Academic journal article Military Review

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Academic journal article Military Review

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Article excerpt


I AM UNCERTAIN IF the war in Afghanistan is "winnable." I do know this: U.S. success depends on the Afghans. For the U.S. forces to leave Afghanistan, we need them to "stand up, while we stand down." For our efforts to have an impact, the Afghans have to function at a level where they can provide their own security, governance, and economic well-being, which arguably they were able to do in some shape or form before 1973. I am not sure we can get them up on their knees, let alone get them to stand up. Even if we get them up on their knees through unlimited funding and no time constraints, I am still not sure the U.S. would be able to leave. I did not arrive at this conclusion through a deep-seated analysis of the current strategy or some academic study of the region. I came to this idea as I watched three Afghan men trying to inflate a basketball, and I wondered if this were a metaphor for our efforts in Afghanistan.

A Metaphor for the U.S. Effort in Afghanistan

I spent a summer as the physical education (PE) mentor to the National Military Academy of Afghanistan's (NMAA) Physical Education department. My predecessor had recommended that I bring some equipment, so I brought along 30 basketballs, 12 volleyballs, and 12 soccer balls, as well as a few American footballs. Another previous U.S. mentor had provided the PE department with an electric air compressor, one that charges a car battery, has a floodlight, and probably retails for about $50 at any auto store. I used this to pump air into a few balls when I first arrived. About a month later, I needed to fill up a few basketballs for some drills I planned to show the PE instructors. One of the Afghan PE instructors, a lieutenant colonel and the overseer of the air pump, grabbed the balls and began to fill one of them up.

I had been talking with my interpreter for a few minutes when I noticed the basketball was not getting any air. I pulled the pin out and found the clamp at the end of the fabric hose had come loose and some of the fabric had frayed. The pump was pushing air out but, because of the frayed fabric, air was not making it into the ball. The Afghan lieutenant colonel came over and told me it was not broken but that it would take time to fill up the basketball. I told him the pump was broken. He said no, it would take time. The equipment manager, a 47-year-old senior NCO who had been a colonel prior to Karzai's arrival, came over to see if he could fix the pump, as did the boxing instructor. For the next ten minutes, three men, all 40-odd years old, sat befuddled before this air compressor as if it were some sort of an oracle.

After turning the air pump on and off several times, turning it upside down, and shaking it, the Afghans' perplexity seemed to diminish when, through my translator, I said the fabric hose was frayed and was preventing a good seal. Ah, they could fix this problem. The boxing instructor knew what to do. He grabbed a role of scotch tape, provided courtesy of the U.S. government, and wrapped the frayed end with scotch tape-not duct tape or maybe even masking tape. While those products may have had a chance at temporarily fixing the problem, such items were unavailable at NMAA, unless a U.S. mentor provided them. In the spirit of the often-cited Lawrence of Arabia--that better they do it tolerably rather than I do it perfectly--I kept my mouth shut, waited, and watched as these three men worked the problem. (1)

As I sat there, I noted that this air compressor was too complicated for them on a number of levels. Foremost, the technology was beyond anything they were accustomed to using, yet I knew every high school gym and garage in America had one. When I asked what they would do if the air pump was broken, the NCO showed me the backup air pump-a circa 1950s bicycle hand pump, which was also broken with a frayed hose and lacked an air valve to put a pin or stem into. …

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