Conventional wisdom posits that Afghanistan’s government needs Western military support to survive. But modern Middle Eastern history suggests that Afghanistan’s government and military, funded by the West, can stabilize the nation without U.S. and NATO military support. As a Military Intelligence Captain, I witnessed the fledgling Iraqi state’s transition as U.S. troops withdrew in 2010, and I am convinced Western forces could withdraw from Afghanistan within six months and the country would hold itself together. Afghanistan’s self-sufficiency will not rely on political or ideological developments, but rather, it will result from the dominant military-government paradigm in the Middle East.
Middle Eastern militaries are self-sufficient, self-regulating, and independent of their governments, a pattern set by the British and French during the colonial era. Their highest objective is self-preservation and, ultimately, preserving the military leadership’s ability to dominate society. This goal is paramount to Middle Eastern militaries regardless of the aptitude or ineptitude of the governments which surround them. Militaries in the region have shown in many countries–such as revolutionary Egypt or 1980s Turkey–that they will depose dictators and political structures to preserve military dominance. The Afghan military’s philosophy is no different.
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has built an Afghan military capable of fighting for its own survival upon their departure. The 2012 military force projections for Afghanistan is to have an active force of 352,000 soldiers, or 1.2 percent of the total population. That ratio is higher than most other Middle Eastern militaries’ sizes relative to population: Pakistan’s military is .3 percent, Egypt’s is .5 percent, and Iraq’s is 2 percent. Nevertheless, all of these nations have recently survived national turmoil through military intervention.
In effect, U.S. and NATO forces have created a military caste within Afghan society. The leadership of this new military caste has grown accustomed to the privilege associated with their newfound status and will take action to protect their privileges if threatened. Currently, ISAF protects their status. But upon the departure of NATO forces, the Afghan military will be forced to combat the enemies which threaten the existing order, and with it, their military privileges.
We need look no further than Iraq to witness how the Middle Eastern military model has safeguarded the transition of a country to self-governance. The Government of Iraq has consistently proven unable to unite its sectarian populations. Nonetheless, as U.S. Forces withdrew in 2010 and the government failed to build a cogent political alliance, Iraq’s military enforced the security necessary for the government to rule. The Iraqi military defied doomsday prophets by preventing the breakup of the nation into sectarian fiefdoms. Despite its own sectarian leanings, Iraq’s military held the country together for no other reason than to ensure its own survival.
If we want to get to the core of the colonial model, Pakistan is the poster child of Middle Eastern military dominance. In the name of self-preservation, Pakistani forces have assumed power three times since 1957, and yet ceded power every time the population demanded it. For example, Pakistan ranked amongst the most corrupt nations in the world when General Musharraf initiated a successful coup in 1999. During Mr. Musharraf’s reign, Pakistan gradually decreased its levels of corruption according to international observers. Yet in 2008, by which time he had lost popular support, Mr. Musharraf resigned as president of Pakistan and allowed democratic elections to occur. Regardless of the nation’s leadership, the Pakistani military protects the state, even if it means protecting it from the democratic elected representatives of Pakistan’s people.
The most recent example of this paradigm is revolutionary Egypt: as youth protests gained momentum, the Egyptian military ended the stalemate by forcing Hosni Mubarak to resign. In siding with the uprising and not Mr. Mubarak, it quelled the riots and forced his departure to appease the public. The military then assumed power, created an interim government, wrote a transitional constitution, and held elections to assist transitioning to an alternate civilian government. In short, Egypt’s military usurped a measure of power during tumultuous times to preserve both the Egyptian state and military dominance over it.
Discussing what constitutes a successful drawdown from Afghanistan is ambiguous and ineffective at this late stage. Afghanistan does not need a perfectly democratic and corruption-free government, because the government will never be strong enough to unite its divided population. Local farmers will not abandon their cash crops to grow growth-sustaining agriculture. What the discussion should revolve around is whether the Afghan military leadership has the wherewithal to ensure the Afghan state endures regardless of the efficacy of its government.
Continued military support and training by U.S. and NATO forces over the next two years will have little effect on the survival of the Afghan government and military after the ISAF departure. The only support that will make a difference is Western financial support to ensure the loyalty of Afghan soldiers to their leadership. Afghan military leaders alone, and not their Western protectors, hold the power to ensure Afghanistan does not dwindle into anarchy. The military leadership understands, better than the government, that to allow terrorists to control the government or operate freely within their borders would ultimately deny them their ultimate goal: survival.