Kunduz, Cubans & They Do Not Want to Die
Why are the armies trained by the American military so bad?
Taliban fighters with a capture Humvee outside Kunduz, Afghanistan
It is one of the key questions of current-day foreign affairs and yet few people ask it. We have interminable media discussions of the military strength of IS or the Taliban: yet little of why the local armies that are purportedly fighting against them are so ineffective?
It is worth examining this question with the news this week that the Taliban have seized the northern Afghan city of Kunduz. An event U.S. Senator John McCain has described as an indication of “the Taliban’s capability to launch a very significant and successful attack.” More telling perhaps is a local Afghan politician saying to Reuters, “We still have enough forces to take on the Taliban but sadly there is no will or resolve to fight.”
It is reminiscent of the debate in Iraq after IS took control of the cities of Mosul and Ramadi. Despite a widely publicized advance on Mosul by the Iraqi National Army, IS still firmly controls many Iraqi cities and countryside.
The answer to why American trained local armies are inadequate may come from some of most successful soldiers of the modern era: Cuban veterans of the Angolan War.
Cuban soldiers in Angola with local MPLA fighters
This particular phase of a long brutal civil war in Angola has largely been forgotten in the West. It was a typical Cold War conflict. In the late 1980s, a group of proxies fought on behalf of the United States and Soviet Union for control of resources in a developing country. In this case, the wealthy oil reserves of Angola.
The western proxies were the apartheid-era South Africans and private mercenaries. The communists used the Cubans.
Part of the reason that the war has been mostly-forgotten in the West is that our people lost. Not only did the western proxies lose – they lost the largest battle – Cuito Cuanavale – fought in Africa since the Second World War. This defeat led to the South Africans and mercenaries pulling out of Angola, the independence of the neighboring country of Namibia and, some historians argue, the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa.
The answer why the South Africans and the western mercenaries lost in Angola is important because it is the same weakness at the heart of western proxy armies in the war against Islamic terrorism.
Recently, I traveled across Cuba and spoke to a range of veterans of the Angolan War. One common theme emerged from these interviews. The Cubans say that the South Africans were individually good soldiers. They were well-trained and better-equipped. However, they had one weakness: they did not want to die.
For the South Africans and the mercenaries the Angolan war was not one of survival. It was not for their own country nor for their own lives. Conversely, the Cubans were dumped in the country and told they were not coming home until they won. They had to win or they were going to die.
Cuban soldiers in Angola
It is the key to soldiers since the Italian Renaissance when Machiavelli watched mercenaries leisurely fight against Pisa for the army of Florence. It is the reason why IS routinely beats much-larger armies in Iraq. It is the reason why the real power in Afghanistan – after fourteen-years and countless hundreds-of-billions of dollars – is not in the Afghan Congress or foreign embassies but at the negotiating table with the Taliban.
Mercenaries like standing around with guns lording it over unarmed civilians. They love getting paid. They hate dying.
The Iraqi National Army and the Afghan National Army have been trained for years by the American military. They have lots of modern equipment. In resource terms they outrank the Taliban and IS by several light years. Yet in the field, they regularly get beaten.
This is because they are, effectively, mercenary forces. Few people join these “national armies” for ideals or patriotism. They mostly join for money. If a soldier is motivated by money, then by paying him more money you can motivate him to do something else.
It is a significant problem. In Afghanistan, some of the western-allied warlords sign protection contracts with the Taliban, so that the warlords can safely supply the American Army bases.
The Iraqi media reports regularly that many officers of the Iraqi Army are deeply corrupt. Soldiers can pay to get out of service. Officers can bribe superior officers so they never have to fight. Generals can command massive phantom brigades of men, many of whom are hundreds of kilometers from the battle.
Ironically, the Angola War is not discussed much in Cuba. Once their victorious army came home, the communists lost the peace. Now some Cuban veterans complain that they are being ignored by their government. They complain of comrades lost in a fog of PTSD, of unpaid pensions and lack of medical support. It is a pity. If we properly understood their experiences we might be able to prevent our own military disasters today.