Please visit the new home of Majikthise at

« Tomasky, Moore, and Afghanistan | Main | Sen. Max Baucus nominated girlfriend for U.S. Attorney post »

December 04, 2009

Afghanistan reality check

Sobering thoughts from Ahmed Rashid on the New York Review of Books blog:

US hopes rest on the Afghan National Army (ANA), which today numbers some 90,000 soldiers. Yet after eight years of US intervention in Afghanistan, not a single brigade is self sufficient or combat-ready. The only area the Afghan army has under its control is Kabul city, where thousands of Western troops are available for backup. Unlike in Iraq, where a literate, professional standing army existed under Saddam Hussein, in Afghanistan what remained of the military had largely disbanded or deserted by the time of the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Since then there has only been warlordism.

Seventy percent of today’s ANA recruits are illiterate and do not have the skills to carry out even the simplest orders. The army has neither a fully trained officer class nor any logistical support or medical supply lines that can function without American support. The 93,000 police recruits are in even worse shape. Any expectation that the Karzai government will improve its performance—in the aftermath of a fraudulent election and amid continual reports of corruption and incompetence—is just hope. [NYRblog]


"Illiterate" is the lynch pin of all of this. Basic education is a key facet of life in the industrialized world. Western institutions are implicitly predicated on the presence of a population that can read and that can understand mathematics at a remedial level. Without this, rule of law and uniform dissemination of information is next to impossible.

In parts of the world where illiteracy is the norm, a major education push must go along with any attempt at nation building.

Thomas, this situation is reminiscent of South Korea, actually. In the 1950s, South Korea increased its availability of education, often with US aid building schools. This raised literacy from 22% in 1945 to 80% by 1960, and helped pave the way for South Korea's explosive economic growth from 1960 onward. A paper published by the UN Development Program on education and development in Korea says,

Beyond the role played by Japan on education in Korea, there was a major effort made by the United States. The U.S. Army Military Government in South Korea during 1945-48 contributed to expansion of educational opportunities. According to an estimate by McGinn and others (1980), about two-thirds of the operating costs of running the primary schools were financed by the U.S. Army Military Government. In addition, foreign (mostly U.S.) aid to Korea accounted for as much as $100 million for the period between 1952 and 1966, which provided the resources for classroom construction and thereby facilitated the expansion of education.

Afghanistan today in no way resembles post-WWII Korea. To put it mildly, Korea was more or less culturally and ethnically homogeneous. Afghanistan is a collection of tribal and ethnic groups that do not consider themselves part of the same national group. Foreign involvement in Afghanistan has drastically worsened the situation on the ground by fits and starts, and the US has played a major role in that worsening. I don't know that there is an active role for the US in any assistance in peacemaking and subsequent reconstruction in Afghanistan, but the current and impending US policy ain't it. The Obama administration is upping the ante of violence and spreading it into already unstable Pakistan. This isn't Korea, it isn't Vietnam, but it's most certainly going to get uglier.

Korea pretends to be homogeneous, but in reality, it has regional divisions, most infamously between the provinces of Gyeongsang and Jeolla. The leadership during South Korea's growth decades was always from Gyeongsang, and there was immense regional opposition to the regime in Jeolla. Conversely, the government directed development to its home province and underinvested in Jeolla. So when the military government tried to have free elections, the opposition candidate got 92% of the vote in Jeolla; Japan had to beg Korea to merely imprison the candidate and not kill him. Later on, when people in Jeolla started protesting, the government sent in troops from Gyeongsang to shoot them.

The main difference between Afghanistan and South Korea here is merely that South Korea has done a better job papering over its internal divisions.

Just idle curiosity, but during the american Cuba time how well did the US do education? I'm not sure, but I believe that I saw something in a UN report of education in various countries and Cuba was well up toward the top in the late 1980s.

Of course, if education is the key to getting the people to support the government, what went wrong with that whole Yugoslavia thing?

If education is really the key, then we have tons of people who are playing tiddlywinks all day on the high price welfare scheme called "intelligence." You know, the people who sometimes get it right (good call on the plane attack, bad call on who to tell) but mostly have it bassackwards. Easy to find, just google CI lying A, military intelligence, state department intelligence, NS listening A.

Just grab all of the "intelligence" jerkoffs and ship their asses to Afghanistan. They can teach. After all they are "intelligence." They might even get some insights as to just how the Afghans think. Send them up in those deep, long and narrow river valleys where periodically for the last 20,000 years they have had to "suck it up" and wipe out the invader. They have "invader-wipe-out down pat."

Yeah, that would work really well, cut down welfare costs for the Ivy League types that didn't know the right guys to get into the banks, stock market, swindles or general robbery with an insurance company.

I'm a hillbilly and if you really want to have trouble in the US, send in the "government" to try and take over the ozarks. They've only been there about 180 years, but I remember my uncle shooting a .45 automatic to kill a hog in the fall. The neighbors all came. Everyone armed. My great great uncle ran about 1/2 a mile, waded through a stream and we could all hear him yelling "Hold on, Frank, I'm a coming." About 80 to 85 years old, carrying a BAR from the First World War with enough ammo to impress the hell out of 5 year old boy.

The Koreans have an intense pride in their nation that the Afghans will never have. Vastly more ethnically homogeneous too, with a work ethic from hell and an intense desire to improve in all fields, esp as compared with Japan.

I don't detect the same ethic in Afghanistan, guys.

No matter what anyone does, a hundred years from now Korea ( hopefully unified by then ) will be among the leading ranks of first world nations.

Afghanistan will never be that. It will hopefully be a lot better than it is now, but the only thing it has in common with Korea is that both are countries.

Less Isbetter: education doesn't make people support the government. On the contrary, it makes them oppose an authoritarian government. The South Korean autocracy didn't do well in terms of continuity of power - once the people got enough schooling and income, they started protesting the low wages and long working hours. Eventually the government could no longer shoot at protesters, and came down in 1987, turning into a democracy.

Phantom: the Korean work ethic was cultivated by the government from the 1960s on. In order to promote development, the government arranged matters so that people had to work long hours, comparable to those of the US in the Industrial Revolution. It also encouraged personal saving, raising the personal savings rate from 8% in 1960 to 35% by the 1990s; it's since gone down to about 15%, as rising incomes have led to higher consumption. As for the desire to improve, according to the article I referenced, it came from the fact that the old aristocracy was destroyed in the wars and income distribution was relatively equal. In that climate, education became the new social marker.

The comments to this entry are closed.