The US Is Leaving Behind A Dysfunctional And Incompetent Army In Afghanistan

The US-led mission in Afghanistan is coming to an end this year, with allied forces withdrawing from the country’s fractious Helmand Province earlier this week.

With coalition troops leaving Afghanistan to meet their withdrawal deadline this calendar year, there’s no better time to watch Ben Anderson’s 2013 documentary: “This Is What Winning Looks Like”.

The British producer spent six years in the country, capturing a damning picture of both the Afghan National Army and the US-led coalition’s efforts to train it.

Rampant corruption, illiteracy, technical incompetence, and a Taliban threat indistinguishable from provincial civilians are only a few of the problems stacked against the prospect of the Afghan state’s meeting success by western standards. It’s a reminder of the uncertainty that lies ahead for the country, and the failure of the US to fulfil many of its major goals.

The documentary takes its title from the words of American General John Allen in February 2013, on his last day as head of NATO forces in Afghanistan. Allen's words were meant to inspire. The documentary adopts them with dark irony.

At a patrol base, US soldiers discover that Afghan troops have been detaining four men in a makeshift prison of stacked sandbags. An interpreter translates their version of the facts ...

... but confronted about the illegal detention, an Afghan soldier puts his foot down, and the Americans see little choice but to back off in response. A US soldier later tells one of his comrades: 'Just wait, I don't want to piss them off. It's their show.' The whole episode is just one example of a lack of communication and differing standards between the Afghan and US militaries.

They disagreed on less weighty issues, too. Here, Afghans lounge on the remains of a US-installed barricade, which has been broken down by Afghan police and sold as scrap metal at a local bazaar.

Ben Anderson explains that the Afghans are poorly equipped, with only AK-47s, pick-up trucks, and a few RPGs and humvees at their disposal.

Drug addiction is also a problem, with marijuana and opium use not uncommon among Afghan forces. Two of the Afghans tasked with filling sandbags are unable to break out of their mental haze.

An Afghan trainee eventually speaks his mind from a patrol base bunker. These casual words, if true, put over 13 years' worth of efforts in Afghanistan into question.

'So, you are the commander of the post, huh?' an Afghan jokes to another idly riding a bicycle, underscoring the military's lack of discipline.

Major Bill Steuber is a US commanding officer with few illusions on the Afghan project's difficulties. 'He's one of those guys that just couldn't lie,' says Anderson.

Maj. Steuber is candid about the Afghan police's shortcomings: 'Have you ever seen the TV show The Sopranos?' he asks. Afghans often skim fuel and ammo supplies, hold people only to ransom them back to their families, sell RPGs at local bazaars, and claim fuel and oil money for a stable of vehicles that are clearly out of commission.

Steuber says academy-trained policemen believe in the rule of law. 'But then you have over here, a (patrol base) commander who we know is kidnapping boys and sexually molesting them, robbing the people. He treats the people ... like a piggy bank that he can just shake and rob.'

Hamid Khan is one of the Afghan Army's more motivated soldiers. Steuber is glad to see him in the driver's seat, even though 'he's had a checkered past. He's no saint by any means.'

Khan briefs his men before an operation. Anderson explains that there are geographical divides within the army: Only two to three per cent of the army is southern Pashtun, and the rest northern. 'It's an exaggeration to call this a national army. It's not a national army. It's the Northern Alliance; it's the historical enemies of the Taliban.'

An Afghan soldier fires wildly across a plain. He's interrupted by his comrades, who believe the Afghan police might also be lying in that direction.

A local complains of the collateral damage caused by military operations in their area -- another sign of how the war effort hasn't always paid dividends with the Afghans themselves.

The local Afghans weren't happy about the war's disruptions to their lives -- but they also thought the army wasn't using enough force to counter the Taliban. Here, members of an elected council complain of the mismatch between their firepower and that of 'the enemy.'

American ambassador James Cunningham visits Sangin, a town in Helmand province. Anderson dismisses the visit as a PR stunt presenting a 'very rosy picture' of regional security.

Afghanistan's 'Chai boys' are often victims of sex trafficking. 'You see them on every base. It's very common practice,' says Anderson.

Anderson shows how Afghanistan shredded one nation-building premise after another.

Also a problem: the Afghan army's basic level of technical awareness, on display here.

During a succesful and Afghan-led operation to clear an area of IEDs, Hamid Khan's soldiers encounter a prominent Taliban flag. After discussing their options, one soldier climbs the tree to pull it down.

'That antenna right there, every time I walk by it I think: If that's not a symbol for what we're trying to do here I don't know what is,' says Steuber. 'It's a functioning radio tower, it's standing on its own. It's twisted and bent and held up with strings. But it's there and it works. And hopefully it will still be there after 2014.'

Anderson is less optimistic. In the course of his reporting, he says he expected some of the people he spoke with to challenge his negative outlook, but 'not one so far has said you're cynical, you're a pessimist. They have all said, yeah, we know that the game is up.'

You've seen the problems building an army in Afghanistan ...

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