays the groundwork for Stanley McChrystal’s presidential bid. What is it with conservatives and the lionization of generals? Just read Kaplan’s purple prose. No one doubts Petraeus or McChrystal’s military talents, but I am pretty sure the US right’s cult of personality tendency for military machismo is unhealthy for the democratic process. Also, is it really admirable that McChrystal only sleeps four hours a day? How many of us could make good decisions living that way regularly? That told me less that McChrystal is super-committed, and more that he is overworked, under-resourced, and under-staffed. That sounds like the Bush-era GWoT all right…

But the money quote from Kaplan’s piece has go to be this from a NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) interviewee:

The recruits may not know how to read, but they are incredibly street-smart. They’re survivalists. Basic soldiering here does not require literacy. We give them a course in how to read and issue them pens afterwards. They take tremendous pride in that. In Afghanistan, a pen in a shirt pocket is a sign of literacy.

Note the use of the military verb ‘issue.’ Yes, the $.50 plastic pen you forgot in the coffee room yesterday is a formally issued piece of military hardware that signals prestige in the wider Afghan society. WOW.

Consider all the information that short anecdote conveys to you about education, poverty, and governance in Afghanistan:

1. Afghans are so poor, they can’t afford pens. ISAF has to issue them, and only qualified soldiers get them.

2. Afghans are so illiterate, no one really needs them.

3. Widespread illiteracy and poverty means the Afghan state, even down into the local level, cannot meaningfully connect to the citizenry.

If illiteracy is so widespread that pens are a mark of social prestige, then Afghanistan can hardly be expected to have complex institutions or national centralization. If you can’t write bills or receipts, what kind of markets will you have? If you can’t read laws from Kabul, much less correspond with state organs, how do you know what the rules are, where to pay taxes, etc? If education is that non-existent, how can you build an army, infrastructure, courts, etc?

None of this means the US and other wealthy states should not help Afghanistan. Indeed, your heart should break when you read that Afghans are issued pens. Nor is this a verdict on the utility of ISAF; maybe we should still go, despite the huge hurdles this very revealing anecdote makes clear.

But this anecdote told me more about how hard the Afghan operation really will be, than Obama’s surge speech last year, or any of the other fearless, ‘we-can-do-it’ prose of Kaplan’s piece. This is way beyond Iraq. Afghanistan doesn’t just need counter-terrorism/insurgency, it needs nation-building on an order that took the US two centuries to achieve.

Obama didn’t include anecdotes this revealing in his Afghan surge address last year. Did he white lie by not showing us just how high the slope is? It kinda seems like it…

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12 thoughts on “Just How Hard Will Afghanistan Be?: ‘We Issue Pens to Afghan Soldiers’

  1. Dr. Bob:

    “That told me less that McChrystal is super-committed, and more that he is overworked, under-resourced, and under-staffed. That sounds like the Bush-era GWoT all right…”

    This is very interesting observation on your part and demonstrates how a civilians (who do not come in contact with the military regularly if at all) in most cases, understand the military.

    This is not strange at all. McChrystal in an infantry man. An infantry officer to be exact. This is NATURAL behavior for infantrymen because WAR doesn’t sleep. WAR is continuous and not a 9 to 5 job. You are ambushed at 4am just as you are ambushed at 4pm. Now imagine the mindset the develops with that. Furthermore, imagine that you are General McChrystal in charge of troops facing imminent attacks 24 hours a day? Any INFANTRY general worth a salt will do the same. The LOVE and BOND that develops between infantrymen compels them to act this way. I don’t want to bore you with my stories but what McChrystal exhibits is the infantry mindset. I mean, during my first 24 hours at USMC Boot Camp at Parris Island, I think that I got only fours of sleep (and this not until around 10am). This was my first 24 hours on the island.

    Since you are an academic, could you be granted say, a months access to in-bed with the US Army Infantry in S.K.? The US Army Infantrymen in S.K. are very good. Go out into the field with them. Speak with their officers. Being that you have a PhD, you should be able to have direct access to the Battalion Commander.

    I remember that you used to march with the anti-globalization demonstrators in order to observe them. Why not do the same with the military seeing that you write a lot on these affairs?

