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Afghanistan's biggest problem is bad leadership

Jimmy Lynn
Benjamin Tupper received the Bronze Star and Combat Infantrymen Badge for his service in Afghanistan and is the author of the book, Greetings from Afghanistan, Send More Ammo: Dispatches from Taliban Country. He currently lives with his wife and four children in Syracuse, NY.

We find ourselves in an awkward position in prosecuting the Afghan war: The biggest obstacle to our victory isn't our Taliban enemies but the corrupt and unresponsive leadership of the Afghan security forces and government.

While training and leading Afghan soldiers, I saw first hand that corruption and malfeasance was a greater threat to our success than the military one posed by the Taliban. The primary complaint I heard from Afghan villagers wasn't Taliban violence, but instead police abuse, local government corruption, and a lack of any measurable development in their communities despite billions of dollars in foreign aid investment.

Sadly, the Afghan National Army's (ANA) middle and senior military leaders would regularly put personal interests ahead of successfully prosecuting the war, and examples of abuse were everywhere.

I recall one incident when a senior Afghan officer in our ANA battalion decided to leave on an unauthorized personal vacation. He locked up all the spare ammunition in his private storage facility, which left the combat foot soldiers in a pinch, given their frequent combat missions. Threats from his higher commander to return fell on deaf ears. The only thing that convinced him to return to our base to release the ammo was our threat to cut the lock ourselves, leaving his large storage facility of hoarded and stolen supplies exposed to looting by his equally corrupt fellow officers. It was moments like these that frustrated us beyond measure and cast a dark shadow over our prospects for success in the war.

Despite this preponderance of shoddy senior leaders in the Afghan army, the vast majority of junior officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) are a more respectable bunch. These junior members are committed to the cause of building a professional army and moving the country forward.

As an embedded trainer within the Afghan army, I often wondered: Why are the majority of senior Afghan National Army officers so ill-suited for leadership? Why did they resort to bribery, theft, and corruption at astronomical rates compared with their junior subordinates?

There are many ways to answer this question . I think the historical legacy of the Afghan strongman/warlord served as an archetype that shapes what they see as the "right way to lead." Another influence is the Russian military's imprint that still stains the Afghan army's officer corps. A large number of officers in today's ANA originally served under the Russians, where they learned to be autocratic, corrupt, and self-serving.

There were a few quality ANA senior officers in our battalion. They led from the front, and limited their personal vices (such as corruption) to acceptable levels. They inspired their men with fiery speeches and displays of bravado, like the time our battalion's operations officer confronted the problem of his soldiers refusing to wear their newly issued body armor.

The officer called a formation and began lambasting his troops, menacingly waving his AK-47 while he lectured them. The troops, unsure who was going to be the recipient of the business end of his rifle, were relieved when he swung around and fired at his body armor, which had been propped helplessly against the nearby rock. Afterward, the officer passed around his body armor for them to see first hand that it indeed had stopped the bullet.

The difficulty for an embedded American trainer is trying to take away a positive lesson about Afghan leadership. Waving your gun at your troops and then firing without warning is career suicide for an American military officer. But it works in Afghanistan. Bridging this cultural gap is something we just aren't taught in our military schools.

Given the dearth of quality Afghan commanders, how do we make progress in cultivating a leadership cadre that can carry on the fight and win in our absence? My own solution to this problem was this: I simply ignored the incompetent officers. I didn't waste time trying to change old men who had little interest in reform. Time was short, and lives were at stake, so I devoted my time developing the junior ranking officers and NCOs with good habits of effective leadership. I didn't include the bad leaders in planning, and I didn't expect them to go out on missions with our troops and me. Frankly, these senior officers preferred to be ignored, as it meant more nap time and vacation time for them, and less lecturing from a young pesky American Captain.

I focused on mentoring the young junior officers and NCOs who will be the future of the Afghan army. They will eventually assume command as their seniors retire, die or are forced out. Slowly but surely, these young studs will be percolating to the top of the chain of command.

Will America have the patience to continue to fight in Afghanistan until these junior leaders rise to the top? Only time will tell if this next generation has a chance to usher in a new standard in leadership for Afghanistan's security forces and government, or if they fall into the same bad habits that plagued their predecessors.

By Benjamin Tupper

 |  June 3, 2010; 3:33 AM ET |  Category:  Military leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Dreadful stuation in Afganistan, as in Iraq and Iran and North Korea and Israel and Zimbabwe and Russia and Cuba and Venezuala and lots of others. On balance, people probably get the leadership they deserve. When do we quit trying to put lipstick on these pigs? How do we leave them in their own muck without endangering our version of muck? There were times, off and on from 1770s thru WW II, when we were a great nation. No such prospect in sight now, especially if Tea Baggers and Rushies bring us another Cheney Administration. They want to return us to the path of creating a corrupt police state run by and for Republican cronies.

