Afghans searching for a substitute have found an ancient solution: the plodding, dutiful animals that have navigated these high and frigid mountain passes for centuries.
“Donkeys are the Afghan helicopter,” said Col. Abdul Nasseeri, an Afghan battalion commander here in Konar province.
Already, hundreds of donkeys are sustaining the bases that Americans built, fought to defend and, eventually, left. The shift underscores the vast gulf separating U.S. and Afghan forces, and the inevitable technological regression that will occur once American troops leave.
The hopeful take of U.S. officials is that this is the kind of “Afghan sustainable” approach that, though not ideal, will endure even as Western funding tapers off. But Afghan leaders aren’t happy. After a decade of joint operations and exposure to cutting-edge technology, they want their military to look like the American one they have seen up close. U.S. officials say that is impractical and financially unrealistic.
The United States has spent more than $50 billion on Afghan security forces in the past decade, carrying one of the world’s poorest armies into modernity. The money bought new vehicles and guns for the Afghan army.
But now, as U.S. troops leave the war against insurgents to Afghan soldiers and police, American officials are deciding which bases and resources will be handed over to Afghanistan’s security forces, and which will be destroyed or shipped back to the United States. It’s a contentious issue that Afghan commanders and their U.S. advisers discuss every day.
Afghans want night-vision goggles, which Americans have refused to buy. They want more heavy weaponry and equipment to detect explosives. American commanders say those requests are too costly and not essential to the mission.
More than anything, Afghan soldiers want helicopters. As of now, they have 31, a far cry from the vast fleet maintained by the U.S. forces. Without any assurance that the Americans will give them more, a frustrated President Hamid Karzai threatened to acquire aircraft from non-NATO countries.
With the U.S. choppers on their way out, the donkey trade has risen steadily. The animals, many of which have been redirected from farm labor to military duty, transport everything that soldiers need, from rice to ammunition.
Last week, when U.S. troops visited a mountain outpost manned by Afghan soldiers, they saw two Afghan teenagers leading four donkeys. Each animal carried 10 gallons of water. The key fighting position, the Americans learned, was sustained exclusively by donkey.