    You might want to try reading professional military magazines as well. By this I don’t intend politically motivated main stream magazines. Magazines such as “Proceedings” or “The Marine Corps Gazette”.

  2. Sorry, that was, “I got four hours of sleep”. General McChrystal eating one meal a day. Not strange all, he was special forces. You forgot to add that he also jogs over 3 miles everymorning as well. You based your claim that he is overworked because he sleeps only fours hours per day and eats one meal a day, yet you failed to mentioned that this over-worked General finds to time to run about 3 miles per day.

    You stated that you have no doubts about Generals Patraeus or McChrystal’s military talents. As if they are just that. Both men are graduates of West Point and both have advanced IR degrees. In General Patraeus’ case he earned a PhD in IR from Princeton!

    I may seem off, I am just trying to understand how you put your argument together. Seems that you are basing some or your conclusions on assumptions (supporting arguments) based on certain generalities, that is this case don’t hold true.

  3. To be clear, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that Afghanistan won’t be VERY DIFFICULT. It will be. I don’t think that we need any President of the US to tell us this fact. It is a given. “The FT” had a wonderful weekend article on this a few weeks ago and “The Washington Post” had a great front page Sunday special on the US Marine Corps in Afghanistan a few Sundays ago.

    This, however, is the kind of stuff that I can’t get my head around:

    “Also, is it really admirable that McChrystal only sleeps four hours a day? How many of us could make good decisions living that way regularly? That told me less that McChrystal is super-committed, and more that he is overworked, under-resourced, and under-staffed. That sounds like the Bush-era GWoT all right…”

    How do you link “Bush-era GWOT” to General McChrystal’s antics as an infantryman?! Also can you name me a fully staffed military command?

    “Note the use of the military verb ‘issue.’ Yes, the $.50 plastic pen you forgot in the coffee room yesterday is a formally issued piece of military hardware that signals prestige in the wider Afghan society. WOW.”

    Here is another example. The term ‘issue’ is used for accounting purposes (mainly in the US Military) because EVERY PENNY has to be accounted for. For example. The command requisitions 100 pens to “give” to Afghans. This is fine. However you can’t GIVE AWAY government property! You start giving it away then the media back home investigates waste or worse. So you ISSUE it. This denotes that the US government has authorized the issuing agent the authority to gave away US Taxpayer dollars.

    As far as the pen being a source of pride. It is more than that. For example, if you went to the Congo and give some poor destitute African your “American” made shirt off your back, he/she would wear it with great pride. It is the same logic, but I don’t have the time to go into it.

  4. Dr. Bob:

    This is my last on this subject. I respect you and your knowledge a lot but I find your lack of the basic understanding of infantry warfare and formation troubling. Take this statement for example:

    “Also, is it really admirable that McChrystal only sleeps four hours a day? How many of us could make good decisions living that way regularly?”

    This is what you learn at Infantry Boot Camp and the School of Infantry. By the time you graduate the School of Infantry your body becomes used to operating on three to five hours of sleep per 24 hour time period. What do you think that US Marines at in Helmand Province are doing? Getting 8 hours of sleep a night? I remember my days of infantry training. Finding a spot on the earth to try and sleep (rain or no rain). But then you really don’t’ sleep because you “sleep” in your fighting position with your rifle pointed towards your field of fire (which can change if the enemy flanks your position etc.) You lay there trying to sleep (if you are not on watch) listening to all the night insects etc. You may dose off but you sleep like an animal, any sound wakes you up. If you are ISSUED a radio, you have to monitor it as well. Listening for word from your CP somewhere out in the bush.

    And mind you, we made great decisions under these conditions. Dozing off around 3am only to be awakened by machine gun fire. Next you have to access what is going on in light speed and return fire (with commands being shouted from the front and the rear). You accomplish all this tired, hungry and having humped miles during the day with an 80 pound plus pack on your back, your water, your ammo, your rifle, etc. Next it is morning and you have to break camp and hump to your next location. This is the basic infantry lifestyle.

    So, if General McChrsytal can accomplish this on a grand scale is because he has done it for YEARS and has succeeded in it. This is why he is in command.

    Also on this ISSUE business. It also slipped my mind that you were referencing Afghan soldiers. Soldiers, Airman, Sailors and Marines get issued gear. This is what it is called. The term G.I. means Government Issued.

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