Major General Akin Zorlu, commander of the international peacekeepers in Afghanistan, is not a swashbuckling, charge-right-at-'em sort. He speaks steadily, fingering a pen with elegant gold trimmings; his spectacles give him a studious appearance. If you ask him about U.S. policy, he's politely diplomatic. But if you listen between the lines of his pronouncements, you get a different message.
The message is that Pentagon and NATO strategy is hopelessly wishful. At the Prague summit last Thursday, NATO's leaders declared that "responsibility for providing security and law and order throughout Afghanistan resides with the Afghans themselves."
Which Afghans, precisely, are supposed to play this role?
Perhaps NATO's leaders were alluding to Afghan police forces. Here's Zorlu's description of that option. "If you visit any police station you see that they have 50 police officers or soldiers but only two very primitive guns and two bicycles. No radio assets, no vehicles, nothing.
"In Afghanistan, everywhere is full of weapons -- ammunition, mines, explosive materials, missiles, rockets," Zorlu continues, before telling about how people show up outside his headquarters offering to sell missiles by the truckload. What's more, the police officers you find in those police stations aren't necessarily doing police work. Many haven't been paid, even though their salaries amount to $24 monthly. This has two consequences. "First, they do not work," Zorlu says. "Second, they do work their own businesses by using their guns to rob the people to feed their families."
So much for Afghanistan's police providing law and order.
Okay, so perhaps NATO's leaders were looking to the Afghan army to guarantee security. In that case, which army? Afghanistan has dozens of armies, each answerable to its own warlord; the warlords promote security sometimes and other times mayhem. Right, so what about the national army? The one answerable to Hamid Karzai, the good-guy president?
The Pentagon has spent much of the past year deflecting calls for expanded peacekeeping by promising to train an Afghan national army. Training has duly begun.
But it's a painfully slow process. So far between 2,000 and 3,000 troops have passed through training, a miniscule number in a country of 22 million where most males have access to weapons. What's more, simply training people turns out to be less than totally effective. The first battalion to complete training was 600-strong at the outset. Now, says Zorlu, it's down to 300.
Where did the rest go? Well, they had been recruited from all of Afghanistan's provinces because they were supposed to form the nucleus of a truly national army. But this meant that they harbored loyalties to their local warlords. A few months of training failed to conjure up a new sense of fealty to the central government. And so, once the training was completed, many returned to serve the warlords in their home regions. Some continue to report to barracks, Zorlu acknowledges. But only on payday.
The truth is that Afghanistan doesn't have an army that can create security, any more than it has a working police force. What's more, there's no prospect of creating an effective army in a short period. As Zorlu's story of defections illustrates, you can't build national armies in a vacuum. You must bring about a sense of national identity. You must demobilize provincial armies and so eliminate rival military employers.
Whatever the rhetoric from NATO last week, Afghanistan will cry out for foreign peacekeepers for the foreseeable future. It makes no sense that they be limited, as they have been so far, to the country's capital.
Moreover, peacekeepers may offer the best hope of delivering the training that the Pentagon says it wants. Zorlu's men take Afghan police out on patrol with them; the aim is to teach the basics of community relations -- "how to behave, how to be polite to people," as Zorlu puts it. Equally, Zorlu has taught leaders of Kabul's various armed authorities the importance of intelligence sharing. Before, tribal rivalries prevented them from communicating. Now Zorlu has used his status as an impartial outsider to set up a process for pooling information on potential terrorist attacks.
Zorlu says he's optimistic about Afghanistan's future. His troops have gradually brightened the climate in the capital; despite some continued violence, security has improved enough to allow for the lifting of the 23-year-old curfew. But he doesn't think the peacekeepers' work is anywhere near ended, and he fears the consequences of fading commitment.
"Maybe it takes some years, 10 years, 15 years," he confesses. "If you do not want to see again the Sept. 11 attacks," he declares finally, "we should continue helping them."