Posted by: frodot | June 4, 2010 6:56 AM

lets say you have a loaf of bread and you dont like it. You are angry with the ingredients but not the baker, is this what You say?

Posted by: afforestation | June 4, 2010 4:45 AM

No wonder, there is no Afghanistan outside the wise and wide visions of the Taliban.

Posted by: uzs106 | June 4, 2010 3:58 AM

The first mistake the USA made was to ally with the Indian backed Northern Alliance. They were, are and will remain self seeking Warlords. They will like the conflict to prolong as much as possible at US tax payers expense and cosolidate their fortunes in Kabul and in the central government.
The US has only one option left,boot out and defang these corrupt elements.

Posted by: pervezak | June 4, 2010 12:40 AM

This is a terrible tragedy. what a pity that the Afghan civilians and the forces of the coaltion are being caught between plague and cholera: either the babarous Taliban or the corrupt and vile Karzai regime and the war lords.

But then again, who put this stooge in place? Who allowed him to be reelected through massive fraud and keep on parading?

Those who prepared this war (Bush and co + the whole Congress), and those who are escalating this madness (Barack Obama + the whole Congress once again) sleep well, and when they retire they can expect a comfortable life and appear and make speeches at conferences or campuses for a heap of grands.

This whole mess can be summarized so: Karzai is making his easy bucks through dope and corruption. The American industral military complex is doing the same through weapons, drones that kill indescriminately, but allow Bechtel, Halliburton et all to line their pockets with fat government contracts.

Posted by: foxblues | June 4, 2010 12:15 AM

This was always the major (if not fatal) flaw in Gen. McChrystal's so-called "COIN" strategy: the assumption (perhaps better described as "wishful thinking") that a cadre of competent, intelligent, seasoned, honest, dedicated Afghan National Army officers would emerge from the wreckage, would rise to the occasion -- the opportunity purchased by our sacrifices at such terrific cost; no such luck. Most long-shot gambles produce such dismal outcomes.

Wishful thinking on our Generals' part -- that it would happen -- but all of a piece. Wishful thinking caused DOD Sec'y Gates and the president himself to declare that the lessons of the Vietnam War didn't apply (because the two situations were "fundamentally different"; an absurdity on its face).

The root of the problem? Simply this: our leaders cannot admit failure. Our senior political and military leadership cannot say that simplest of sentences: "we failed". Or "we lost". Or "it cannot be done". Why? Chalk it up to fear, and the hubris of empire .... .

We lost our Afghan War back in 2003 when President Bush and his confederacy of dunces allowed Bin Laden and Mullah Omar to "Dunkirk" them (conveniently forgetting the timeless wisdom of: "those who learn to run away live to fight another day, tra-la"). Why didn't they close the net on a fleeing, defeated enemy when they had the chance? To avoid American casualties, it was claimed. Seven years on, having suffered many thousands of those while squandering hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars there to no lasting effect .... .

But this is hardly limited to Afghanistan (with us glued to it like Brer Rabbit to the Tar Baby). Evidence of multiple systemic failures abounds: ineffective legislative branches of government; a wrecked financial system largely beyond reform; many bankrupt state governments (as for the U.S. Treasury itself ... ?); a national health-care system substantially unreformed despite recently legislation; a stagnant national economy still dependent on foreign energy; regulatory agencies so corrupted by the industries they regulate they fail to function; our oil-fouled coastlines ... .

If the American way of life itself is in peril, it's because no politician alive has the strength of character to rise to the occasion by telling the American people something they clearly don't want to hear; not so very different, really, from those Afghan officers. So we flounder ever closer to the abyss -- one that we, as a nation, will topple over sooner-or-later if we haven't already.

Posted by: hogsmile | June 3, 2010 11:51 PM

Why not let the juniors take out the seniors under a religious purge? A leader that gets rich stealing alms for the poor is is sinner under Sharia of any kind. A few dozen deaths later including soldiers shaking down people would have the rest fall into line. We should immediately abandon the idea of a secular democratic gov't and bring back a weighted by population Loya Jirga republic to rule with ministers appointed by a qualification parameter. Teach them about the Golden Age of Islam to get women educated and part of the workforce. Set up camps in Bagram for divorced women with knowledge of local Taliban leaders preaching terror and have the new Afghan army/police go after them.

Posted by: jameschirico | June 3, 2010 8:31 PM

Watch us try to graft arms onto a cow and make it an industrial assembler. Or watch us install representative government in tribal Afghanistan. They are about equal tricks.

Posted by: edbyronadams | June 3, 2010 6:37 PM

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