But the promise of Sboor and so many like him went unfulfilled and was doomed from the start. Since the release of The Afghanistan Papers, many have argued whether our leaders were lying, or just delusional in their plans and assessments of progress. But that distinction is irrelevant. The fact is that training the Afghan security forces was never a priority for the military, despite years of declarations to the contrary. The result is that we designed a force that was incapable of fighting without U.S. support. Even worse, we failed to address the endemic corruption that would undermine the legitimacy of both Afghan forces and the central government in the eyes of the Afghan people.
For several months in the spring of 2009, Sboor and I walked nearly all the major passes along the Durand Line between Pakistan and Afghanistan in Konar province in search of the infiltration routes of fighters coming from Pakistan. Although we didn’t find many foreign fighters crossing from Pakistan to join the fight, we noticed the region was awash in illegal timber smuggling. The smuggling gave us an idea of where Pakistani forces turned a blind eye both to timber and incoming fighters. It also revealed the systemic corruption at every level of the Afghan government and security forces. Everyone from the Afghan border police to the local government took part in the illegal lumber trade; even the Afghan army took a cut.
It was common knowledge that Afghan officials routinely paid “tribute” to power brokers for their positions. According to officers like Sboor, the going rate to be a battalion commander in 2009 was about $30,000 in U.S. dollars, astronomically higher than government salaries in these positions. The result was that everyone was incentivized to use their positions to make money, and the illegal lumber trade was a prime candidate for corruption.
The U.S. military ignored this corruption; we thought if we kept teaching small-unit tactics to Afghan units, then those efforts would eventually be enough to build an army similar to ours. Someone else would deal with the corruption, or perhaps it would somehow disappear on its own.
I returned to Afghanistan in 2012 for my second deployment as an adviser to Afghan forces. By then, the surge in troops began to wane and at least in public pronouncements, advising was the main effort. But operations against known insurgent leaders was always the real priority. And U.S. commanders could always justify taking the lead in operations to “create space” for the Afghan forces to develop.
The advisory effort took a back seat to these missions, both on the ground and in the way the military assigned service members to the mission. We were an ad hoc bunch. Some of us volunteered, but a large number were drawn in by bureaucratic personnel dragnets that used a lack of previous deployment time as one criterion for selection. Many of those charged with leading small teams to train and partner with Afghan forces were drawn from specialties like chemical warfare, air defense and personnel management, which meant they did not have extensive experience in building and training light infantry units. For most, it was their first time in Afghanistan. Nobody knew where we would ultimately end up or even what type of unit we would be advising until after several weeks in country.
After bouncing around in country for a few months, I landed in a semi-permanent home in eastern Afghanistan, replacing the relieved commander of an advisory team from the National Guard that was partnered with the Afghan border police. The National Guard team’s training had been about as piecemeal as ours. A few had sought out the deployment, at least one was desperately trying to find a way to be sent home, and the other active-duty officer on the team could only wonder whether being hit with an assignment so far off the regular promotion path meant the end of his career.
This Afghan command performed decently, at least within the context of the overall dysfunction of the border police. In designing the Afghan border police in the mid-2000s, someone thought it might serve as a “blue line” separating the armies of Afghanistan and Pakistan. As such, they were generally trained and equipped with the intent of performing functions similar to the U.S. Border Patrol. But such a border did not exist in Afghanistan. Instead, they were placed in isolated outposts along the contested border with Pakistan, often serving as a first line of defense against the Taliban and foreign fighters. Their role in overseeing border crossing points left them especially prone to taking bribes from border traffic and, given their isolation, open to turning a blind eye to those enemy forces with the ability to overrun their positions if provoked.
We occasionally tried to root out corruption, but these efforts were Sisyphean. At least a third of the border police commanders we worked with had spent time in jail, typically after being on the wrong side of infighting over who got first dibs on the spoils of corruption. An Afghan leader had to be both corrupt and seen as lacking aggression for us to work to have him fired. One police commander had previously been caught with an entire shipping container of stolen military goods at his home compound. When he took command of police forces in Khost in 2013, he knew what we wanted to hear and gave grand speeches about hating the Taliban and the need to be aggressive in the fight. He quickly became one of our favorite partners. By 2012, most Afghan officers had figured out the right balance to appease Americans who were in a hurry to show progress on short rotations into Afghanistan.
As advisers, we toyed around the margins of these dysfunctions and worked on walking the Afghans through the staff functions and command structures appropriate for a western military. The larger structural issues would be addressed by someone else, or so we always assumed. With only nine months in country the focus was, as always, taking the fight to the Taliban. As a result, the border police most often filled the “grab and go” requirements of tactical American units: warm bodies that could be picked up before raids to put an “Afghan face” to our operations.
I managed to reconnect with Sboor during this deployment, and while he was on break from Helmand for the Eid-al-Fitr holiday, he drove down from Kabul to our compound in Paktia. He showed up in civilian clothes with his youngest son, Samir, in an effort to avoid identification as an army officer if stopped at a Taliban checkpoint. We did not linger after lunch so that they could make the return trip in daylight, when it was safer, but before Sboor left, I asked him, “Is it sustainable after we leave?” His reply was simple: “Six months.”
In 2014, I returned to Afghanistan one last time on a short trip to assess the advisory mission in the area where I had previously been deployed in Paktia. I had hoped to see Sboor again, but he was unable to get up from Helmand and was on his way out anyway. He saw no future in Afghanistan and feared for his family. He was working with smugglers to leave and hoped to get to Canada. He had never worked directly for American forces, so even the limited immigration options available to translators were closed to him. He and his family would eventually escape to Europe.
By this time, few Americans were fighting alongside the Afghans on the ground. Instead we were advising higher headquarters staffs and running them through the command-and-control drills that gave the appearance of functionality.
My visit coincided with the 2014 Afghan presidential elections. By security metrics, it appeared to go well but only because of extensive U.S. support. The intelligence and targeting forces that we brought to the fight largely stopped the numerous large car bombs sent across the border to disrupt the elections. Afghan forces also continued to operate under the tremendous advantage provided by American air power. But it all looked good and briefed well.
The election itself did not go quite as well. The allegations of corruption and division between the political factions meant that any kind of unitary or effective government was a long way off. We would therefore continue to prop up a national army, waiting for a nation.
It is 2019, and we are still waiting.